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Education in 18th Century America

The global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has forced thousands of schools to close, meaning children across America are continuing their education from the comfort of their own home. It’s an experience that we all are trying to work through — cabin fever is no fun for anyone! It’s hard transitioning from a classroom full of friends and classmates to completing assignments (not just homework!) at home. But is it better than learning Latin, carpentry, or even weaving? Have your child read this article and see what they think. They’ll soon learn that, while this may feel foreign and a little strange, education today is quite different from how it was during the 18th century!

Education in Colonial America was influenced largely by Europe. The English education system provided Americans with ideas on how to educate children, whether through tutors, traditional schooling, or apprenticeships. School days for upper class children primarily consisted of reading, writing, simple math, poems, and prayers. As they grew older, boys studied more advanced, academic subjects, like higher math, Latin, science, geography, and history, while girls studied art, music, and social etiquette, as well as spinning, weaving, and cooking. Wealthy families would sometimes hire a tutor so all of their children could study together at home.

For the lower class, children, mostly boys, would participate in an apprenticeship with a master craftsman that could last anywhere from three to seven years. Usually, the master craftsman would provide basic education, training, and sometimes room and board. These apprenticeships would include common trades such as carpentry, mapmaking, and shoemaking. Although apprenticeships were uncommon for girls, they did occasionally serve as an apprentice for dressmakers and tailors. If they didn’t land an apprenticeship, most young girls learned common household chores, like cleaning, laundry, food preservation, gardening, sewing, and how to use herbs to treat illness.

The New England Primer was the principal textbook and first reading primer for millions of colonists, becoming the foundation of most schooling during the 18th century. It was used for over 150 years after its publication date.

Words of Two Syllables (Example lesson from The New England Primer by Benjamin Harris, 1688)

Ab-sent. ab-hor. a-pron. au-thor. ba-bel. be-came. be-guile. bold-ly.

Ca-pon. cel-lar. con-stant. cup-board. dai-ly. de-pend. di-vers. du-ty.

Ea-gle. ea-ger. en-close. e-ven. fa-ther. fa-mous. fe-male. fu-ture.

Ga-ther. gar-den. gra-vy. glo-ry. hei-nous. hate-ful. hu-mane. hus-band.

In-fant. in-deed. in-cence. i-sland. Ja-cob. jeal-ous. jus-tice. ju-lep.

La-bour. la-den. la-dy. la-zy. ma-ny. ma-ry. mo-tive.

During your next visit to Craven Hall, be sure to take a look at our early education display upstairs, and try out a sample math question extracted from one of our most treasured artifacts — an 18th century cipher book belonging to local schoolboy, Thomas McDowel!

Thomas McDowel’s Cipher Book, Dated April 19, 1775. Credit: Craven Hall Historical Society

By: Jennifer Burns

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