According to one popular narrative, the public school year in the United States includes a disproportionately long summer vacation because this was the pattern set by schools in rural agricultural regions during the formative years of the nation. In the first two posts of this series we observed that this “agrarian hypothesis” not only contains deep flaws, but is, in fact, completely incorrect. Prior to at least the middle of the nineteenth century, rural schools in the American northeast did NOT have a three season school year (autumn, winter, spring) with summers off to allow children to work on farms. Rather, they had a two season school year (winter and summer) with spring off to allow children to help with planting, and autumn free so that they could assist with the harvest.
In the first post we mentioned that older children generally attended the winter term (if they stayed in school at all,) while younger children were more likely to take part in the summer term. If we dig deeper, we find that the summer and winter terms differed from one another in a number of other parameters, as well. Winter terms not only attracted older students, but those students were typically male, as were their teachers. Though often shorter than summer terms, winter terms commanded fairly regular student attendance, and offered instruction in a greater variety of advanced topics. Conversely, while the summer terms served nearly equal numbers of students in total as the winter terms, the presence of any given child often fluctuated over the course of the session, depending on health, weather and family needs. These summer students included not only younger children of both sexes, but also older girls. Summer instruction focused largely on fundamental topics, such as reading, vocabulary and spelling, occasionally to the exclusion of anything else. Significantly, by the early nineteenth century, summer terms were far more likely to be taught by women than by men. In this post and the next we’ll transition from Massachusetts to New York in order to understand how this “two-tier” winter / summer system came into being in the northeastern United States, and to tease out what significance it had in the demise of the summer session.
The early European settlers who came to what is now the northeastern United States were just that – European, not American. They brought ideas about education with them from their home countries, as naturally as they brought their clothing and religious ideology. For the English, who claimed New England, and converted part of New Netherland to New York after taking it from the Dutch, the structure of education was rooted in the Tudor period. From around 1580 English education crystalized into two levels which were clearly distinguished in intention, if not always in practice. The lower level was comprised of the “petty schools.” These concentrated on reading, but might also offer some writing (particularly to allow people to write their names) and ciphering (more or less what we would consider arithmetic now). A single dame or master* generally led each petty school. “Grammar schools,” on the other hand, represented the elite, selective track in education. Presided over pretty much exclusively by masters, grammar schools taught the reading, writing and speaking of Latin. While the primacy of Latin might seem odd to many people now, it had served for centuries as the common European language of theology and philosophy, and was increasingly being extended to the emerging fields of science.
* A note on the term master: In the context of early modern England, a school master was the male head of a school, and/or a teacher. The term implied both that he was the leader of the school, having the students in his charge, and that he was proficient in, or had “mastered,” his subject matter. This latter meaning, in turn, derives from a system of levels of training and expertise in trades and crafts in which individuals progressed from apprentice to journeyman to master. The word master for a teacher or head teacher came to northeastern North America with the English. Masters were strictly male. Women who did similar (or even the same) work in schools were called dames. While it is tempting to consider the words dame and master analogous, there is an important distinction. The designation of master connoted a greater degree of authority, in every sense. Recently schools such as Harvard and Princeton, which had retained the title of master, have moved to replace it with less problematic titles. The prominence of slavery in American history means that, in the United States, calling someone master is more likely to evoke (and reinforce) inequality based on race, than to call to mind ideas of pedagogical authority.
You may remember from the last post in this series that the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the School Law of 1647 (aka the Old Deluder Act) which mandated that townships must provide for instruction based on their population. Towns with from fifty up to one hundred families had to arrange only for instruction in reading and writing, while towns with one hundred or more families were supposed to set up a Latin grammar school. Although the substance of the law was rarely followed perfectly outside the largest population centers, most notably Boston, it is clear that the men writing the law envisioned a two-level system of educational institutions similar to what they had known in England. In practice, residents of smaller towns often proved loath to spend large sums on elaborate pedagogical institutions which they considered to be of dubious immediate value. Latin masters cost more than other teachers, and building separate schools added even greater expense. The necessary funds had to come from somewhere, and townships in the countryside relied on combinations of taxation (general, or targeted to families with school-age boys), tuition charges, and sales of town land.
Many towns resorted to various schemes of partial compliance with the law. One method that initially proved popular involved finding a man in town who knew some Latin, naming him “schoolmaster” and paying him a small sum, while rarely (if ever) calling on him to teach anything at all. Colony leaders responded by increasing oversight of towns and mandating greater fines for noncompliance with the school laws. In a more enduring compromise, townships hired a Latin master, but employed him mainly to teach advanced English reading skills, writing, and ciphering. He could (and would) teach Latin when the demand arose, but it represented a minimal (or in some years nonexistent) part of the curriculum. Although this may have fallen short of the ideal educational system which colony legislators envisioned, the schools which developed from such compromises provided a significantly higher level of instruction than rudimentary English reading skills. Other colonies in, and on the edges of, New England had less stringent legislation (and hence fewer institutions labeled “Latin grammar schools”) than the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but they followed a similar trajectory, resulting in comparable pedagogical developments.
Now, if you were reading the last paragraphs closely, you may have noticed some important points. First, the official schools which developed in and around New England by the first decades of the eighteenth century were intended exclusively for boys (which is why, in some townships, only families with boys between the ages of six and twelve paid a school tax.) Second, these schools did not teach basic reading. In fact, for the most part, they required pupils who entered to have already achieved the fundamentals of English literacy. So where were these children learning to read? One answer, of course, is that, especially in the earliest years of the colonies, they were taught by their parents (or heads of households if they were servants), in their homes. This is a parenting blog, so I suspect that most readers can appreciate that trying to teach several energetic young children to read, while also managing a farm and coordinating a large household which produced much of what it used (think soap and candles, in a world with no electricity or plumbing) proved to be no small feat. Accordingly many young children attended what were called “dame schools.”
Dame schools, which were run, as the name suggests, by women, developed in both England and Holland. The tradition transferred well to the colonies in what is now the northeastern US, and became an established part of life in most of the region by the mid-seventeenth century. Dame schools provided a combination of daycare and early reading instruction, filling a role a bit like modern preschool / nursery school as well as kindergarten / reception year. Initially these schools were located in the school-dame’s home and represented a strictly private enterprise. Once the School Law of 1647 was enacted, however, dame schools offered a number of new, public, advantages. Townships which had more than forty-nine families, but less than one hundred, were not required to support a Latin grammar school, only to provide instruction in reading and writing English. In the late seventeenth century many towns dealt with this requirement expeditiously by simply declaring that the mistress of the local dame school served as the town teacher. By the beginning of the eighteenth century an increasing number of these dame school mistresses were being paid by the townships from public funds, rather than receiving tuition from parents directly for individual children. This system had the added benefit that a subsidized dame-led school could also provide the most basic education to poor children.
Hiring a woman who ran a dame school to be the local teacher also made good financial sense for many townships. As we’ve already seen, school-masters (i.e. men) who could teach Latin commanded the highest salaries among instructors. They were followed by school-masters who could teach reading and writing solely in English. School-dames, whether they taught only reading English, or taught writing and ciphering, as well, could be paid the smallest amounts. This cost savings proved important given the nature of township settlement patterns as the European-derived population expanded throughout the northeast, branching out from the larger port cities. Such outlying townships often included a number of scattered hamlets located at significant distances (in a world without pavement, automobiles or trains) from the town center. Hiring multiple school-dames who worked in the various hamlets, and then a single school-master who served in the town center, furnished an economical arrangement.
We can already see in this the beginnings of the “two tier” two-season rural school year which typified education in the northeastern US outside of the more densely populated urban centers, from around the middle of the eighteenth to the middle of the nineteenth (and in some cases well beyond) centuries. The development of the two-term (summer / winter) school year was a multifactorial process, so the exact pace and relative importance of different concerns varied across the region, but we are safe in pointing out some broad trends. Initially school-dames taught only rudimentary reading skills. This, combined with the historical function of dame schools as child-care centers, meant that the earliest school-mistresses taught only the youngest children. Winter travel, as well as long distance travel, posed a particular danger for these very young children. School-dames usually lived in the hamlets or towns that they served, so the summer term came to be the term for younger children (who were notorious both for being underfoot, and for endangering themselves by getting “into mischief” in the summer months) to be shunted off to school to receive basic literary skills. At the same time, the school-
mistresses increasingly taught out of dedicated school rooms, rather than their own homes, so attendance expanded beyond toddlers to children as old as ten.
Since the school-dames were now often the only teachers in hamlets and small towns, mistresses who could offer instruction in more than the most basic reading skills proved valuable, with demand expanding to include writing, spelling and arithmetic. There could be a lag between the need for this somewhat broader curriculum, and the supply of women who had acquired enough education to teach it. In these cases a district might hire a male teacher who was not a Latinist (more expensive than a woman, but cheaper than an elite schoolmaster) to fill the gap. Hours of daylight were longer in the summer, and schoolrooms did not need to be heated, so summer terms were cheaper to run than winter ones (remember no gas or electricity.) With careful budgeting, school districts could afford to hire a male teacher for summer terms some years, and to keep the schools open for more weeks under female instructors in others. The summer schools were often in walking distance for the families they served, so it was possible for not only younger children, but for girls in their teens to go to school when they could be spared from farm and house work. Because the summer-term schools were not graded, there was nothing to discourage children who could only attend sporadically from showing up whenever possible and picking up their studies where they had left off. This meant that the level of basic education for girls could rise, creating a greater pool of potential school-mistresses.
As we noted in the original post in this series older boys could really only be spared from farm work in the dead of winter. This helped to create the higher level winter terms within the incipient “two-tier” system. Older boys were capable of transporting themselves longer distances to the single Latinist school-master in the town center, and of traveling in winter. Everything about the winter term was more expensive (the teacher, the heat, the light) so it made sense to keep the term short, and for those boys who were going to attend to do so fairly regularly. As the eighteenth century drew to a close, and particularly following the upheavals of the American Revolution, Latin largely dropped out of favor (and, more to the point, out of legal requirement) for rural schools. It was replaced by education in a greater range of skills useful for success in commercial trade, including, for example, advanced mathematics and double-entry bookkeeping. Despite this, and despite greater (although still not, necessarily, great) educational opportunities for girls, the hierarchical two-term rural school system remained. By the early nineteenth century the winter term represented the “serious” term with more males (teachers and students,) more advanced topics, and, generally, greater attendance on a per day basis. Conversely, the summer term appeared to educational reformers (you might remember from the last post that the 1830s saw the growth of the Common School Movement in the northeastern United States) to be worth less (and, in fact, to an important subset, as worthless.) Summer sessions were taught primarily by women (frequently by younger women,) attendance was often flexible, and the fields of study focused on academic basics.
The school years of 1842 – 1843 provide a useful illustration of the fully evolved two-tier, two-term pattern of the northeastern school year outside of urban areas. In rural Massachusetts, 67% of winter term teachers were male, while women dominated the summer session comprising 95% of summer teachers. This pattern appeared in rural New York, as well, although the overall percentage of female teachers was lower in both terms. Men made up 75% of winter session teachers, while 85% of summer session teachers were women. If we focus in on teachers in New York state (outside of the cities, again) we find some typical patterns. Nearly two-fifths of male teachers in the winter term were between the ages of 21 and 25, and about a third were over the age of 25. Among female teachers in the winter term, about a third were in the 21 – 25 age range, but another third was only 18 – 21 years old, and over a tenth were less than 18.
The age disparity was even more pronounced in the summer term. Over half of female summer session teachers in rural New York in 1843 were under the age of 21. While fewer men taught in the summer session, those who did were both older and more experienced than their female colleagues. Four-fifths of these male summer teachers were over the age of 21, and nearly half of them were over 25. While only about half of the women who taught summer sessions in 1843 had been teaching for a full year, over 80% of the men had at least that level of experience. The differences in gender, age and experience between teachers in the summer and winter terms opened the door for critics (of both summer sessions and women) to attack summer instructors as “clever young misses” and “inexperienced young girls.” Not all proponents of education reform opposed female teachers, however. Horace Mann, now often called the “Father of the Common School Movement” served as the first Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts (the first state education board in the United States) for eleven years beginning in 1837. In his Annual Reports, Mann advocated strongly for hiring women as teachers on the grounds that they possessed a “natural love of the society of children” as well as “superior gentleness and forbearance,” although, it must be noted, he seemed most swayed by the fact that “a female teacher” could be employed “at half-price.”
Although Mann supported the employment of women as teachers, he took a much more jaundiced view of summer terms. He was obsessed with what he considered to be the losses (both financial and educational) resulting from imperfect attendance. The Annual Reports contain page after page in which he calculates and deplores the time which children are not spending in school. For example, in the Eighth Annual Report (1844) he opines:
Deducting the number of children below four and over sixteen years of age, who attend our Common Schools, it then appears that, while the schools themselves are kept less than two thirds of the year, the average attendance of children between four and sixteen is less than two thirds of the whole number between these ages belonging to the State. And this is true even of the winter schools, when the average attendance exceeds by eighteen thousand the average attendance in summer. If one third of the schooling of the children is lost, each year, then, of course, in three years, it is equal to the loss of their whole schooling for one year. Now suppose that every third year, the State should raise its more than half million of dollars, and should provide and pay its complement of teachers, but that no child should attend its schools for a single day…
He continues in the same vein for several more pages.
Mann railed against tardiness every bit as much as full absence, not only because he considered it wasteful but also as it displayed a lack of standardization. In a particularly telling passage from the Report for 1840, Mann notes that, “railroad-cars and steam boats have a fixed time for starting, — the consequence of which is that everybody is punctual; and, were all the gains of this punctuality added together, it would be found that years of time are saved daily by the regulation.” This is not the language of rural, agricultural time guided by the sun and seasons, but of Industrial Revolution time guided by the factory clock and bell. The animus towards summer terms in the United States emerged not from an agrarian calendar, which needed schools with flexible, adaptable approaches to study, but from an industrial view of time with strict, regular schedules and outputs measured in money and efficiency.
It is little wonder, then, that Mann displayed great admiration for New York, a state and city nearly synonymous with nineteenth century American industry, energy, growth and capital. The focus of influence in structuring “American” education was moving from Massachusetts to New York, which is why we will be heading there, as well, in the next post. In the meantime, I will leave you with Mann’s words of praise for public instruction in New York from his 1844 Annual Report on Education:
This is a noble spirit. It is a spirit which predestines the glory of the State and the welfare of its individual citizens. It is a spirit which, at present, pervades the State of New York more generally, and is acting more efficiently, than in any other State in the Union. I think our own people are not generally aware what and how much have been done for the cause of Common Schools, by the Legislature and people of New York, within the last few years. That State has the most munificent fund devoted to the cause of popular education that exists in the world. It has a far more comprehensive and efficient code of laws for regulating public instruction than any other of the twenty-six states; and its system, with but few exceptions, is most wisely arranged, and is now worked with a vigor and spirit unequalled in any other part of our republic.
other posts in this series:
- Endless Summer: Why do American schools have such a long vacation (an introduction)
- Endless Summer (1) Massachusetts: From Puritan colony to Horace Mann and the Common School Movement
This post relied heavily on Women’s Work?: American schoolteachers 1650-1920 by Joel Perlmann & Robert A Margo, and School’s In: the history of summer education in American public schools by Kenneth M Gold.
Colin Heywood’s A History of Childhood: children and childhood in the West from Medieval to modern times is an entertaining romp through the history of childhood (I’m betting you guessed that) in Europe from the Middle Ages through the twentieth century. It has only a brief section on formal education, but is well worth picking up nonetheless.
Horace Mann’s Annual Reports of the Secretary of the Board of Education of Massachusetts for the years 1839-1844 can be gotten for free from Google Books, or found (along with more of his writing) here.
(I’ve linked these and other sources in the text.)
featured image: “A New England Dame school in old colonial times“. 1713. Bettman Archive.
Reaping grain in the 18th century, Benjamin Butterworth (ed.), The Growth of Industrial Art, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1892, 15.
map of New England & New Netherland, Nicolaes Visscher: Novi Belgii Novæque Angliæ: nec non partis Virginiæ tabula multis in locis emendata, Amsterdam 1685.
Seventeenth century books written in Latin
Colonial school dame
District School, Old Sturbridge Village (1810)
nineteenth century schoolroom for boys
New England Winter from “History of the Pilgrims and Puritans, their ancestry and descendants; basis of Americanization” (1922)
A Country School, Edward Lamson Henry, 1890
North interior view of the New York post office, located by authority of the Hon. Charles A. Wickliffe Post Master General and arranged by John Lorimer Graham Esq. Postmaster, Feb. 1st 1845
New-York, in 1849 / drawn by E. Purcell ; engraved by S. Weekes.