Back to School

What was school like for children in America during the 1800s? Three objects from the Museum’s collection, a bell, an inkwell, and an 1857 edition of McGuffey’s New Second Eclectic Reader, shed some light on those days.

During the 1800’s in rural America, school bells were rung to summon students walking long distances to school. The loudness of the bell gave students an idea of how close they were to their destination.

Students practicing their penmanship in the first half of the 19th century would have used a quill pen and inkwell. Around 1850, steel nib pens were introduced, ending the need to sharpen one’s quill with a “pen knife.”

McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers were among the most popular 19th-century American schoolbooks, with over 100 million copies sold. Former teacher William Holmes McGuffey wrote his first reader in 1836 during the time when thousands of immigrants were arriving in the country. By including lessons on patriotism, texts attempted to assimilate these diverse groups into American culture.

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