Many seniors of today attended a one-room school, and many of our mothers and grandmothers were teachers for at least a short time.

In the 1800s, anyone who knew a little about math, history, reading, and writing could teach school. Many teachers with only an eighth-grade education were instructing students a few years younger than themselves.

At first, most teachers were male; however, the call to Civil War (1861-1865) military service created the opportunity for more women to become teachers. By 1880, teaching was the second-most popular employment for women.

Some teachers earned certificates at their high school by taking “normal” classes (teacher preparation) or correspondence courses. Life for the country schoolteacher was prescribed by the board of education. A young girl typically lived with a local family who lived close to the school.

In 1915, female teachers were expected to obey rules like these (from the Curlew, Palo Alto County, Iowa, Centennial Book 1884-1984):

1. You will not marry during the term of your contract.
2. You are not to keep company with men.
3. You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
4. You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores.
5. You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission from the chairman of the board.
6. You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man, unless he is your father or brother.
7. You may not smoke cigarettes.
8. You may not dress in bright colors.
9. You may, under no circumstances, dye your hair.
10. You must wear at least two petticoats.
11. Your dresses must not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.
12. To keep the schoolroom neat and clean, you must: sweep the floor once daily; scrub the floor at least once a week with hot, soapy water; clean the blackboards at least once a day; and start the fire at 7 a.m. so the room will be warm by 8 a.m.

The teacher prepared lesson plans for multiple ages, often using the older students to teach or help younger ones. In addition to the three “R’s”, the students had art and music lessons.

The teacher was responsible for maintaining the fire and getting water, often from a neighboring farm, for drinking and cleaning. Student lunches were heated on the wood stove. Class discipline was reinforced by the parents, who lived close by and quickly learned of problems at school.

In 1818 Pennsylvania adopted an act establishing schools in Philadelphia for educating the poor. A similar law was adopted in 1821 for the schools in Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, and Allegheny counties.

The act of 1831 provided for the establishment of a general system of education through the creation of a school fund (unsuccessful). In 1833, Samuel Breck, “The Father of the Public-School Law” of Pennsylvania, wrote the legislation that guaranteed everyone at least the rudiments of an education.

In 1857, Gov. James Pollock signed a law creating Normal Schools, which would eventually become state teachers’ colleges and, today, institutions in the State System of Higher Education. A compulsory school-attendance law was passed in 1895 that required children between the ages of 8 and 13 years to attend school for 16 consecutive weeks.

During and after the Great Depression, many teachers had their salaries cut or worked for room and board. Some rural teachers lived in their one-room schoolhouse and would cook on the school’s wood stoves.

By 1930, legislation approved state funds for the transportation/busing of pupils, which ultimately led to the decline of the country schools.

The delivery of education has been uneven in public-school policies, practices, and funding, but it remains a long-held value seen as essential to a democratic citizenry. 


Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.

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