Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Women’s Work: Teaching in the 19th century American West

by | November 7, 2014

One room schoolhouseOur state’s Teacher’s Convention takes place this month, so I thought it fitting to look back at teaching in 19th century America.

As wives and children moved west, following the footsteps of their men-folk, the number of children in western states and territories grew exponentially as did the need to educate them. Initially, that task fell to parents, generally mothers, of the children, especially when the nearest town could be miles away. But when enough families had settled in an area so that the expense of hiring a teacher could be spread amongst enough people, a teacher was sought.  In 1876, there were 150,000 female teachers to 110,000 male teachers. By the end of the century women would make up fully 70% of the teaching staff for elementary and secondary education.

School attendance was voluntary and depended on such things as the weather or what chores needed to be done. There were generally two terms—a summer term from May until August and a winter term from November to April. Farm children usually attended winter term because they would be needed during the growing and harvesting seasons of the warmer months.

Teachers, mostly women due to the low salaries, took whatever salary they could get from the families who had pooled their money. Generally, tuition ranged from one to two dollars per month per pupil and the teacher received about $10.00-$20.00 a month depending upon enrollment and the teacher’s experience. (Keep in mind that a range cowboy earned $30.00 a month during this period.) To help with expenses, the teacher regularly boarded around at the homes of her students, residing for a set period, often a month, with one family before moving on to the next family. This meant, however, that the teacher often had to travel as far as her students to get to her classroom.

In the west, most organized schooling took place in one-room school houses which often served as the hub for the area, hosting Church services on Sunday, holiday parties, hoe-downs, visiting lecturers and other community events.

These structures, like most of the structures of rural 19th century America, were drafty, the heat source being a centrally located pot-bellied stove which provided uneven heating at best.  The one-room schoolhouse was initially made from hand hewn logs or blocks of sod, depending on the region. You could tell a town’s growth and prosperity over time with how the schoolhouse evolved from this one-room structure to a multi-room one with clapboard siding. My father attended a stone one-room schoolhouse for a period of time in the farming country of Pennsylvania and, last I checked, it was still there—a monument to the previous generation’s striving for improvement.

Most school houses had just one door although some had two entrances, one for boys and one for girls. Depending on the resources of the area, floors might be dirt which also provided a surface for children to write their lessons. In areas were trees were abundant, floors were made of plank wood that had a light coat of linseed oil and it wasn’t unusual for students to stay after school to oil the floor. Windows lined at least one wall, usually the north wall to assure light all year round.

School typically began at 8 a.m., requiring the students to rise much earlier in order to make the two to three mile trek to get there. Of course, the teacher was at the school long before the students. The pot-bellied stove had to be lit and stoked, water had to be fetched for drinking and hand washing, and the day’s supplies had to be gathered. In early days, it was not uncommon for pupils to bring whatever they could from home—a stick to write in the dirt, a family bible to read from, a pencil if they were lucky enough to have one. Once the school bell rung, the students usually entered in two lines, one for each gender with girls entering first. It was expected that the children would “make their manners” to their teacher by a bow or curtsy. The Pledge of Allegiance opened the school day followed by the Lord’s prayer or some other suitable recitation that provided moral instruction.

The teacher who operated in a one-room schoolhouse had her hands full. She (or sometimes he) had to explain the studies for the day for each grade level while those in other grades completed assignments. Reading was taught first and students would be expected to recite a passage from memory or read aloud from the reader. After a short break, lessons in arithmetic would begin. Younger students did their work on a slate while older students were expected to do oral math drills. Then there were lessons in penmanship, since writing was a major way of communicating ideas and information and, thus, good penmanship assured that others could understand what you had to offer.  Reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, then, filled the first part of the day.

After a lunch hour and time to play some games, the bell would ring again and the students would reassemble in the schoolhouse. Afternoon lessons would include a history lesson, discussion of a moralistic story and polishing their elocution skills. Geography would usually end the day or perhaps a spelling contest. If a student misbehaved during the day they might have to stay after class to sweep the floors, washout the cups, or otherwise help their teacher.

Discipline was strict in the school setting. Parents were paying for the teaching of their children and they expected the teacher to maintain and enforce the rules. Students were to be respectful of their Maker, parents, schoolmarm/master and, also, of their friends. This last was, perhaps, the hardest to achieve, however. As with today, children could be notoriously ruthless to those who were in any way different, be it in nationality, appearance, or abilities.

Discipline included the stereotypical whipping on the buttocks with a rod or ruler, standing in a corner, or sitting on a stool with a dunce cap on the head. Other forms included standing with one’s nose inside a drawn circle on the board, memorizing long passages of moral messages, and writing sentences or moral sayings over and over again. Students also risked losing recess or accumulating additional chores. To thwart bad behavior in boys, they might be “sentenced” to sitting on the girl’s side of the classroom with a bonnet on their head. Humiliation, infliction of pain, and memorizing were all used to assure that a student did not forget the infraction in the hope it would not be repeated. It was likely that upon returning home, a student would face another round of punishment meted out by their parents to reinforce the message and provide a deterrent for the future. Whether such discipline achieved that goal, however, is hard to determine.

Teachers were not initially certified. It was thought that if you received any education, you could impart the knowledge you had gained to others. Given that the teacher, usually a woman between fifteen and eighteen years of age, had to teach a wide variety of subjects to students whose education levels varied with their age and circumstance, it is a testament to both teachers and their students that attendees ever learned to read, write, and do their sums.  As one female student remembered: “[my school was]a room crowded full of big boys and girls, noise and confusion with now and then a howl from some boy that was being whipped…I do not know how I learned to read. We had the English reader and the spelling book—Webster’s great spelling book that saved the language of the country from being cut into little local dialects. My brother, older than myself, complained one day that his lesson was hard. Someone took the reader and read it to him. I thought it was very fine. To my surprise I could read it without a hitch.” (Roxana Rice, Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton.)

Only single women were deemed suitable for the position of schoolmarm in the 19th century. Once a woman married, it was felt her first and, perhaps, only duty was to her husband and the children that would surely follow. However, sometimes a woman whose children were grown, would take on, for a short time, the teaching of the area children.

In 1870, Emily Biggs started the first neighborhood school in her own cramped dugout. As her daughter recalled: “Many of the neighbor children got their first and almost their only schooling from Mrs. Biggs. She taught the simple rudiments of the three R’s to a man who has since represented his county in the state legislature. A sheriff of Lincoln County learned to read beside her old cook stove by her buffalo tallow candle’s light. One of the foremost district judges of the state is proud to count himself one of Mrs. Biggs’ boys.” (p. 158, Pioneer Women: Voices From The Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton.)

Eventually (sometime after 1870), districts began to organize their local schools. Meeting annually, local school board members decided the school term, levied taxes or issued bonds to pay for the schooling of the children in the district, and established or influenced teaching standards. As with today, teachers often butted heads with members of the school board. Lydia Murphy Toothaker of Johnson County, Kansas remembered when one of the members, a tobacco chewing sort with a thick accent, objected to the teaching of geography, especially given girls were also students, because it took away from religious subjects which he thought the girls needed to hear.

While not the most conducive setting, the one-room school house provided an opportunity for learning. Settlers, even in remote parts of a challenging country, realized that it was not only in the children’s best interest, but in the community’s best interest, to educate their youngsters in a world that was rapidly changing.

Anyone have any experience with a one-room schoolhouse or teaching such a varied group of children? Can you imagine what it must have been like to teach or learn in such a setting?


The Rise of Industrial America by Page Smith

Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton

Everyday Life in the Wild West by Candy Moulton

The Late Nineteenth-Century One-Room School: Oak Hill School Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide


Anne Carrole writes about men who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. You can check out her contemporary romance, Falling for a Cowboy, and western historical romance, Saving Cole Turner, at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobook.com. You can friend, follow, or find Anne on Facebook, Twitter, www.annecarrole.com , or at the western historical facebook fan site, Love Western Romances.




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