Colonial Education

The primary education of upper class children in colonial days included reading, writing, simple math, poems, and prayers. Paper and textbooks were scarce so boys and girls recited their lessons until they memorized them. The three most commonly used books were the Bible, a primer, and a hornbook. As children grew older their schooling prepared them for their eventual roles in plantation life. While boys studied more advanced, academic subjects, the girls learned to assume the duties of the mistress of a plantation.

The sons of a planter typically would be taught the basics at home. The boys’ school day started around 7 a.m. in the school room with their male tutor. They had several breaks during the day. Around 9 a.m. they had breakfast, and dinner was served from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. The boys studied higher math, Greek, Latin, science, celestial navigation (navigatin ships by the stars), geography, history, fencing, social etiquette, and plantation management. At this point, the sons of wealthy planters often were sent to boarding schools in England for a higher education. They sometimes stayed over in England to study law or medicine. Otherwise, they would return home to help their fathers run the plantation.

The school days for girls were somewhat different. Girls learned enough reading, writing, and arthimetic to read their Bibles and be able to record household expenses. They were taught by a governess, who was usually from England and somewhat educated. They studied art, music, French, social etiquette, needlework, spinning, weaving, cooking, and nursing. The girls did not have the opportunity to go to England for higher education because this was not considered important for them.

The tutor or governess had more authority over their students than teachers do today. They could spank or whip the students or sit them in the corner if they misbehaved. When a student talked too much, the tutor placed a whispering stick in the talkative student’s mouth. This stick, held in place with a band of cloth, prevented any further talking. Tutors sometimes used dunce caps and nose pinchers to keep students in line. Students often rebelled against these strict disciplinary practices. Pranks such as locking the tutor out of the schoolhouse were common especially near holiday breaks.

Suggested Reading

Kalman, Bobbie. Colonial Life. New York: Crabtree Publishing Company, 1992.
Kalman, Bobbie. Early Schools. New York: Crabree Publishing Company, 1991.
Larkin, Jack. The Reshaping of Everyday Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
McGovern, Ann. If You Lived in Colonial Times. New York: Scholastic, 1964.

Suggested Activities

As a class discuss the similarities and differences between eighteenth and twentieth-century schools.

Discuss the contrasting educations of colonial boys and girls and determine whether or not separate educations would be appropriate for today’s working society.

Using the instructions provided, have students make a hornbook. Cardboard can be substituted for balsa wood. Colonial children used hornbooks for learning the alphabet, numbers, and a prayer or Bible verse.