Here to return to
THE SCHOOLS BETWEEN 1830 AND 1860
IN times of peace the changes wrought in the habits, manners, and institutions of a people are very gradual. Shreds and remnants of every custom which has had general acceptance linger long after that custom has in most quarters disappeared. Thus, in the New England school of the period just preceding the Civil War, the educational methods and the schoolroom environment continued in many communities to be much the same as half a century before. What is here recounted is fairly characteristic of the majority of schools and neighborhoods, but it will not bear a too literal application to particular towns and villages.
The school year still consisted of two terms, one in summer and the other in winter. As a rule, a man taught in winter and a woman in summer, and the teachers “boarded round.” The custom of boarding round was, however, less universal than formerly, and was gradually falling into disuse. Schoolbooks were becoming more varied and numerous, and were less stilted in style than in times past. Nor were they so solemnly religious as they had been. Instead, they were inclined to be gently moralizing, and never told a story without preaching a little sermon at the end, even if they did not pause now and then midway to give a dose of proper advice.
I wish to describe with some detail an average school of the period located in an outlying village of one of the old Massachusetts towns of the Connecticut Valley. The score of houses which made up the hamlet were scattered along a two-mile strip of meadow land which lay between a low mountain ridge on the east and the river on the west. Midway on the single north and south road stood the weather-worn little school building. A narrow, open yard, worn bare of grass for a space about the doorstep, separated the schoolhouse from the dusty road. At one end of the building a big apple tree partly shadowed it. At the other end was a lean-to shed where the wood for the fire was stored.
Inside of the schoolhouse, a narrow entry ran across the north side, but this was completely filled in the middle by a great chimney. The boys kept their caps on the lines of pegs in the front entry; and in a closet back of the chimney, entered from the schoolroom, the girls hung their sunbonnets or hoods, and other wraps.
On the way to school.
The small square main room had bare, plastered walls and ceiling. Not only was the plaster grimy with smoke and age, but it was much cracked, and here and there were holes that the boys had pounded or dug through. Each side of the room, except the north, had two windows which looked out on the farm fields, orchards, and mountain. The chief feature of the windowless side of the room was a wide fireplace with its brick hearth. To the right of the fireplace stood a broom, and whenever the crackling fire snapped out a coal on the floor, the first boy who saw it was expected to jump up and brush it back. It was not always that a boy would take the trouble to brush the coals back by using the broom. A quicker method was to kick them to the hearth with his boot or to crush the fire out by stepping on it. The boards about the hearth were therefore blackened with many little hollows where the coals had fallen, and were also well strewn usually with the powdered charcoal resulting from the coals being stepped on. These miniature explosions from the fireplace were quite entertaining to the children and made a grateful break in the monotony of the school work.
Another feature of the north side of the room was a small blackboard between the fireplace and the entrance. On this the big boys did their sums. The girls did not use it. A very moderate amount of mathematics was supposed to suffice for females, and they stopped short of problems that needed to be done on a blackboard.
Around the other three sides of the room, against the wall, ran a continuous desk, accompanied by a backless bench well polished with use. To get to their places, or to leave them, the boys would sit down, lift their heels, and with a quick whirl swing them to the other side. The girls on their side of the room had two hinged openings in this seat, which could be lifted to allow them to pass in and out, but most of them preferred to whirl as the boys did. A part of the time the scholars eased themselves of the discomfort of their backless seats by turning about and using the edge of the desk as a support. Within the hollow square bounded by this outer desk and seat, on each of the three sides, was a movable bench with a back shoulder high. The end seats on these benches were thought to be particularly desirable, because they were so built as to have a support there for the elbow. The benches were for the smaller children who sat on them facing the center of the room, where was the teacher’s desk and a single stiff backed wooden chair.
An old-time schoolgirl costume.
The teacher’s desk was a simple four-legged affair with drawers in it that could be locked. The locking was an attribute of some consequence, for besides being a repository for various articles that were the private property of the teacher, the drawers were a place of detention for certain belongings of the pupils which had been confiscated. Among the latter, pieces of rubber at one time figured very prominently. This occurred while the school was passing through a period of rubber chewing. Rubber overshoes were in those days made of thick, black, natural rubber. After they were worn out, squares that made very good erasers could be cut from the heavier parts. The children discovered that chewing turned the rubber white, and they decided they preferred erasers of that color. In beginning on a fresh piece the chewing was far from easy, but the rubber gradually softened as the process continued. Often the older scholars would get the smaller ones to do the preliminary masticating, and of course the little ones felt it an honor to do this for the big pupils and undertook the tiresome task willingly. As the rubber whitened it became much more elastic, and if you chose, you could stretch it over your fingers, fill it with air and make it explode with a pleasing pop. The master took away quantities of it and put the spoil in the secret recesses of his desk, or threw it into the fire; but the little folks persisted in the manufacture for a long time.
Enjoying a Saturday holiday.
The chief school dignitary of the village was the “prudential committee-man.” He hired the teacher; he bought the water pail, the dipper, and the broom; and he saw that the woodhouse was properly filled and the premises kept in repair. His position was not what the poet calls “a downy bed of ease,” for he was the subject of much comment and criticism. It was thought he had too strong a tendency to hire one of his own daughters when he possessed an unmarried one sufficiently advanced in age and learning; and, no matter who it was he selected, the teacher he hired frequently failed to suit the community. If, in such a case, the committee-man took sides with the teacher, the miniature war waxed quite fierce. On one occasion, in a quarrel over a teacher whom the committee-man would not dismiss, hostilities were more than a year in duration. All but six children left the school, and the dissenters hired a teacher and had a school of their own in one of the dissenting farmers’ little out-buildings which had been used as a broom shop.
It was the duty of the district committee-man to go after the teacher whom he had engaged, if that person lived in a neighboring town. The committee-man rarely started soon enough to get his charge to the schoolroom on time; and the scholars, who gathered at nine o’clock, would “train around and have a gay time” while they awaited the teacher’s arrival. Sometimes the teacher, before beginning, had to be taken to the “examining committee” at the town center and his or her qualifications tested by sundry questions. In such a case the teacher might not reach the schoolhouse ready for duty until afternoon.
The school at work.
We will suppose that the first week in May has come, and that the district committee-man has brought the new school ma’am. After leaving her at the schoolhouse, he carries her trunk to his home, where it is to stay through the term. She is to board round, and it has already been decided where her stopping place for the first week shall be. Monday noon the children of that particular home take charge of her, and feel it a great honor to escort her to “their house” to dinner. The teacher’s advent into a family was always the occasion of extra preparation in the way of food and “tidying up,” and conversation while she was present became a more than ordinarily serious occupation.
Boarding round, with its accompanying necessity of “visiting,” change of quarters, and frequent making of new home acquaintances, was something of a hardship. The teacher found her quarters far from agreeable at times; but there was no picking places. The best bedroom, to which she was consigned, was perhaps stuffy with the gathered must of many months’ unoccupancy, or the people were rough and slatternly in their habits, or the food was ill-cooked or scanty. I do not mean that these things were the rule, but they were to the boarder-round, to some extent, unavoidable.
Schools kept from Monday morning till Saturday noon. On Saturday afternoons the teacher went to the committee-man’s and did her washing. She stayed over Sunday and attended church with the family. Some week-day evening, after school, she would probably again repair to the committee-man’s to do her ironing.
In winter the teacher in some sections found himself feasted the whole term through on fresh pork. Fresh pork was esteemed one of the most palatable and substantial dishes the farm produced, and, on the principle of giving the teacher the best, each family put off hog-killing until he came. His invitation, delivered by the children, would be: “Our folks are goin’ to butcher next week, and want you to come to stay at our house.” Or an excuse for delaying his visit would come in this form: “Our folks want you to wait till week after next, ‘cause we’re goin’ to kill a pig then.” The master was heartily sick of pork long before the winter was through.
Passing the water.
Immediately after the morning session began, the teacher read a selection from the Testament and offered a short extempore prayer. Children began to attend school, in summer, soon after they passed their third birthday. At first they had no books, and their chief effort was given to sitting still. They were taught the alphabet at the schoolmistress’s knee, and perhaps she pointed out the letters with a pretty penknife. The little folks found that penknife wonderfully attractive, and it was a great happiness to handle it and look at it when the teacher lent it to them.
Besides the letters, the teacher taught the smallest ones various little poems, such as “Mary had a little lamb,” “Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” and
“How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour.”
Then there were certain jingles, which were not only poetry, but exercises in arithmetic as well. Fancy a little tot solemnly repeating the following: —
“See me; I am a little child
Who goes each day to school;
And though I am but four years old,
I’ll prove I am no fool.
“For I can count one, two, three, four,
Say one and two make three;
Take one away, and two remain,
As you may plainly see.
“Twice one are two, twice two are four,
And six is three times two;
Twice four are eight, twice five are ten;
And more than this I do.
“For I can say some pretty rhymes
About the dog and cat;
And sing them very sweetly, too,
And to keep time I spat.
“And, more than all, I learn that God
Made all things that I see;
He made the earth, he made the sky,
He made both you and me.”
This chant was accompanied by appropriate gestures, such as counting on the fingers, pointing, and clapping.
The rhymes and verses learned by the children were often repeated in concert, and were one of the features of “examination day.” Besides the moralizing, the arithmetical, and the story-telling verses, the children were taught hymns and short poems that were distinctly religious in nature. When the teacher’s taste was musical, they had singing in school, and the virtues of the “pure and sparkling water” were extolled in temperance songs. There was no attempt to teach the children to read music, and a book was rarely used. The exercise was introduced simply because it was cheerful and agreeable, and they all enjoyed it. Sometimes the tune was “pitched” by the teacher, sometimes by one of the better singers among the pupils. To “pitch” a tune was to start it and supposedly get it neither too high nor too low.
By the time the smallest children had the alphabet learned they were supplied with a Webster’s Speller. Later they had a “Child’s Guide,” or a “Young Reader.” These books contained some little stories and poems, and were illustrated with rude woodcuts, but the owners of the books thought the pictures were very pretty. After the first reader the child advanced to an “Intelligent Reader,” and finally to a “Rhetorical Reader.” The last-named volume was not illustrated and was bound in full buff leather like a law-book. The reading books were only used in the afternoon; but several classes read from the New Testament in the morning. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles were the sections which they studied, and these they read straight through, skipping nothing but the opening chapter of Matthew, which is mainly composed of the hard names of the patriarchs.
The beginners’ book in mathematics was Colburn’s Intellectual Arithmetic. Its first question was, “How many thumbs have you on both hands? “but in a few pages fractions were reached, and quite intricate problems. It was severe training, and the scholars all hated their Colburn’s, and some of them shed tears in utter discouragement. After this “mental arithmetic” came a “written arithmetic,” which was apparently supposed by educators to be more difficult than the former, but which the children found comparatively easy. The problems in this they did on their slates.
Civilization in later days decreed that the proper way to make erasures from a slate was to have a bottle of water and a rag. In earlier times, and those not very far removed, the natural method was almost universal; that is, the scholar spit on his slate, rubbed the moisture around with the tips of his fingers, then established a more vigorous friction with the ball of his thumb, and finally polished his slate off with the back of his sleeve. That done, he settled himself down to conquer fresh fields in the mathematical world.
In the course of time the children began the study of Peter Parley’s Geography. The book was small and square, and it had a number of pictures in it to give the child an idea of some of the strange peoples and curious animals that are to be found on the earth. For instance, there was a picture of a Chinaman with which the young student was sure to be impressed. His eyes were slanting, his hair was braided in a “pigtail” that hung down his back, he had a conical hat on his head and funny shoes on his feet. Across his shoulders he bore a wooden yoke, from the ends of which were suspended by their tails long strings of rats. How could the Chinese eat such things? What a strange people they were! Among the small separate pictures of animals was one of the hippopotamus — oh! so large and ugly! — and one of the rhinoceros with a dreadful horn right on his nose. It is no wonder if the little girls shuddered when they looked at these pictures.
Peter Parley in his text by no means confined himself to the technicalities of the subject. He tried to be entertaining and informal, and, what would scarcely be expected in a geography, he availed himself “of occasional opportunities to inculcate lessons of morality and religion upon the youthful heart.” But the portion of the text that sank deepest into the memories of those who studied the book was a poem in the early pages which began thus: —
“The World is round, and like a ball
Seems swinging in the air,
A sky extends around it all,
And stars are shining there.
Water and land upon the face
Of this round world we see,
The land is man’s safe dwelling-place,
But ships sail on the sea.”
The more advanced pupils studied Murray’s Grammar, and found out what nouns, verbs, etc., were, and learned to parse blank verse. Then there was Peter Parley’s History, in two volumes. Volume I dealt with the New World, and Volume II began with Adam and the Garden of Eden, and told the story of the Old World. Only the first book was usually studied in the district school.
Another little book to be mentioned was Watts on the Improvement of the Mind. This was a deep and serious essay on the methods and the desirability of mental improvement. It was studied by only the oldest scholars, and even they found much of it beyond their comprehension.
At one time the more advanced pupils took up botany. The teacher’s desk had a vase on it, and during the blossom season the botany class kept the vase well filled with wild flowers.
The times were sufficiently advanced so that the children now had “boughten writing books” instead of home-made ones, steel pens instead of quills, and in a meagre way pencils instead of plummets. The writing books were square in shape, ruled inside, but had no printed copies at the top of the page. These the master had therefore to set. He was supposed to do this each night after school, but if he forgot it, he had to set the copies when the writing hour came. Some pupils wrote faster than others, and the smart one who filled out his page and still had more time at once desired to inform the teacher of his progress and to get a new copy. The boy raised his hand, therefore, half rose in his seat, and nearly wrung his arm off in a frantic effort to get the teacher’s immediate attention. Some boys would even snap their fingers and clear their throats in the very hoarsest and most asthmatic manner of which they were capable. These violent methods of attracting the teacher’s attention were, of course, not confined to the writing lesson.
A common requirement among teachers was that each child should recite a verse of Scripture at the close of the afternoon session. Hence, when four o’clock approached, Bibles were drawn forth, and a diligent search began for short verses, and a hasty attempt made to fix the one singled out in the mind. There was little solemnity about this exercise; rather, it was farcical and humorous.
“John, your verse,” says the teacher.
Up pops the boy like a Jack-in-the-box, snaps out, “Jesus wept,” and with a grin drops into his seat.
“Pray without ceasing,” “Rejoice evermore,” “The Lord spake unto Moses, saying,” are examples of the verses which found favor in the children’s minds. They had the merit of shortness, if no other. The boy was always serious when he rose, always rattled off the words very fast, and beamed with a never failing smile at the close of his performance.
On one occasion a boy’s verse ran, “With God all things are peculiar.”
“What?” said the teacher, “what was that?”
The boy repeated his words. The teacher doubted their authenticity, and the boy, on the following Sunday, went to his original source, which was a motto hung in the Sunday-school room at church, and found that the lettering in old English text had confused him. What it really said was, “With God all things are possible.”
In the middle of each school session came recess. First the girls went out for a quarter of an hour, and when they were called in, the boys went out for the same length of time. Railroads were beginning to be built, but through the village of which I write, the old stages still ran. When the clatter and rumble denoting the approach of one of these vehicles was heard during school hours, the eyes of the children were sure to turn toward the windows in the hope of catching a fleeting glimpse of the big coach as it dashed past. To be out at recess when one went by was a great treat. Yet the children were a little afraid of it — the coach was so large, and, drawn by its four horses, it thundered past so swiftly. It was an impressive sight, and to the child the passengers seemed superior beings, and the whole thing a vivid representation of power and of the mystery and vastness of the outside world.
Ready for School.
There had been various changes in dress since the beginning of the century. Homespun had almost disappeared. Not many families could afford to buy “store clothes” for their boys, but cloth was purchased ready woven, and was cut and made at home into the required garments. Economy was studied in making up clothing, and the mother was careful to cut the suit for the growing boy several sizes larger than his present stature demanded. The boy had reason to complain at first of the bagginess of his garments, but before they were worn out he was pretty sure to be disturbed because of their general tightness and of their scantiness at the extremities. But this was the common lot of boys, and they might count themselves lucky if they were clothed in new store cloth, and not in something made over from the cast-off apparel of their elders.
The boys’ caps were homemade too, sometimes of broadcloth, sometimes of catskin or muskrat skin. Often a leather visor was fastened on in front. At the sides were earlaps with strings at the ends. When in use the strings were tied under the chin; at other times the earlaps were turned up at the side of the cap, and the strings tied over the top.
Both boys and girls went to school barefoot in summer, but for special occasions had shoes. On the approach of cold weather the boys were sure to remind their parents that they needed a new pair of boots. These were roughlooking cowhides, into the tops of which the boys usually tucked their “pant legs.” At parties and such other places as the tucked-in style would seem out of place, the pants were drawn down on the outside of the bootlegs, where they developed an irritating and uncontrollable tendency to hitch themselves upward. The boots were hardly wearable unless they were kept well greased, and even then the continual slopping around in snow and water made a series of hard wrinkles gather at the ankles. The wrinkles were particularly unyielding on cold mornings. There was no right and left nonsense about these broad-soled, square-toed boots, and the careful boy took pains to change them to opposite feet with regularity. He considered that to be the only way to keep them subdued and symmetrical.
The girls’ dresses were of gingham in summer and of a fine-checked woollen in winter. They were very plain and simple in pattern, and were fastened down the back with hooks and eyes. The dresses were longer than are now in use, and. with them were worn some curious garments known as “pantalets.” A pantalet was like a straight sleeve, fastened just below the knee and extending downward to the ankles. It was necessary to tie them quite tightly to keep them from slipping and they were always something of a trial on account of their tendency not to stay put. They might be either white or colored. White stockings were customary. For a little girl to wear black stockings would have been thought shockingly inappropriate. In warm weather the girls all wore gingham or calico sunbonnets; in winter quilted hoods, which were very comfortable and often were bright in color and gay with ribbons. They had long plaided coats that almost swept the ground and that had a wide cape. About their necks they wore knitted tippets.
Out at little recess.
The boys had overcoats, but they thought them effeminate, and only put them on in the severest weather. Their chief protection from the cold in the way of an extra wrap was a striped knitted scarf which they called a “comforter.” If the schoolroom was chilly, they might keep their comforters wound around their necks all through the school session. Every child had a pair of mittens. White was the orthodox color for the girls’ mittens, and red and blue in stripes for the boys’. The shoes worn by the girls came barely up to their ankles and were slight protection when there was snow on the ground. Their feet were “sopping” in winter a good share of the time. Through the summer term the girls wore gingham aprons, or, in the case of one or two families esteemed “rich,” black silk ones.
Among the most vivid recollections that grown-up people have of their school days are the memories of the punishments inflicted. What then stirred them to fear and trembling and anger now lies far off, mellowed by the haze of passing years, and though the echoes of the old feelings are many times awakened, the punishments are, in the main, like episodes in story-land, which we think of as onlookers, not as actors. The crude roughness and the startling effects produced have lost their old-time tragedy, and often have turned humorous.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” was a Bible text which received the most literal acceptance both in theory and practice. Teachers with tact to govern well without resort to force were rare, and it was the common habit to thrash the school into shape by main strength. Indeed, the ability to do this was considered by all the elders of that day of prime importance. Even the naturally mild-tempered man was an “old-fashioned” disciplinarian when it came to teaching, and the naturally rude and coarse-grained man was as frightful as any ogre in a fairy tale.
In summer, unless the teacher was an uncommonly poor one, or some of the scholars uncommonly wild and mischievous, the days moved along very harmoniously and pleasantly. In winter, however, when the big boys came in, some of them men grown, who cared vastly more about having a good time than getting learning, an important requisite of the master was “government.” He ruled his little empire, not with a rod of iron, but with a stout three-foot ruler, known as a “ferule,” which was quite as effective.
Some of the big boys who were there “just to raise the mischief,” would perhaps dare the master to go outside and fight. Of course he wouldn’t do that, but at times he had quite serious scuffles with rebellious pupils right in the schoolroom. The boys, on their part, would fight like tigers and make the master’s nose bleed and tear his clothes.
The really severe teacher had no hesitation in throwing his ferule at any child he saw misbehaving, and it is to be noted that he threw first and spoke afterward. Very likely he would order the culprit to bring him the ferule he had cast at him, and when the boy came out on the floor would further punish him. Punishment by spatting the palm of the hand with a ruler was known as “feruling.” The smarting of the blows was severe while the punishment lasted, but this was as nothing to a “thrashing.” The boy to be thrashed was himself sent out to cut the apple-tree twigs with which he was to be whipped. Poor fellow! Whimpering, and blinded by the welling tears, he slowly whittles off one after another of the tough twigs. This task done, he drags his unwilling feet back to the schoolroom.
“Take off your coat, sir!” says the master.
The school is hushed into terrified silence. The fire crackles in the wide fireplace, the wind whistles at the eaves. The boy’s tears flow faster, and he stammers a plea for mercy. Then the whip hisses through the air, and blows fall thick and fast. The boy dances about the floor, and his shrill screams fill the schoolroom. His mates are frightened and trembling, and the girls are crying. When the sobbing boy is sent to his place, whatever his misdemeanor may have been, the severity of the punishment has won him the sympathy of the whole school, and toward the master there are only feelings of fear and hate. As for the culprit, he in his heart vows vengeance, and longs for the day when he shall have the age and stature to thrash the teacher in return. Occasionally a lad sent after switches made use of his liberty to slip off home, but he had to “catch it” when he came to school the next day.
As one of the old-time pupils expresses it, “The men teachers were often regular rough-cuts.” One master of this class, when he noticed a boy misbehaving, had a habit of rushing at the culprit, catching him by the collar, and dashing him over the desks out to open floor space, where he would administer a thrashing. The children thought he acted as if he was going to kill the boy.
Loitering on the way home from school.
The most troublesome boys were not by any means always ill-natured. Often they were merely mischievous. The trouble might be due to an active mind and lack of employment. A boy who learned his lessons easily would have a lot of time on his hands. He couldn’t keep still, and presently the teacher would catch him doing something that he ought not to do. Then he got a whipping. Very likely he might be a cordy little rascal, afraid of nothing, and about as disagreeable to tackle as a healthy hornet. The encounter was no fun for the teacher; and the boy, if he was punished frequently and severely, planned to lick that teacher when he grew up. But I never have heard of a boy who took this delayed vengeance.
Doubtless the whippings of the period varied much in severity, and, unless the master was altogether brutal or angered, the blows were tempered according to the size of the boy and the enormity of his offence. Nor were the boy’s cries always a criterion of the amount of the hurt. It was manifestly for his interest to appear in such terrible distress as to rouse the master’s pity, and with this in mind he to some extent gauged his cries. Nevertheless, the spectacle was not an edifying one, and happily the school thrashing as a method of separating the chaff from the wheat in boy nature is a thing of the past.
The list of milder punishments was a varied one. If the master saw two boys whispering, he would, if circumstances favored, steal up to them from behind and visit unexpected retribution on the guilty lads by catching them by the collars and cracking their heads together. Frequently an offender was ordered out on the floor to stand for a time by the master’s desk, or he was sent to a corner with his face to the wall, or was asked to stand on one leg for a time, or he was assigned a passage of Scripture and told to stay after school until he had learned and recited it correctly to the teacher. In certain cases he was made to hold one arm out at right angles to his body — a very easy and simple thing to do for a short time, but fraught with painful discomfort if long continued. Sometimes this punishment was made doubly hard by forcing the scholar to support a book or other weight at the same time. When the arm began to sag, the teacher would inquire with feigned solicitude what the trouble was, and perhaps would give the boy a rap on his “crazy bone” with the ruler to encourage him to persevere. This process soon brought a child to tears, and then the teacher was apt to relent and send him to his seat.
Making a girl sit with the boys, or a boy with the girls, was another punishment. The severity of this depended on the nature of the one punished. For the timid and bashful it was a terrible disgrace.
Some of the punishments produced very striking spectacular effects, to which the present-day mind would feel quite averse. Fancy the sight of a boy and girl guilty of some misdemeanor standing in the teacher’s heavy armchair, the girl wearing the boy’s hat and the boy adorned with the girl’s sunbonnet. Both are red-faced and tearful with mortified pride. They preserve with difficulty a precarious balance on their narrow footing, and every movement of one causes the other to gasp and to clutch hastily to prevent inglorious downfall.
To sit on the end of a ruler, which the teacher presently knocked from under the boy, was considered by some pedagogs an effective punishment. One master used to have the offending youngster bend over with his head under the table. Then the teacher whacked the culprit from behind with his heavy ruler, and sent him shooting under the table and sprawling across the floor. Another schoolmaster kept in the entry an old satchel which he would bring in on occasion, throw it on the floor, and order the offender to lie down with that for a pillow. Among the most ingenious and uncomfortable in the varied list of punishments was the fitting a cut from a green twig, partially split, to the offender’s nose. In cases of lying, this rude pair of pinchers was attached to the scholar’s tongue.
The boys of the school go for a boat-ride.
As an example of the brutal extreme to which some masters went, I cite the case of a teacher who threatened on occasion to cut off the children’s ears. Imagine the whole school listening with breathless and open-eyed horror while the master, sitting in his chair with a little girl standing before him, is explaining the process of ear-cutting, and at the same time whetting his knife on his stout boot. He would go so far as to rise and rub the back of the blade along the child’s ears. The scholars soon saw he was not to be believed, but the threat was too frightful to altogether lose its dread, however often repeated.
The women teachers were often as vigorous disciplinarians as the men, and capable of originating methods of their own that were truly distressing. For instance, one teacher would have the smaller offenders put out their tongues, which she would proceed to snap with a bit of whalebone. Oh, how that hurt! This punishment seemed to them the meanest that could be invented.
Boxing ears, keeping in at recess or after school, and the confiscation of playthings which hindered the youthful mind in its pursuit of knowledge were mild visitations of the law that only need mention. Jack-knives frequently figured among the contraband articles locked in the teacher’s desk; for what boy can behold a piece of soft pine wood in any shape whatever without desiring to whittle it? The desks offered an inviting surface on which the boy itched to carve his initials, and that done, he was inspired to put a few added touches and simple designs on the rest of the space within reach. If the beloved jack-knife was captured by the teacher and held in durance, the boy still had recourse to his pencils, and with these could make in the soft wood various indentations and markings pleasing to his soul.
In describing the schoolroom interior, only one chair was mentioned; but there was another which had long since seen its best days and was now minus its back. On it the boy who did not learn his lessons was sometimes required to sit with a fool’s cap on his head. This treatment was expected not only to shame the boy, but to serve as a warning example to the school. His cap was usually improvised by the teacher out of a sheet of white paper or even a newspaper. Some teachers, however, had a fool’s cap ready made. One such cap that was particularly elaborate had a tassel on top and tassels at each of the three corners below, and on its front was painted the word “DUNCE” in large capitals.
The games of the children were much the same as those of earlier days. In winter there was a good deal of rough skirmishing among the boys, snowballing and ducking each other when chance offered. The small children at times fared hardly, and once in a while a girl had a severe experience when her mates took a notion to wrap her in her long cloak and bury her in a snowdrift. As soon as the burying was accomplished, the buryers would run away, and the buried would struggle out half suffocated and bedraggled with snow from head to foot. “Snap-the-whip” was a popular game when the snow was deep. The children, except the one most concerned, thought it great fun, and shouted in glee every time the whip snapped and the little end boy or girl broke loose to spin head over heels into a drift.
On stormy winter days, when the children all brought their dinners and the teacher was not there, the excited racing and tearing around that was done in the little room at noon gave a vivid though unconscious representation of Babel and Bedlam. At the same time there was a good deal of running in and out, and the floor by schooltime was mottled all over with snow and water.
Sliding was in order when there was a crust on the snow. The sleds were great home-made affairs that three or four could sit on if need be. Sleds were usually shod with hard-wood runners, but some boys went to the blacksmith’s and had their sleds fitted with runners of iron. The boy owner of a sled was expected, on the downhill trips, to sit behind and steer. With his square-toed boot grating along behind he could make the sled go just where he pleased. In good sliding weather boot-toes disappeared wonderfully fast, and he was a lucky fellow whose footwear did not begin to gape at the extremities before spring. Presently some genius invented a copper-toed boot, which no doubt “filled a long-felt want,” for the inventor realized a fortune by it.
Children who could not afford a sled would make something that served instead out of barrel staves. Three or four staves laid close together did for the bottom, and as many more bowed over above did for the top. The ends of the staves where they met were nailed together, and the staves were also nailed to a brace run through the middle of the contrivance.
Favorite summer games were tag, drop-the-handkerchief, puss-in-the-corner, and, most popular of any, there was hide-and-coop, which was also called hi-spy. In playing this, the children who hid always shouted “Co-o-op!” as soon as they had concealed themselves; and each time the one who was “it” caught sight of any of the hiders, he ran and touched the goal and hollered, “Hi-spy Jim!” or Jane, or whatever the one’s name might be.
Playing drop the handkerchief.
He should have said, “I spy,” but that was contrary to the established custom. The girls jumped rope a good deal. They would jump to and from school, and at recess would try to see who could jump the most without missing. In fact, they jumped until they were exhausted.
The surroundings of the schoolhouse were half wild and contained many delightful possibilities for pleasure. A little way down the road was a large tree, under which in summer the children played cubbyhouse. Near by was a good-sized brook bordered by brushy woods, and in the thickets the little folks gathered patches of green moss, with which they would cover a square of earth under the tree; and that was the foundation of the cubbyhouse. They brought from home broken pieces of dishes, bits of carpet, and other odds and ends for furniture and houseware. Acorn cups did for tea-cups, and the children made fancy little pails out of brown oak balls by cutting off a portion, hollowing out the rest, and fixing in a slender leaf stem for a handle. With some short pieces of board they contrived shelves for the dishes. In connection with the cubbyhouses they made some small inclosures and caught toads and put them in these pens. They called the toads their pigs. The older scholars played they were parents and had the smaller ones for their children, though to some extent they brought their dolls to serve in this capacity.
Most of the children came so far they had to take their dinners. In pleasant, warm weather they ate at the cubbyhouses. They carried their food in tin pails, and often entertained themselves by swapping portions with each other.
Of all the playtime resorts the favorite was the brook, just across the road from the schoolhouse. In winter they scampered over to it at recess and got bits of ice which they would smuggle into the schoolroom and secrete and nibble at on the sly. In summer they waded and splashed in the shallows of the stream and caught pollywogs and minnows with their bare hands.
Perhaps the most striking use they ever made of the stream was to play at baptizing in it. The chief church of the town was of the Baptist denomination, and it was the custom to baptize converts in some convenient stream. When a ceremony was to take place, the minister and convert, both in black robes, walked down into the stream, while the rest of the congregation clustered on the shore, singing: —
“On Jordan’s stormy bank I stand
And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.”
Then the minister took hold of his companion and said, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
With these words he laid the convert over backward into the water. If it was winter and the stream was frozen, a passage was cut through the ice from the shore into deep enough water to do the baptizing thoroughly. To persons unfamiliar with such customs this may sound rude and strange, but to most in that vicinity the ceremony was as impressive as it was interesting.
The children in their play copied all the details of the baptism, very closely, except that the girl who acted as convert was not immersed in the water, but only dabbled a little.
In the meadow at recess.