Literacy instruction and the town school in seventeenth-century New England

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Literacy instruction and the town school in seventeenth-century New England
Jennifer Monaghan
In much of New England in seventeenth-century America, a remarkable educational

experiment was underway: the provision of town schooling mandated by colony laws. In this essay, I look at these early New England schools as they flourished between 1640 and 1690, most of them the direct result of this legislation. (A few dedicated towns opened schools even before laws on schooling were passed). I examine eleven characteristics of the town school, characteristics that, with the few exceptions detailed below, held true whether the school concerned was nominally a writing/reading school or a (Latin) grammar school. (At this period, the term ‘grammar’ school always denoted a school at which Latin was taught in preparing boys for college.)

In every instance of legislation requiring towns to have a school, a law had been passed earlier that required all parents and masters of apprentices to teach their children and the children entrusted to them to read. Schools were not mentioned in this context: it was clearly assumed that reading instruction did not need an expert. In 1647, however, the colony of Massachusetts Bay was the first to pass a law requiring townships of over fifty families to support a schoolmaster who was to teach ‘all such children as shall resort to him to write and reade’ (Shurtleff, II, p. 203). (Writing instruction, in other words, required a professional, whereas reading instruction did not.) Towns of more than 100 families were also to provide a Latin grammar school. Schooling in the larger towns would therefore consist of a lower and upper tier.

In 1650, Connecticut passed a schooling law that was almost identical in its wording to that of Massachusetts. New Haven – which was a separate colony until it was absorbed into Connecticut in 1665 – followed suit in 1657, passing an addendum three years later that required all the sons of the inhabitants to be taught to write. New Hampshire passed its own law in 1710, some thirty years after it was set off as a new colony from Massachusetts. How towns were to pay for these schools was left up to the towns themselves, which could support the master from a school rate, require fees from the parents of the students, or use any other way they saw fit.

In contrast, the colony of New Plymouth passed no such law, although it did pass a law mandating that parents and master teach the children in their care to read. Similarly, the colony of Rhode Island passed no schooling law relating to reading and writing instruction during the entire colonial period. Because of its ecumenical character, Rhode Island was apparently reluctant to mandate schooling that took it for granted that children would learn to read by mastering a succession of Christian texts. When, therefore, I refer to ‘New England’ below, it should be understood as my abbreviation for all the seventeenth-century colonies of New England except for Plymouth (absorbed into Massachusetts in 1692) and Rhode Island.

Eleven Characteristics of the Town School

By no means all the townships complied with the schooling laws promulgated by their respective colonies. Nonetheless, for those that did, eleven features emerge from scanning the records kept by towns between 1640 and 1690.

The first characteristic is that town funding brought with it town control (Murphy, p. 123). The towns were responsible for the schoolmaster’s salary, in whole or part: if it were unpaid, it became a town debt that had to be honored. And they were responsible for maintaining the town schoolhouse. Town obligations brought with them town authority: townships decided what the curriculum should be, often stipulating it in a signed agreement with the schoolmaster. They were therefore, as Geraldine Murphy has pointed out, able to shape the kind of education they wanted even if it did not fully meet the intent of the law (Murphy, pp. 131–138).

Second, and as a direct result of the first, the neat lines drawn by the legislatures between the two kinds of schooling, the lower-tier ‘English’ school for fifty-family towns versus the upper-tier ‘Latin’ grammar school for those of 100, blurred in practice almost from the start. Few towns could afford the luxury of supporting two schools. Towns of 100 families without a grammar school, if presented to the courts for non-compliance, as Newbury was in 1658, often simply looked for a man capable of teaching Latin rather than attempting to provide a genuine grammar school. In the reverse direction, towns employing a grammar school master often asked him to extend his offerings downward and teach writing (not considered a proper task for such a master in England). So during the 1650s, in all but a few elite centers such as Boston, the concept of a grammar school for the 100-family towns transmuted into that of a ‘general’ school, as Murphy calls it (Murphy, p. 131), which offered a range of subjects from writing and advanced reading instruction to Latin. That is, in the larger towns, the two tiers of schooling envisaged by the laws melted into one.

Third, whether the school was an ‘English’ or a ‘Latin’ school, the primary instructor supported by the town was always a man. This would continue to be the case even when women began to receive financial support as teachers in a few towns in the 1670s. Men were the bearers of the flame of civilization and learning, and men alone were thought worthy of the task of teaching at any level beyond the elementary.

Of the caliber of the men themselves it is much less easy to generalize. They ranged from men who devoted their entire professional lives to the town school to those who ‘pinchhit’, as Jackson Turner Main termed it in his study of early Connecticut. Main unearthed the probates of those who died in colonial Connecticut with the appellation ‘schoolmaster’. He reckoned that only a fourth of schoolmasters who died in the seventeenth century died ‘young, poor, and ephemeral’ like those whose probates he found (Main, p. 256). On the other hand, some men devoted most of their adult lives to the town school. Eleazar Kimberly is one example. He taught at Wethersfield, Connecticut, for at least twenty-five years from 1661 on, for a salary that rose from £24 to £42 (Stiles, pp. 358-360). Richard Norcross is another. He took care of the town school for Watertown, Massachusetts, from 1650 to 1700, with only a few – and contested, as we shall see – breaks of service (Watertown, 1894, p. 26 and passim). Similarly, Edward Norris began teaching literacy at Salem’s town school in January 1640 and taught there until 1674. He then seems to have fallen on hard times, for he was reported ‘very Ill’ four years later, and for a couple of years received subsidies from the town in the form of a hog and a side of beef (Salem, I, 97; II 196, 309, 323; III, 25).

The ‘pinchhitters’, on the other hand, were summoned to serve when a town needed a schoolmaster urgently and could not afford to be too fussy about his credentials. They were men like William Johnson of Guildford, Connecticut, who had often served as town clerk, and who agreed, at the age of sixty in 1681, to keep school ‘for as much as he can attend it’ (Main, pp. 256–257). Or like Michael Metcalf, who was seventy when he undertook, in 1656, to teach reading at Dedham, Massachusetts (Slafter, pp. 15–17). Or like the former ferryman George Pardee of New Haven, who, when asked to help out in 1663, said candidly of himself that ‘he had lost much of what learning he formerly had attained’ (Dexter, II, p. 49).

If the qualifications of schoolmasters varied, along with their length of service, the curriculum they taught in their one-room schoolhouses did not. A key part of their responsibilities – and the fourth feature they shared in common – was that they had to provide writing instruction. Virtually every township that detailed the schoolmaster’s obligations included the teaching of writing. It is rare indeed to find in the records instructions for a schoolmaster like those given in Dedham to the elderly and infirm Joseph Ellice in 1664, ‘he being willing and we being hopefull he may doe some good in teaching children to read English for present and vntill one more able may be attained’ (Hill II, p. 83) And even then it is obvious that Ellice was hired as an adjunct to Dedham’s main town school, its general school.

The fifth feature these town schools had in common was that they valued instruction in writing more highly than that in reading. Indeed, parental payments for writing instruction could be as expensive as those for instruction in Latin. The differences emerge when fathers paid for the instruction separately. Three years after the passage of the 1647 Massachusetts schooling law, Watertown, which had more than 100 families, hired Richard Norcross. Two years after that, in 1652, the town signed an agreement with Norcross that permitted families to send their sons or male apprentices to school for as short or long a time as they wished. Norcross was therefore obliged to keep a ‘strict accounte’ of attendance and the subject taught. Parents were to pay him three pence a week for teaching reading, four pence for writing or Latin (Watertown, 1894, p. 26). Similar fees for the different skills appear elsewhere.

A sixth element that cuts across all early New England ‘English’ town schools is that their schoolmasters were to teach reading at some level. A crucial question is precisely what that level was. Some scholars have assumed that masters were expected to provide introductory reading instruction at school. My contention, shared by Joel Perlmann and his colleagues, is that this assumption is incorrect, at least in theory, because it was assumed that boys would have mastered this at home or in a dame (or ‘reading’) school (Perlmann, Siddali, and Whitescarver, p. 126).

Nonetheless, a child’s qualifications for admission to the master’s school could be fairly rudimentary. Newbury, Massachusetts, for instance, when it opened its lower-tier school, required the master of its new schoolhouse in 1652 ‘to teach all such inhabitants children, as shall be sent to him so soon as they know their letters and begin to read’ (Murphy, p. 98). This only presupposed that the children had done a little work in a hornbook or primer. Similarly, in the same year, Salisbury, Massachusetts – which, like Newbury, was complying with the 1647 fifty-family schooling law – contracted with its schoolmaster to ‘teach all their children (those only excepted that have nott ye knowledge of ye letters) in writing & reading & otherwise so farr as his abilities will reach unto’ (Murphy, p. 142). Some schoolmasters, in other words, would teach everything except the alphabet.

One angle on the level of the lower-tier school’s reading instruction is to take a look at the age of the children going there. The younger the children, the greater the probability that the master would expect to teach them, if not the alphabet, at least how to spell out introductory syllables. Dedham provides a few clues. The town had early opened what was intended to be a grammar school, but by the time of the schooling law of 1647 it had already become a general school. (If grammar or general schools accepted young children, it is safe to say that lower-tier schools did too.) In 1650, the fathers and masters of male children at Dedham between the ages of four and fourteen were paying the school rate for the town school (Hill, I, pp. 203, 213). In the town of Wethersfield, in 1661, the parents of all the males between five and ten years were ordered to contribute to the salary of their schoolmaster, Eleazar Kimberley, even if they chose not to send their sons to school (Stiles, p. 358). No four- or five-year old had the dexterity to cope with the quill pen. Because children had to be about seven years old before they were considered mature enough for penmanship instruction, we can infer that these schoolmasters were providing reading instruction at a low level to their youngest pupils. In practice, no matter what stage children were supposed to have reached in their reading attainment, it is fair to say that in those early decades schoolmasters must have spent much time on imparting elementary reading skills as well as advanced ones.

Another question to be asked about reading instruction in the town schools concerns the texts used for such instruction. Here the evidence from the town records is slender but consistent. It points to the reading sequence identified by the English philosopher John Locke in 1693 as the ‘ordinary Road’ to be followed: the hornbook, primer, psalter, New Testament, and finally the entire Bible, the apex toward which all reading instruction headed (Monaghan, pp. 54–58).

Unlike their counterparts in the mother country, sources on printing in the American colonies in the seventeenth century offer little assistance in identifying the texts used in town schools. There is nothing in the record of New England printing before about 1690 to match the wealth of information on English books upon which Ian Michael drew so brilliantly in his The Teaching of English, in which for the period from 1641 to 1690 alone, he was able to document fifty-five different spelling and elementary reading texts (Michael, p.10). We do know that primers were widely imported into New England, including one documented in 1645 (Hoadly, pp.174–176). However, the earliest surviving domestically-printed primer in English is the New-England Primer of 1727, a Boston imprint. (A second edition of the work was advertised in an almanac as early as 1690) (Ford, p.16).1 The biblical texts of the reading sequence (psalters, testaments, Bibles) were imported throughout the seventeenth century, and would continue to be so even after American printers began to publish primers, psalters, testaments and spelling books themselves from 1690 on (Amory and Hall, pp. 52, 85, 228, 265, 383–386).

If texts are hard to pin down, teaching hours are less so. A seventh characteristic of the seventeenth-century town school was its teaching hours, which were probably much the same across New England. ‘Keeping school’ for a town was a full-time job, with only the Sabbath off and perhaps a week’s vacation. When Lieutenant John Sherman undertook a brief stint in Watertown in 1677 as the master of its English school, he was told his working hours. He was to keep school all year long, working from seven in the morning to five in the evening for the summer months from May to August. During September and October, as the light deteriorated, and again in March and April, he was to teach six hours a day, while during the dark winter months he would only teach for four hours, from ten o’clock to two (Watertown, 1894, p. 129).

The eighth feature of the town schools was a political one. Because schoolmasters were chosen directly by the town, they were affected by partisan politics. Generally speaking, the choice of master had to be renewed annually, and freedmen in each New England township voted for the schoolmaster, along with ratifying other selectmen decisions, at their town meeting. (The selectmen served as an elected committee that functioned throughout the year.) Usually the result of a town’s vote for a schoolmaster was a foregone conclusion, but occasionally local political animosities spilled over into the arena of education.

One such incident occurred in Watertown, and it involved the same Lieutenant Sherman who had been given such detailed instructions about his teaching hours when he began to teach in April 1677. Sherman was not a Latinist, unlike Richard Norcross, whom the town had hired in 1650, and whom he apparently ousted from the town school. Keeping only an ‘English’ school, however, was a violation of the 1647 schooling law, and in January 1679, in an effort to comply with the law, the town signed an agreement with Norcross. This new contract promised that Norcross would be back in his old schoolhouse in April. When April came, however, and selectmen were dispatched to get the schoolhouse key from Sherman, ‘he Refused to deliuer it’ and continued to teach. In November, Sherman was elected a selectman, and the town, breaking with precedent, did not vote on a schoolmaster at all. At the end of December, the selectmen sent out a public notice to the town’s voters for a special meeting. There is a world of implication in the town clerk’s record of its purpose: ‘that so the Towne may com to som Loveing agreement and conclution aboute a school master’. The town voted that Sherman should continue to keep the school (Watertown, 1894, pp. 129, 137, 138, 142, 144).

Not until August 1681, and only after the town had been summoned by the county court for its lack of a grammar school and had conducted an unsuccessful search for an out-of-towner, was there yet another general town meeting and change of heart. Norcross was voted in as schoolmaster to teach Latin, English and writing, ‘as he was wont to do formerly’, and to begin ‘when the Captens time is oute’. To avoid the fine imposed on the town by the Massachusetts court, Norcross was to teach Latin scholars at his own house for the time being (Watertown, 1900, pp. 7, 8, 1, 9). In November, a new slate of selectmen without Sherman was voted into office, and one of their number was subsequently delegated to ‘demand’ the key from Sherman and hand it over to Norcross. In April, 1682, Norcross finally got back into the schoolhouse that, except for this contentious interlude, had been his since 1650 (Watertown, 1900, pp. 10, 12).

He was a striking example of a schoolmaster’s vulnerability to shifts in a town’s political sentiments.

The ninth characteristic of the town school was the physical setting of instruction, the schoolhouse. The provision of an actual building was a measure of a town’s enthusiasm for schooling, and if a town had one built, it always took the responsibility for maintaining it. Schoolhouses seem to have been about the same size as a standard house. Like houses, schoolhouses could be, as was Dedham’s 1648 schoolhouse, designed as a story-and-half affair, with stairs, two windows in the lower room and one in the upper (the ‘chamber’). The floor was of planks, the sides clapboarded, and the roof shingled. (Dedham’s school had one unusual feature: a portion of the town common was reserved for use as a ‘playground’) (Hill, I, pp. 156–157, 182). Inside the school there were no desks – just benches and tables for the scholars, with perhaps a chest for books and bellows for the wood fire.

Tenth, no matter where the school was located or what its proportions were, there was all too often an unfortunate similarity about the conditions in which literacy instruction took place. They were far from ideal. The town records over the decades ring with schoolmaster complaints about the cold or heat and the need to repair the building. Heating the schoolhouse adequately in the winter was always a challenge. Parents were responsible for bringing in ‘firing’ (firewood), and in November, 1671, Watertown threatened to deny its scholars the benefit of a free school unless their families provided Norcross’s schoolroom with a quarter of a cord of wood per scholar before the end of the month. Yet in summer the Dedham schoolhouse was so scorching that the school was permitted to move temporarily to the meeting house, ‘provided the house be left clene against any publiq use of the house, and also that the windows be made good if any be broken.’

It was the same Dedham schoolhouse, in 1670, that was badly in need of ‘daubeing’: the clay on the walls had fallen down and there was a defect in the shingle. It was still this same schoolhouse, much patched up over the intervening years, that was pronounced by Thomas Battle in 1680 to be ‘very defitient and vncomfortable for himselfe and scholeres’ and, regrettably, still ‘cold and vncomfortable’ the following year. Despite his complaints, four months later he still needed ‘Seates for the children and A table’.2 Meanwhile, most men labored on to instruct their ‘scholars’, day in, day out, in poorly heated or overheated rooms, with a few small windows for illumination on a dark day. It must have been hard for both masters and pupils to hold quill pens steady under such circumstances.

The eleventh and last feature of all town schools was, of course, their clientele. One of the most crucial questions in New England education in the seventeenth century relates to the gender of the ‘scholars’. Did the town schools admit girls? If so, to which kind of school?

One point is immediately clear: those schools formally designated grammar schools did not accept girls. Given that the main motivation for the schooling laws of 1647 and later was to preserve the spiritual and intellectual standards of the colony, and that the Latin grammar schools required of 100-family towns were specifically designed to ‘instruct youth so farr as they maybe fited for the university’, there was no reason to include girls in such schools, for they could play no role in the ministry, nor attend a college, nor participate in the government (Shurtleff, II, p. 203). If a town opened a new grammar school later in the century, it sometimes made this clear. For instance, when New Haven was detailing its regulations for the Hopkins Grammar school in 1684, it explicitly excluded girls ‘as Improper and inconsistent with such a Grammer Schoole’ (American Journal of Education, IV, p. 710).

When a school was a ‘general’ school that offered Latin in addition to literacy instruction to those who wanted it, most of the evidence also suggests that girls were excluded. Dedham is again an example. One of the items on the agenda for the town’s consideration in 1652, as the selectmen planned for the maintenance of the school over the next seven years, was the query ‘whether the Town require that girls should be taught in this Schoole or not’ (Hill, I, p. 202). The town answered decisively in the negative. Rates were only levied on those who had male children between four and fourteen, and up to the end of the century the Dedham records regularly specified ‘male children’ as the scholars to be admitted to the town school or as the source of parental payments. Wethersfield’s case in Connecticut was similar. As we saw earlier, in 1661 fathers and masters of male children aged between five and ten were ordered to contribute to the salary of their schoolmaster, Eleazar Kimberly, ‘whether they goe to scholle or nott’ (Stiles, p. 358).

On the other hand, girls did have a foot in the door in Richard Norcross’s school at Watertown, despite the fact that he, too, was a Latinist teaching a general school. They could, however, attend it for instruction in just one subject. In Norcross’s initial contract of 1650, it was stipulated that ‘if any of the said towne, haue any maidens, that haue a desire to learne to write that the said Richard, should attend them for the Learning [teaching] off them’ (Watertown, 1894, p. 21). And even this wording left it unclear as to whether such instruction would take place at the town school or in the girls’ homes.

A more important question, however, because (at least in theory) it affected a much larger number of children, is whether or not girls were regularly admitted to the less ambitious town schools, those lower-tier writing/reading schools mandated in Massachusetts, Connecticut and New Haven colonies for townships of over fifty but fewer than 100 families. The wording of the law, ‘all such children as shall resort to him’, had important implications for both genders. On the surface, then, there was apparently nothing in the law itself to prevent female children from attending a town’s lower-tier writing/reading school.

In practice, however, the default definition of the term ‘children’ was male children. This has already emerged from some of the sources cited earlier, but the usage was pervasive. Boston, for instance, had no town-supported schooling whatever for girls until 1789, yet its records routinely refer to ‘children’. Hampton, Massachusetts, when it opened a lower-tier school in 1649, felt obliged to be explicit when it ordered John Legat ‘to teach and instruct all the children of or belonging to our Towne, both mayle and femail (wch are capiable of learning) to write and read and cast accountes’ (Murphy, p. 143). A generation later some parents were less inclined to accept a definition of children that excluded their daughters. Farmington, Connecticut, voted in 1686 to devote £20 to a town school ‘for the instruction of all such children as shall be sent to it, to learn to read and write the English tongue.’ A year later the town had to issue a clarification: by ‘all such children as shall be sent is to be understood only male children as are through their horning book [hornbook]’ (Murphy, p. 142).

Everyone who has looked at education in the colonial period is beholden to Walter Small, who studied the records of some 200 New England schools (Small, 1902; cf. Small, 1914, ch.11). He found only seven schools that definitely admitted girls (one of them Hampton), and five that might have. Those townships that unquestionably admitted girls, such as Reheboth and Deerfield, both of Massachusetts, did so only in the late 1690s.

While the comparative silence in the town records on the subject of the students’ gender is not conclusive, other factors must be taken into consideration. The early colonists came from a culture that undervalued, even denied, women’s intellectual abilities. In old England, males were the target of town schooling at all levels other than perhaps the parochial; if girls were to receive an education, it had to be through private instruction. The burden of proof is therefore on those who wish to argue that girls were included in the early New England schools, not the other way around, because schools was normally segregated by gender except in dame schools. Moreover, force of custom no doubt kept many ‘maidens’ away from the town school even when the law did not. My conclusion, then, is that up to the 1670s, with a very few exceptions like that of Hampton – and even there Small found no further mention of girls in the records – girls were not admitted to town schools of any kind. I further suggest that the ambition of a town school was negatively related to its inclusion of girls: that is, the more ambitious the school, in the sense of offering Latin and preparing boys for a true grammar school or college, the smaller was the likelihood that girls would be permitted to attend.

Gender aside, seventeenth-century towns seem to have taken seriously the injunction that the master should teach all ‘the [male] children that shall be sent to him’. When Michael Metcalf turned several boys away from his Dedham school in 1656 because they were over the age of fourteen (the top age limit at which fathers of boys had to pay fees), the selectmen arranged for some of their number to visit him and remind him of the ‘covenant wherein it is expressed he should teach all that are sent to him to wright and read’ (Slafter, p. 17).

The boys who attended the town schools of New Haven colony, Massachusetts and Connecticut to perfect their reading and learn how to write, and on occasion learn arithmetic and Latin, are otherwise barely visible in the records. We know that they broke the glass in the schoolhouse windows when we hear of the occasional schoolmaster paying for their replacement (Hill, II, p. 225). We learn that in New Haven, in 1661, one group of students was prone to playing cards in a private house out of school hours. (Goodwife Spinage, the woman accused of sponsoring such activities, claimed that they did so only on the last day of the week in the afternoon, and on playdays – never in the evening; but she felt obliged to say how sorry she now was that she ‘gave way to any such disorders’) (Dexter, I, p. 488).

The small but steady stream of boys admitted to Harvard College throughout the seventeenth century gives us some idea of those who succeeded in a town’s elite grammar school – but these were the best and the brightest of the grammar school crop, who may have had private tutoring as well as, or occasionally even instead of, the town’s offerings.

The experiences of the New England town schools in the following century lie beyond the scope of this essay. Here it need only be said that a mere two of the eleven characteristics of the preceding century changed substantially: the gender of the instructor (the third) and of the clientele (the eleventh characteristic). In many eighteenth-century townships, women were gradually introduced as town-sponsored instructors to supplement the schoolmasters’ instruction. They began by teaching the youngest children to read, and later they were charged with teaching reading at summer schools while their male colleagues continued to teach writing and advanced reading during the winter. In addition, in some schools girls were admitted along with boys to the lower-tier schools, particularly in new townships and towns with only modest educational ambitions for their young (Monaghan, pp. 68–70; Perlmann, Siddali, and Whitescarver, pp. 126–129: Sklar, pp. 516, 525–533, 538). A further change, this time related to location rather than gender, was the evolution of the single town school located in one spot to the ‘moving school’, as towns expanded in area and a schoolmaster split his instructional time among different areas of the town (Updegraff, passim).

Nonetheless, despite all their restrictions, their inadequacies and their restricted clientele, the schools of early New England deserve their fame. There was no parallel to them elsewhere in English-speaking America, let alone Europe. No other region at the same time period was making such a concerted effort to introduce its sons to literacy in writing as well as reading by legislating town support of schools. From any perspective, this was a remarkable educational innovation that is rightly hailed as the prelude to the American public school.

1 The oldest extant colonial primer was printed in the Massachusetts tongue in Cambridge, Mass., in 1669 as part of John Eliot’s mission to convert the Massachusetts Indians to Christianity. J[ohn] E[liot], The Indian Primer; or, the Way of Training up of our Indian Youth in the Good Knowledge of God (Cambridge, MA, 1669).
2 Provision of wood for schoolhouse: Watertown, 1894, p. 110; heat: Slafter, p. 16; repairs needed for Dedham schoolhouse: Hill, I, pp. 162, 194; II, pp. 4, 106, 112, 115.

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Sklar, Kathryn Kish (1993). ‘The Schooling of Girls and Changing Community Values in Massachusetts Towns, 1750-1820.’ History of Education Quarterly, 33: 512–542.
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Stiles, Henry R. (1904). The History of Ancient Wethersfield, Connecticut, Vol. I, History. New York.
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