19th Century Education

Nineteenth Century American Education is often referred to as "The Common School Period."  It was during this century that education went from being completely private to being available to the common masses.

The Common School movement

...not until the 1840s did an organized system exist. Education reformers like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard, working in Massachusetts and Connecticut respectively, helped create statewide common-school systems. These reformers sought to increase opportunities for all children and create common bonds among an increasingly diverse population. They also argued education could preserve social stability and prevent crime and poverty.

Common-school advocates worked to establish a free elementary education accessible to everyone and financed by public funds. As such, they advocated

Photo Gallery - The common school


public schools should be accountable to local school boards and state governments. They also helped establish compulsory school attendance laws for elementary-age children. By 1918, such laws existed in all states.



Education for the average person


Following American Revolution - became universal education for everyone


Northwest Ordinance - established Townships for Education (1785-1787) 

The ordinance "encouraged" education in this way: It divided the Michigan territory into townships of six square miles each. The townships were then subdivided into 36 sections with a minimum size of 640 acres. Each section was then sold at a public auction with the starting bid of $1 per acre. The funds raised by the sale of section 16 in each township were then set aside for the purpose of funding schools.


Arguments for the Common School:


Used to "Americanize" all foreigners


More educated the people are, the more productive they can be


McGuffey Readers - expanded what was learned




Dilute culture / religion

McGuffey Reader

In 1833, Rev. William Holmes McGuffey  was approached by Truman and Smith Publishing and asked to write a school text book for their company to sell.  McGuffey had already planned a series of readers and had published his first reader in 1841 to introduce children to McGuffey's ethical code. The child modeled in this book is prompt, good, kind, honest and truthful. This first book contained fifty-five lessons.

The readers were very moralistic in tone. They presented the White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant as the model American.

These "eclectic readers" - meaning that the selections were chosen from a number of sources - were considered remarkably literary works and probably exerted a greater influence upon literary tastes in the United States more than any other book, excluding the Bible.


Prepared by Shannon Payne



Public High Schools


Public High Schools were developed in the early 1800's as a public education alternative to the private academies of the 18th Century.  The schools focused on a practical curriculum with college preparatory classes.


Kalamazoo Case (1874) - established taxes for support of public high schools


Comprehensive High Schools

As democratic equality and social efficiency opened access to education for larger groups of people, upper middle-class parents sought to maintain prestige in the credentials their children were attaining .... the compromise was the comprehensive high school with its vocational and academic tracks.                                                              http://www.educ.msu.edu/neweducator/spring99/analysis.htm


bulletMore diverse curriculum

The Morrill Acts

bulletFIRST MORRILL ACT. July 2, 1862 - an act Donating Public Lands to States and Territories to  provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts.
bulletSECOND MORRILL ACT. August 30, 1890 - an act to apply a portion of the proceeds of the public lands to the more complete endowment and support of the colleges.


After the Civil War
bulletFreedman's Bureau promoted voting and education
bulletMore women became teachers, but the salary was kept very low
bullet"Jim Crow" laws legally segregated schools - Southern schools were already segregated.
bulletTuskegee Normal School (later became Tuskegee Institute) - build by students
bulletPlessy v. Fersuson (1896) - "separate but equal" law



Visit some 19th Century Schoolhouses

Early Nineteenth Century:

One-Room Schoolhouse

Ichabod Crane Schoolhouse

Copenhagen Schoolhouse

Late Nineteenth Century:

Mission Ridge Schoolhouse (built 1870)

Marlborough, New Hampshire School Building (built @ 1880)

Our Mother of Sorrows School ( built 1888)

Columbus Elementary School (built 1892)

Sheldon Institute, Alaska (1887) - Native American Mission School


Typical Day in a one-room schoolhouse in the late 19th Century




Meet the People behind 19th Century Education

William McGuffey

Emma Willard (NY, 1821)

Catherine Beecher (CT, 1828)

Mary Lyon (MA, 1837)

Prudence Crandall

Mary McLeod Bethune


Back to Introduction

To 20th Century Education


If there is inaccurate information on this page,
please send correction or comments to: lrcdesk@chesapeake.edu