Samantha Lee / George Washington University / 2014 E-Tern
When summer comes to an end, most of us have only one thing on our minds: school. We hasten to buy textbooks, pencils, pens, and notebooks at the last minute to prepare for another year of education. However, school in colonial Virginia was very different from
school today. In fact, during 18th century in Virginia, primary education as we know it hardly existed. Unless part of upper class society, most children did not receive any formal education at all. They did chores around the house and helped their parents on the farm perhaps being taught to read and write only during down times. Only the children of gentry families were privileged enough to receive a more formal education. The higher the social class, the more extensive one’s education became. So as you dread going back to school, remember that you could be doing labor-intensive farm work or emptying chamber pots with only a little learning on the side.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, I visited various plantations on field trips with my class. In fourth grade, I remember we went to Sully Plantation. We were divided into two groups; one to do schoolwork and the other to complete housework. In my group, we learned how to write with a quill and ink, how to seal an envelope with wax, how to use a hornbook, and how to use paper in the most efficient way. We were taught that paper was precious, and every inch was to be used when writing letters. Since paper was not to be wasted, children practiced their writing with a slate and pencil, much like a small chalkboard. This way, they wrote and erased as much as they needed without wasting precious paper.
Children who lived on plantations were educated by their parents or by private tutors. Children learned their alphabet using a horn book: a wooden paddle that contained a sheet of paper, or sometimes vellum (a type of parchment made of calf’s skin), and covered with thin sheets of horn (see image above). The paper included the alphabet, a list of consonants and vowels, and the Lord’s Prayer. Horn Books were often hung from children’s belts. As one can see in the Glassford & Henderson ledgers, in addition to horn books, people also ordered bibles and history books, most likely for educational purposes. In those days, there were not books written specially for children and most learned how to read from the Bible or history books. One book written specifically for the education of children was The New-England Primer, written around 1688 by Benjamin Harris. This was the most successful textbook in America during the 18thcentury, and similar to the horn book, the primer included the alphabet and a list of consonants and vowels. It also contained a variety of woodcuts, short sentences and moral lessons.
Another big difference from today, formal education was different for girls and boys. Girls, in addition to being taught reading and writing, would learn simple arithmetic and possibly a language. Young girls would learn how to sew, to dance, to play musical instruments, and how to run a household for when they got older. It was important that women could read and write letters, as it was the only way to communicate with family or friends who lived far away. On the other hand, boys received a much more extensive formal education. At an early age, they would learn the same things as the girls—reading, writing, and arithmetic—but would often go on to learn Greek and Latin, law, fencing, astronomy, and history. Boys from gentry families would attend schools in either England or America to further their education.
Not many children were lucky enough to receive a formal education. In colonial Virginia, education was a privilege. Most colonial Virginians did not possess the resources that we have today. Children learned what they could with the little that was provided to them. Learning to read from the Bible as a six-year-old probably wasn’t such a fun time, but that’s how children in colonial Virginia learned to read. The transactions in the ledgers tell us that many of the individuals ordering goods from the Colchester store had young children living in their households—the slates & pencils, hornbooks, and primers would most likely be used by children (or other people learning to read and write). This small bit of information hints at the social status of these buyers in Northern Virginia: they were wealthy enough to afford to provide additional education for their children.
“Colonial Life.” Colonial Life. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <http://www.historyisfun.org/colonial-life.htm>.
Ford, Paul Leicester. The New-England Primer; a History of Its Origin and Development; with a Reprint of the Unique Copy of the Earliest Known Edition and Many Facsimile Illustrations and Reproductions. New York: Printed for Dodd, Mead, 1897. 3-4. Print.
Hornbook. London?, 1630. Digital image. Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection. Web. 16 Oct. 2014. <http://luna.folger.edu/ >.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Hornbook (education).”Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/271982/hornbook>.
Rowe, Linda. “Women and Education in Eighteenth-Century Virginia.”Colonial Williamsburg Interpreter 23.2 (2002): n. pag. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <http://research.history.org/Historical_Research/Research_Themes/ThemeFamily/WomenEducation.cfm>.
Smith, Samuel James. “The New-England Primer (textbook).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/411454/The-New-England-Primer>.
 Ford, Paul Leicester. The New-England Primer; a History of Its Origin and Development; with a Reprint of the Unique Copy of the Earliest Known Edition and Many Facsimile Illustrations and Reproductions. New York: Printed for Dodd, Mead, 1897. 3-4. Print.