Back to School–1800’s Style!

By now, schools across the country are back in session. A year ago this time, I lamented here on Petticoats & Pistols how my last little chicky had entered college, and that Doug and I were empty-nesters after 31 years. Now that Amy is in her sophomore year, I’ve adjusted well to a quiet house (and yeah, I like it, as many of you said I would. In fact, I like it alot. LOL).

Still, it’s strange not to watch the weekly ads for specials on spiral notebooks, pens, pencils, erasers and backbacks. I miss that anticipation of school starting up again, visiting the uniform store (my daughters went to parochial schools and thus wore unforms), and stocking up on new underwear, socks and sturdy tennis shoes.

Historical writer that I am, and being the mother of two schoolteachers, and of a daughter employed at Creighton University, I’ve been thinking of what going back to school was like for nineteenth century students and their teachers in the West.

Up until the Civil War, teachers were usually male, but the country’s economy forced many of the men to leave teaching for higher paying jobs. Women well knew the importance of education for their children and refused to let them grow up uneducated on the expanding frontier.

Girls barely older than fifteen years gathered up their courage and answered the cry for schoolma’ams. If they didn’t already live in the region, they headed west and filled those desperate slots in schoolrooms often crude, cold or hot, and always small.

She had to convince her County Superintendent she was of good moral character, and that she would teach school in ‘a faithful and efficient manner.’ She had to be single–and if anyone knows why she couldn’t be married, I’d love to know. Fillies?? To earn a coveted teaching certificate, the women had to attain at least a 70% (considered lenient by today’s standards) on their exams in the following courses:

Mental Arithmetic
Written Arithmetic
Civil Government
Drawing Blackboard
English Composition
English Grammar
History, US
Theory and Art of Teaching

Anyone know what Orthography is? Physiology?

Passing these subjects would have earned them a ‘Teacher’s Second Grade Certificate.’ The certificate had nothing to do with teaching second grade. It merely meant she could teach primary grades. The certificate was good for six months.

If she earned a ‘Teacher’s First Grade Certicate’, she would have passed more difficult courses like Algebra, Geometry, Botany and Natural Philosophy. She would be teaching older children, and her certificate would be valid for one year.

A Third Grade Certificate was the lowest ranked and was good for only 3 months, about one school term. There was even a probational certificate for those teachers who came within 10% of passing her third grade certificate requirements. However, to renew it, she had to score higher or not be allowed to teach. That said, these requirements were left up to the county superintendent to enforce as he saw fit.

Teachers sometimes made as little as $4 to $11 per month, but others in Kansas and Nebraska earned as much as $25 month. Since school was only in session 3 – 4 months out of the year (children were needed to help with fall harvesting and spring chores like calving and planting) she was forced to either find another job during the off-months, or find a way to live a year on 4 months salary.

All that said, in the late 1800’s, the Midwest, namely Kansas and Nebraska, claimed some of the best literacy rates in the country.

Here’s an 1895 final exam, taken by eighth graders in Salina, Kansas, from the original document on file at the Smoky Valley Genealogical Society and Library in Salina, Kansas and reprinted by the Salina Journal.

Note that this test was five hours long. Yikes!

Grammar (Time, one hour)

1. Give nine rules for the use of Capital Letters.
2. Name the Parts of Speech and define those that have no modifications.
3. Define Verse, Stanza and Paragraph.
4. What are the Principal Parts of a verb? Give Principal Parts of do, lie, lay and run.
5. Define Case. Illustrate each Case.
6. What is Punctuation? Give rules for principal marks of Punctuation.
7-10. Write a composition of about 150 words and show therein that
you understand the practical use of the rules of grammar.

Arithmetic (Time, 1.25 hours)

1. Name and define the Fundamental Rules of Arithmetic.
2. A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?
3. If a load of wheat weighs 3942 lbs. What is it worth at 50 cts. per bu, deducting 1050 lbs. for tare?
4. District No. 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?
5. Find cost of 6720 lbs. of coal at $6.00 per ton.
6. Find the interest of $512.60 for 8 months and 18 days at 7 percent.
7. What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 ft. long at $.20 per inch?
8. Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent.
9. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance around which is 640 rods?
10. Write a Bank Check, a Promissory Note, and a Receipt.

U.S. History (Time, 45 minutes)

1. Give the epochs into which U.S. History is divided.
2. Give an account of the discovery of America by Columbus.
3. Relate the causes and results of the Revolutionary War.
4. Show the territorial growth of the United States.
5. Tell what you can of the history of Kansas.
6. Describe three of the most prominent battles of the Rebellion.
7. Who were the following: Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln,Penn, and Howe?
8. Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, and 1865?

Orthography (Time, one hour)

1. What is meant by the following: Alphabet, phonetic orthography,etymology, syllabication?
2. What are elementary sounds? How classified?
3. What are the following, and give examples of each: Trigraph, sub vocals, diphthong, cognate letters, linguals?
4. Give four substitutes for caret ‘u’.
5. Give two rules for spelling words with final ‘e’. Name two exceptions under each rule.
6. Give two uses of silent letters in spelling. Illustrate each.
7. Define the following prefixes and use in connection with a word: Bi, dis, mis, pre, semi, post, non, inter, mono, super.
8. Mark diacritically and divide into syllables the following, and name the sign that indicates the sound: Card, ball, mercy, sir, odd, cell, rise, blood, fare, last.
9. Use the following correctly in sentences, Cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein, raze, raise, rays.
10. Write 10 words frequently mispronounced and indicate pronunciation by use of diacritical marks and by syllabication.

Geography (Time, one hour)

1. What is climate? Upon what does climate depend?
2. How do you account for the extremes of climate in Kansas?
3. Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean?
4. Describe the mountains of N.A.
5. Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fermandez, Aspinwall and Orinoco.
6. Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S.
7. Name all the republics of Europe and give capital of each.
8. Why is the Atlantic Coast colder than the Pacific in the same latitude?
9. Describe the process by which the water of the ocean returns to the sources of rivers.
10. Describe the movements of the earth. Give inclination of the earth.

Were you as amazed as I was? It was very common to read of our ancestors having only an eighth grade education, but hot-diggity, with smarts like this, they probably didn’t need to go onto secondary education. At least, not like we do today.

So, do tell. Can you answer these questions? With news reports lamenting the lower than expected reading scores in some of today’s schools, do you think we should go back to nineteenth century standards of learning?

What was the hardest class you took in school? What were you a whiz at? What classes did you have back then that you wished the schools had now? Share your school experiences with us!

And don’t forget Monday, September 15th, is the last day to enter our Sizzling Summer Contest!

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Pam has written 30 romances, most of them historical westerns, but her newest releases are contemporary sweet romances featuring the Blackstone Ranch series published by Tule Publishing. Stay up on the latest at

37 thoughts on “Back to School–1800’s Style!”

  1. Interesting, very interesting.

    Both my son and step-son are teachers. One teaches 1st-2nd grade, he just finished getting his Masters.

    The other teaches Kinesiology – which is the new degree for PE! He also has a BA in Art and will continue his education in the Spring for a BA then Masters in Dance. He is the dance coach for Stephen F Austin in TX as well as staff choreographer/teacher for NDA.

    They still don’t make a lot of money but both are very satisfied with their career choices.

    I’ve thought about teaching youngsters – pre-k thru maybe 2nd grade, but thinking is as far as that got LOL!

    Love the kids but enjoy QUIET. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great post!


  2. Hi, Pam T!

    Kinesiology is PE? No way! I don’t even know how to pronounce it. LOL.

    Your sons sound very motivated and dedicated to teaching. Good for them–I’m sure you’re proud as punch. I’d love to see your son dance–he sounds really good!!

  3. Kinesiology and Physiology are not new terms to me, but that would be the nursing school coming out in me I suppose. ๐Ÿ™‚ I must admit that I was unfamiliar with Orthography, and do believe I would have failed. In the last year or so I was looking into teaching but complaining because how difficult the scenarios to get in right now are (at least where I live), but now after seeing this, I’m going to keep my mouth shut.

  4. Yep, Kinesiology is the “study of movement/energy” or something like that, but it is the new degree for PE in lieu of Physical Education.

    My son did dance for 2yrs on a college team – McClennan Community College in Waco, TX but he doesn’t dance anymore – only choreograph and teach.

    Yes, I am proud of both!


  5. Hello, MJ! Physiology is science, but it’s remarkable how they used the more difficult term in the 19th century.

    It’s all so amazing how they weren’t nearly as backward as we all tend to think!

  6. Hi Pam!

    Fascinating post. I think it would be great if we did go back to 19th Century standards — as well as 19th Century ways of educating.

    I think that drugs play a large part in why our scores are so low countrywide. We used to rank number 1 in the world as far as our education was concerned and overall scores. We no longer do — I think we’re way down there now at something like #15 or something.

    To my way of thinking it’s a commentary on the fact that government controlled and government funded schools just don’t work. The mind has to be challenged, not controlled or dominated.

    Fascinating. I loved this. I’ve heard this before — my husband talks about this, but I hadn’t seen the statistics. Thanks.

  7. Wow. What a great post. I certainly couldn’t pass it. As for good subjects and bad. I was terrible at math which got me into a great deal of trouble. I would sit in Algebra class four days (Monday through Thursday). and be absolutely clueless. Couldn’t answer questions. Didn’t understand. Then on Thursday night, I would go home and study the problems/concept until I finally got it. I would go in and ace the test. The teacher was convinced I was cheating and I had to sit in front of the room and take the test.
    Totally humiliating, but I aced those tests as well. I never did get Trig, though, and two weeks after completing Algebra, it left my head forever.

  8. Pam,

    Oh my gosh, I’d have flunked that test for sure! I had no idea that they taught such hard subjects. I thought they mostly focused on reading, writing, and arithmetic. But, I’m sure things were different depending on what part of the country they were in? Maybe the farther west you went? Also, I wonder what their percentage was of students passing the test. Very interesting. I’m with Cheryl – I’d have preferred running off to the circus!

    Geometry was the most difficult subject for me in high school. Up to that point, I pretty well breezed through most courses. But geometry made absolutely no sense to me. I didn’t flunk it but I can within a hair of it.

    I loved History, English and Home Ec. I always made excellent grades in those subjects.

    Thanks for the interesting post. I enjoyed it.

  9. Oh, Pam, what an amazing post. As a retired schoolteacher, I am enthralled! Mom was also a school teacher, and great-grampa. I’ve got a browntown pic from the 1890’s of his classroom, girls on one side, boys on the other LOL.

    I loved history and of course English, but algebra remains to this day a giant mystery.

  10. Hi Pam,
    No, I didn’t know how difficult the curriculum was back then. I bet the children were GLAD school was in session for only a few months! (Just kidding)
    My worst subject was MATH. I don’t do math. My sister, who rec’d her degree in Math, got me thru algebra and geometry. But oh, writing a story or essay scared the pants out of her, so we were even.
    My best subject …. English, of course!
    Great blog!

  11. Hey, Kay! I don’t know what the problem is–perhaps a work ethic that’s gone soft? Permissive parenting? Too many electronics that numb a child’s brain and keep him from using his imagination?

    Lots of theories, I’m afraid, and no solid answers. But interesting info, eh?

  12. Amazing post, Pam. And no, I could never have passed that test. My parents were both teachers and I taught school for three years early on. I was young and it was rough–I have all the respect in the world for good teachers who stick it out. If you’ve looked at 19th Century school texts, they were hard and not very entertaining. Kids were there to learn, not to have fun. Maybe we need more of that these days.

  13. Hi, Pat! Wow–interesting how you learned Algebra! For some reason, you did much better teaching yourself your way, but it’s too bad your teacher didn’t trust you. Maybe s/he was the problem?

    There were numerous subjects that stayed in my past–I’d love to be able to recall some of the Spanish that I took so much of. And yes, all that math–and Physics. Ugh!

  14. Linda–I’m so glad you mentioned Home Ec. My daughters went to an all-girl high school, and sometime in the 90’s, they removed Home Ec from the curriculum. I was so disappointed. It’s no wonder so many women can’t sew and many don’t even cook.

  15. Charlene, we all have our strengths, don’t we? It’s what makes the world go round!

    One of my sisters would make 4 hour trips home from college so I could help her edit term papers. She struggled in school, but has since become an awesome nurse. I envy her medical knowledge and compassion. It would scare me to death to poke a needle into someone’s arm!

  16. Hi, Elizabeth!

    Another schoolteacher! Yay!

    And you’re so right about today’s educators. They have to be dedicated, and yet they must work under so many rules which–I suspect–they might not agree with. For instance, they have to be careful to always be politically correct–some schools have holiday parties and not Christmas parties, no pledge of allegiance. I have a cousin who’s a principal in an elementary school, but he doesn’t allow himself to hug his students for fear of sexual harassment.

    sigh . . . it gets kind of scary!

  17. Well, let’s just get it right out in the open…I woulda flunked that exam!

    I always scored 100 on spelling and above avg in language arts – when it came to writing – my score dropped if I had to explain why I wrote my story or sentence a certain way, though.

    In my technical high school, I won awards for my typing and shorthand. Thank goodness I didn’t have to take science or algebra.

    When I was young I wanted to be a teacher so I could draw on the board all I wanted and even volunteered to clean it off at the end of the day.

    Then I grew up and became a soldier. (sigh)

  18. Some of those Orthography queations made me so glad my mother tongue is Finnish. Cite, site, sight, fane, fain, feign, vane, vain, vein… Reminds of these texts I have in my old Englsih book:
    You probably already know
    Of TOUGH and BOUGH and COUGH and DOUGH.
    Some may stumble, but not you
    Beware of HEARD, an awkward word,
    It looks like BEARD, but sounds like BIRD!
    And DEAD; it’s said like BED, not BEAD.
    For goodness’ sake, don’t call it DEED!
    Watch out for MEAT and GREAT and THREAT,
    They rhyme with SUITE and STRAIGHT and DEBT.
    A MOTH is not as moth in MOTHER,
    And HERE is not a match for THERE,
    Nor DEAR, and FEAR for BEAR and PEAR.
    And then there’s DOSE and ROSE and LOSE.
    But watch that “S” in GOOSE and CHOOSE!
    It’s CORK but WORK, and CARD but WARD,
    And FONT but FRONT, and WORD but SWORD
    There’s DO but GO, AND WART but CART.
    Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start.
    A dreadful language full of tricks.
    I mastered it when I was six.

    Whether the weather be cold, whether the weather be hot,
    we’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather
    whether we like it or not.

    Describe the movements of the earth. They asked this question in the final exams in high school.

  19. Enjoyed reading the article. Seeing that photo of the one room schoolhouse reminded me of the one I went to for the first grade. It was one big room with grades 1-8 in it. There were only about 10 in the school at the time I went there. I was very envious of the one 8th grade student because he got to go out to the wood shed and bring in the wood for h pot-bellied stove. My sister and I rode our horses to the school and they were kept in another shed. I learned alot in that year and it wss where I learned the love of reading.

  20. Where’s the dunce cap? I’m sure it will fit perfectly! Some of those questions are out of this world!

    Worst subject: Math, especially algebra.

    Best subjects: English, History, Science, Spanish.

    Pat Cochran

  21. Hardest classes: maths, chemistry, physics, German. Most boring ones: religion (yes, we have that one, too) and history (the way I remember it, it was all about war and politics =P).

  22. Anita Mae – oh, shorthand!! I forgot that one. I went to a junior college and received a secretarial degree (my parents never let me go away to college, but that’s another story!) and I loved my shorthand class. I was one of the fastest, but I had trouble transcribing it. sigh—and I loved my typing class. I’m still a fast typist!

    So you were in the military??

  23. Wow, I would have completely failed school!! As for my hardest classes, they were probably physics and some engineering classes I took in college–I was always anchoring the curve, which I guess someone had to do, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰ My favorite class was probably algebra, which I loved; maybe having a terrific teacher had something to do with it, too ๐Ÿ™‚ Looking at my children’s school experience so far, I do think the teacher makes a huge difference!

  24. Pam, I’ve got a teacher in both Calico Canyon and the soon to be released Gingham Mountain.

    In Gingham Mountain I’ve got a pretty comical scene where the school marm is hired in a very slap dash way.

    I suspect that hard and fast rules were veriable and sometimes not all that important when there weren’t teachers to choose from.

    I didn’t think about only getting paid when the school was in session though. These ladies made even less than I realized.

    My mother in law said when she was young (she’s 89) being married meant automatic firing for everyone, the theory being, the woman had a man to support her, give the job to a woman who was supportingherself. She knew people who snuck and got married and continued to live apart long after their marriage so the woman could keep working. She’d finally have to quit when a baby was on the way and the marriage could no longer be hidden.

  25. Fedora, you sound like a smart lady! Physics and engineering? Yeesh! You are so out of my league. LOL.

    And yes, the teacher is absolutely the key. It’s important to show how much we appreciate the good ones, isn’t it?

  26. What a fascinating explanation, Mary, about why married women couldn’t teach or hold other jobs. That would fit right into the thinking they would’ve had back then. I honestly never thought of it that way.

  27. I’m with the “I hated Algebra club.” It may have been the teacher. My favorite – Biology. I would have probably failed the old test.

    The one room school is a fond memory of my grade school years. There was an 8th grade exam that every country school child had to pass to go to town for high school. Don’t know why the town kids didn’t have to take the test. Looking back, the top students in the graduating classes usually came from the one room schools around the county. Maybe it was the more individual attention or maybe that we heard all the lessons over and over for 8 years.

  28. Hi. I enjoyed your article. I’m a teacher and though I pity the students, I actually feel more sorry for the teacher that has to grade this test! I think it would take forever!!! Luckily we have scantron now!!
    I read somewhere, that some teachers had up to 92 students in a one room school house. I have had up to 52, and almost pulled all my hair out. They deserved more money…but then again, so do teachers now!
    Thanks for the info.
    A Teacher in Florida

  29. Excellent article on education in the 1800s. IMO, education should be aimed at developing the most well-rounded young people, instead of computerized automatons that can’t hold an in-person conversation. We no longer honor the beauty of handcrafted items and there is a giant hole in the satisfaction level of many of our citizens because of this one-sided approach to learning.

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