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Technology in American Education, 1650-1900

Part I

COLONIAL PERIOD

(1600's-1700's)

THIS PERIOD is labeled as the pre-industrial era in technology. Production was centered around highly specialized artisans and skilled workers. Work was done by hand and even the most efficient form of production involved some sort of crude home-manufacturing arrangement. Late in the 1770's (about the same time the American colonial period was drawing to a close) there began to be rumblings of the Industrial Revolution; specific machines were invented to replace the artisan, and the factory system began to take form.

Educational technology was also in a pre-industrial state during this period. Instructional apparatus such as quill, ink, and the hornbook were only handwork products that could be produced by a semiskilled worker in a very short time. Textbooks, more dependent upon advanced technology than other school implements, were in a crude state. Circulation was fairly limited, textural and illustrative material was poor, and prices were high. A quick survey of these and other educational tools will offer convincing proof that technology had made very few inroads in the field of education during the American colonial period.

School Architecture

School architecture is only an outward expression of the internal development in education. In the days of our forefathers, the educational program was simple, consisting primarily of the three R's. Thus a one-room building was sufficient to house students and the educational equipment needed.

The school building was crudely built of logs placed directly on the ground or on blocks about 22 feet high; the space underneath serving as a rendezvous for hogs and chickens. If built on the ground, there

was usually no floor, the bare earth being problematical to the schoolmaster as "the youngsters would purposely stir up their dust in clouds to annoy the teacher and amuse their fellows. The other type of building had a rough puncheon flooring of split and/or hewn logs with roofs made of bark. There were one or two windows, made of paper greased with lard to make the paper both transparent and waterproof.

Occasionally the schoolmaster enjoyed the luxury of a frame building built with saw-milled lumber. This occurred when a community outgrew their church or meetinghouse. The school then inherited a building which was decidedly superior to the rustic log houses. Such was the case in a Connecticut town in 1664 where a meetinghouse had been used for a decade or more, and then given to the schoolmaster who used it for an additional thirty years.

It is important to remember that the colonial log schoolhouse was a frontier development; as the frontier moved across the mountains, the log school went with it. The frontier disappeared slowly and unevenly from the American scene and the log schoolhouse took a long time to disappear. This means that advancing technology was to have only a spasmodic impact on school architecture. The log structures in the Mississippi Valley frontier were just as advanced in their own technological setting as their contemporary brick school buildings being built in Boston.

School Furniture

The school furniture tended to be even more crude than the buildings. Sticks were inserted between the logs that comprised the side of the building; boards were nailed on top of the sticks and in this way, the early desks were made. Benches were made of backless split logs that ran the entire length of the desks. A school furniture catalogue of 1870 gives an interesting account of how the problem of seating both large and small children was solved:

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The primeval School Furniture of which we have accounts, consisted of a bench with legs long at one end and short at the other. The large scholars sat upon the higher end, and the smaller pupils were graded down to the lower end, according to their respective sizes.

A rather primitive concept of graded school furniture.

1 Clifton Johnson, Old-Time Schools and School Books, New York, The MacMillan Co., 1925, p. 36.

2 As late as 1890 in West Virginia, out of a total of 4,814 school buildings in the state, 1,007 were log structures.

Johnson, op. cit., p. 36.

Boston School Furniture Co., Illustrated Catalogue, Boston, Solon Thornton, Printer,

1870.

Instructional Apparatus: Quills, Ink, Paper

The colonial schools had no blackboards, slates, or maps, although some flourishing schools could boast of owning a globe. Almost all of the school supplies for pupils were homemade. The pens were goose-quills. In fact, a teacher was sometimes hired more for his ability to cut and mend quills than for his ability to teach. If the schoolmaster was an expert penmaker, a great deal of his time would be consumed in that activity if he had a large school.

Each family supplied their children with homemade ink, usually by dissolving ink powder in water. Many of the country folk gathered the bark of swamp-maple and boiled it down for ink. These homemade inks were often weak and pallid and sometimes dried up.

The paper ordinarily bought for school purposes was rough and dark. Its high cost led the scholars to use it sparingly and in the new and poorer communities children frequently had to write on birch bark. The paper came in foolscap size (approximately 13" x 17") and was unruled. The pupils would fold the paper and make separate pages out of it, cover the pages with a coarse brown wrapping paper or wallpaper, and then carefully sew it into a "copy-book" or "sum-book." 5

Once the copy book was made, the children had to rule the paper in preparation for writing. This was done with little strips of sheet lead or "leaden plummets" as they were called. Regardless of the primitive equipment, however, the handwriting of the colonial children seemed to suffer no visible damage.

The Hornbook

This teaching apparatus was peculiar to the colonial period, disappearing about the same time as the start of the Revolutionary War. The hornbook was the first book used to teach children to read, and was their first introduction to formal education.

The hornbook-not really a book at all-was an ingenious solution to the problem of letting small children have free use of something relatively valuable. At that time, literary material for school children was a luxury. The precious one-page manuscript with the alphabet on it was fastened to a piece of board and covered with a thin, transparent sheet of horn. A light strip of metal, usually brass, was tacked around the edge of the horn to hold it in place. The horn prevented

Johnson, op. cit., pp. 39-40.

645520 0-63- -2

1. Illustration from Webster: Blue-Back (portrait of Noah Webster) showing poor quality of early illustrative material from Clifton Johnson's Old Time Schools and School Books. New York (1935) p. 173.

Horn-Book from Luer, History of the Horn-Book, London (1896) Vol. II, p. 6 (Illustration).

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