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11 Ways School Was Different in the 1800s

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This week, most kids in the United States are returning to school after the summer break ... and they’re probably not thrilled about going back. But taking a look at what American schools were like in the 1800s might convince them how much tougher it could be—and just how good they’ve got it.

1. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, one room schoolhouses were the norm in rural areas. A single teacher taught grades one through eight together. The youngest students—called Abecedarians, because they would learn their ABCs—sat in the front, while the oldest sat in the back. The room was heated by a single wood stove.

2. There was no transportation to get to school. Most schoolhouses were built to serve students living within 4 or 5 miles, which was considered close enough for them to walk.

3. At some schools, boys and girls entered through separate doors; they were also kept separate for lessons.

4. The school year was much shorter back then. When the Department of Education first began gathering data on the subject in the 1869-70 school year [PDF], students attended school for about 132 days (the standard year these days is 180) depending on when they were needed to help their families harvest crops. Attendance was just 59 percent. School days typically started at 9am and wrapped up at 2pm or 4pm, depending on the area; there was one hour for recess and lunch, which was called “nooning."

5. Forget Trapper Keepers and gel pens—there were no fancy school supplies in the 19th and early-20th centuries. Students made do with just a slate and some chalk [PDF].

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6. Sometimes, students helped the teacher teach. In the monitorial or Lancasterian system, the older, stronger students learned lessons directly from the teacher, then taught the younger, weaker students.

7. Lessons were quite different than they are today. Teachers taught subjects including reading, writing, arithmetic, history, grammar, rhetoric, and geography (you can see some 19th century textbooks here and here). Students would memorize their lessons, and the teacher would bring them to the front of the room as a class to recite what they’d learned—so the teacher could correct them on things like pronunciation on the spot—while the other students continued to work behind them.

8. Teachers sometimes lived with their students’ families. According to Michael Day at the Country School Association of America, this practice was called “boarding round,” and it often involved the teacher moving from one students’ house to the next as often as every week. One Wisconsin teacher wrote of boarding with families in 1851,

I found it very unpleasant, especially during the winter and spring terms, for one week I would board where I would have a comfortable room; the next week my room would be so open that the snow would blow in, and sometimes I would find it on my bed, and also in it. A part of the places where I boarded I had flannel sheets to sleep in; and the others cotton. But the most unpleasant part was being obliged to walk through the snow and water. I suffered much from colds and a cough.

9. Discipline was very strict. Sure, stepping out of line in the 1800s and early 1900s could result in detention, suspension, or expulsion, but it could also result in a lashing. According to a document [PDF] outlining student and teacher rules created by the Board of Education in Franklin, Ohio, from 1883,

Pupils may be detained at any recess or not exceeding fifteen minutes after the hour for closing the afternoon session, when the teacher deems such detention necessary, for the commitment of lessons or for the enforcement of discipline. … Whenever it shall become necessary for teachers to resort to corporal punishment, the same shall not be inflicted upon head or hands of the pupil.

Not all places had such a rule, though; in other areas, teachers could use a ruler or pointer to lash a student’s knuckles or palms [PDF]. Other punishments included holding a heavy book for more than an hour and writing “I will not…” do a certain activity on the blackboard 100 times.

10. No lunch was provided by the school, even if families had the money for it; kids brought their lunches to school in metal pails. Every student drank water from a bucket filled by the older boys using the same tin cup.

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11. For many, education ended after just eighth grade; in order to graduate, students would have to pass a final exam. You can see a sample of a typical 8th grade exam in Nebraska circa 1895 in this PDF. It includes questions like “Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications,” “A wagon box is 2 ft. deep, 10 feet long, and 3 ft. wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold?,” and “What are elementary sounds? How classified?” Take the test yourself and let us know how you did in the comments!

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10 Dangerous Toys from Decades Past (and the Commercials That Sold Them)
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Baby Boomers are a hardy bunch. They rode in cars that weren’t equipped with special toddler seats, walked to and from school without being electronically tethered to their parents, ate lunches filled with allergens and preservatives, played with toys that would be quickly pulled from shelves today, and still persevered to become the largest living generation of the U.S. population. Whether you owned a Johnny Seven One Man Army or just want to know more about the ultra-violent, bestselling toy of 1964, let's take a look back at some of the dangerous toys of yesteryear and the commercials that sold them.

1. SIXFINGER

My younger brother had one of these, and I’m here to tell you that as tiny as it was, this gun had some serious firepower—those little plastic bullets hurt like heck! (You think your average seven-year-old boy is going to pay attention to the package disclaimer that warned against aiming the Sixfinger at human targets?) Just in case the possibility of losing an eye to a sharp projectile wasn’t edgy enough, one of the “bullets” came equipped with a cap—the shock-sensitive exploding variety. All this mayhem was available for the bargain price of two dollars.

2. SWING WING

The Transogram Company had been producing mainstream toys such as Tiddlywinks and doctor's kits since 1959. Then one day in 1965 the vice president of product development, whose brother-in-law was apparently an out-of-work chiropractor, came up with the idea for the Swing Wing. Nothing says “fun” like a cerebral hemorrhage, so Swing Wing was eventually pulled from the market, leaving kids searching for a new fun way to get their spinal injuries on.

3. SLIP 'N SLIDE

Wham-O introduced the Slip ‘N Slide in 1961, a time when neighborhood swimming pools were few and far between and water slide theme parks were nonexistent. The idea was to cool off and have fun at the same time by running up to and then belly-flopping down on a water-slicked strip of vinyl. Wham-O sold millions of Slip 'N Slides over the years, and if a kid broke a toe on one of the stakes that secured the mat to the ground or left most of their epidermis on the driveway because they slid too far, well, as Mom always said, “It’s your own fault, don’t come crying to me.” It wasn’t until the more litigious 1990s that words like “spinal cord injury” and “death” started appearing in the lengthy list of warnings included on the Slip ‘N Slide instruction sheet.

4. WATER WIGGLE

It looked innocent enough, but if your neighborhood had good water pressure and some joker turned the hose on full blast, Wham-O’s Water Wiggle turned into a semi-lethal weapon. It danced and bobbed erratically, and could wrap around you like a boa constrictor. And that plastic head was heavy! But bloody noses and chipped teeth were a small price to pay for some summertime fun.

5. JOHNNY SEVEN ONE MAN ARMY

No wonder kids today get into so much trouble—it’s those consarned video games they’re always playing. Nothing but shooting and street fighting and an overall culture of violence. Not like the toys of the 1960s. Back then we had wholesome products like the Johnny Seven One Man Army, which was the biggest-selling toy for boys in 1964. Johnny Seven came equipped with a cap pistol, rocket launcher, and “armor piercing” bullets, along with a few other features necessary for stopping Communism dead in its tracks.

Johnny Seven weighed about four pounds fully assembled, so a kid got a good aerobic workout when he ran around toting one outside in the fresh air and sunshine. Topper Toys used a unique tactic to give Johnny Seven maximum exposure: instead of only stocking it in toy and department stores, they also made it available in grocery stores, a place mom usually dragged her kids to at least once per week.

6. CREEPY CRAWLERS

An exposed hot plate combined with potentially toxic fumes equaled fun in 1964. The Thing Maker was a gadget you plugged in and then waited until it heated up to 300°F. Then you poured “Plasti-Goop” into the creepy insect-shaped metal molds and waited for them to heat-set. Ideally, you were supposed to wait until after you’d unplugged the Thing Maker and it had cooled off before removing your Creepy Crawlers, but who has time for that when you want to put a fake spider in your sister’s bed before she turns in? Burns and blisters were a fact of life in the plastic bug business, and you simply sprayed the injury with some Bactine and hid it from Mom so she wouldn’t take your Thing Maker away. Plasti-Goop was marketed as “non-toxic,” but that was in 1964 before the dangers of little things like melted PVC and lead paint were generally known.

7. WHAM-O AIR BLASTER

Wham-O introduced the Air Blaster gun in 1965 ... then pulled it from shelves not too long afterward. It turned out that some kids weren’t content to just blow out birthday candles long-distance; they were pointing their Air Blaster right against their friends’ ears to “see what happened.” (Permanent damage was the answer.) Those same pranksters also discovered that any object that could fit into the muzzle could also be shot with missile-like force. You know what they say, it’s all fun and games until someone figures out how to use their Air Blaster as a flamethrower.

8. WHAM-O WHEELIE BAR

The lack of protective helmets in this commercial is understandable, since they weren’t readily available at the time. But barefoot kids popping wheelies, riding no-handed, and performing daredevil stunts like standing on the seat? One has to wonder whether Wham-O held stock in some urgent care clinic chain.

9. SUPER ELASTIC BUBBLE PLASTIC

Surprise! We have yet another entry from those folks at Wham-O. This time the fun was contained inside a metal toothpaste-like tube filled with a colorful liquid-y plastic-y substance. You squeezed out a tiny glob of the stuff, rolled it into a tiny ball, and then plopped it onto the end of a plastic straw, which was included. Then you blew into the straw to create a multi-colored sphere that was more durable than a soap bubble, but a bit more fragile than a traditional balloon. The drawback was that one of the main ingredients in Super Elastic Bubble Plastic was ethyl acetate, a solvent used in nail polish remover. Combine that with polyvinyl acetate, the other primary component, and kids were exposed to some serious health risks if they happened to inhale too much while inflating their plastic bubbles.

10. WITCH DOCTOR HEAD SHRINKER KIT

Who knows exactly what chemicals made up the “plastic flesh” that progressively shrunk over the span of 24 hours. Given the time period (the late 1960s) we’re guessing that either the flesh or the paint had some level of toxicity. But what about the other inherent danger involved? Say you, as a kid, taking advantage of the assurance in the commercial that homemade shrunken heads were appropriate for “all occasions”? Would Mom smack the heck out of you after Grandma nearly collapsed when she unwrapped the shrunken head birthday present you’d made for her?

BONUS: GILBERT U-238 ATOMIC ENERGY LAB

By Webms (online) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m sort of sneaking this one in, as I don’t know if it was ever advertised on television, but it’s too good to pass up. In 1951 A.C. Gilbert, the man who invented the Erector Set, introduced a brand new educational toy: the Gilbert U-238 Atomic Energy Lab. Gilbert worked closely with physicists at M.I.T. while developing the kit, and also had the unofficial approval of the U.S. government, which thought that such a toy would help the average American understand the benefits of nuclear energy.

The Lab came equipped with a Geiger-Mueller radiation counter, a Wilson cloud chamber (to see paths of alpha particles), a spinthariscope (to see "live" radioactive disintegration), four samples of Uranium-bearing ores, and an electroscope to measure radioactivity. It also included a comic book featuring Dagwood Bumstead (the man who couldn’t leave his own house without knocking the mailman down) describing how to split an atom. The Atomic Energy Lab’s main drawback, other than possible radiation poisoning, was its price tag: a whopping $49.50, which would be over $300 in today’s dollars.

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10 Adorable Facts About Cabbage Patch Kids
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Although there have been other toy crazes throughout the 20th century, none have inspired the frenzy that met the 1983 debut of the Cabbage Patch Kids. Mass-produced yet all slightly unique—each was computer-sorted to have a distinctive combination of hair, freckles, and expressions—the dolls were in such high demand that shoppers risked bodily injury to try and grab one: In 1983, a Wall Street Journal editorial asserted that more Americans were worried about obtaining a Kid than the possibility of nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War. Check out 10 facts behind this dimpled phenomenon.

1. THEY WERE ORIGINALLY CALLED “LITTLE PEOPLE.”

When Appalachian artist Xavier Roberts began handcrafting a line of soft-sculpture babies in Georgia in 1977, he referred to them as Little People and created an elaborate marketing plan around their distribution. Gift shops and other retailers would never “sell” the creations—instead, they were to be “adopted.” Roberts also corrected anyone who referred to them as “dolls,” preferring to call them “babies” or “kids.” The fantasy worked, and Roberts sold well over 200,000 of his Little People before signing a deal to mass-produce them in partnership with toymaker Coleco in 1982. Under the direction of advertising agent Roger Schlaifer, they were rebranded as Cabbage Patch Kids after the stock explanation parents sometimes use to describe reproduction—that kids come from “the cabbage patch.”

2. PEOPLE GOT TRAMPLED TRYING TO BUY THEM.

It’s hard to pinpoint the exact appeal of the Cabbage Patch Kids, which were perceived by some as homely. Some psychologists interviewed at the time believed that the adoption fantasy appealed to children who were looking to be caregivers themselves, while others pointed to the idea that parents could “prove” their worth by securing a Kid for their offspring. Whatever the case, the 1983 holiday shopping season drove consumers into a frenzy. Stores receiving small quantities of the Kids saw shoppers stampede into stores, suffering broken bones, being trampled, and even attempting to bribe employees into reserving them before they hit the sales floor. One manager resorted to wielding a baseball bat as a form of crowd control.

3. XAVIER ROBERTS MADE ONE KID CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD.

As president of Original Appalachian Artworks (OAA), the company incorporated to produce the dolls in 1978, the colorful Roberts enjoyed perpetuating the fantasy of the Kids as actual personalities. One of his earlier creations, Otis Lee, was named Chairman of the Board and frequently traveled with Roberts, rarely leaving his side.

4. ONE DESPERATE PARENT FLEW TO LONDON TO GRAB A KID.

A vintage photo of a child receiving a Cabbage Patch Kid
Dennis Harper, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Frustrated with the lack of supply in North America, a Kansas City mailman named Ed Pennington flew to London during the 1983 season in order to pick up a Kid for his daughter, Leana. (In England, demand wasn’t quite as strong and few had to risk bodily injury to secure one.) Pennington bought five of the Kids and gave four of them away to charity.

5. COLECO HAD TO PULL ITS ADVERTISING.

With demand for the Kids prompting violence, Coleco was chastised by consumer advocates for a form of “false advertising,” running television commercials that attracted consumers when they knew they would be unable to produce enough supply. James Picken, the consumer affairs commissioner in Nassau County, New York, complained the ads amounted to “harassing small children.” The company soon backed off on their ad campaign, pulling TV spots. It was hardly a problem, though: The furor over the Kids brought them headlines—and free advertising—virtually around the clock.

6. ADOPTION GROUPS WEREN’T BIG FANS.

A child examines two Cabbage Patch Kid toys
alamosbasement, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The marketing for the Kids, which involved an “oath” to treat them with care along with a birth certificate and adoption papers, spoke to adolescent consumers but didn’t find support in the actual adoption community. Feeling the toy trivialized actual adoptive parents and their kids, adoption groups spoke out against the idea, fearing it would prompt children to believe people could be “bought.”

7. THERE WAS AN EASY WAY TO SMELL A FAKE.

With any consumer product sensation comes a parade of counterfeit merchandise, and the Kids were no exception. Consumer advocate groups pointed out that bogus Cabbage Patch items possessed an oily smell due to the industrial rags they had been stuffed with. Thought to be highly flammable, consumers were told to avoid Kids that reeked of kerosene.  

8. THEY SUED THE GARBAGE PAIL KIDS.

A Cabbage Patch Kid sits on top of a dumpster
Al Pavangkanan, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Roberts and OAA didn’t find a lot to laugh about when Topps released their line of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards in 1985. Featuring the same rounded heads and cute expressions as the Cabbage Patch Kids, OAA charged that the booger-infested cards were infringing on their copyright. After a court battle, Topps agreed to alter the design of their cards.

9. ONE MODEL HAD TO BE RECALLED FOR EATING THEIR OWNERS' HAIR.

Cabbage Patch mania was on full display through 1984, when Coleco sold 20 million of the toys before demand finally began to wane. In an effort to bolster sales later in the decade, new Cabbage Patch licensee Mattel released Snack Time Kids, which were intended to gobble up fake French fries. Instead, the mechanism could bite down on their owner’s long hair and automatically begin chewing. After complaints—and one 911 call for a child in Connecticut unable to free herself from the Kid’s maw—Mattel offered refunds and withdrew the toy from stores.

10. THEY INSPIRED A MORBID URBAN LEGEND.

A set of Cabbage Patch Kids wearing hats
lisaclarke, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Cabbage Patch Kids that had suffered indignities like dog maulings, sibling amputations, or other misadventures could potentially be repaired by doll hospitals. But one morbid rumor sprang up in newspapers: if your Kid was beyond repair, Coleco would issue the toy a death certificate.  

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