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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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14 Things You Owned in the '70s That are Worth a Fortune Now
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From old toys and housewares to books and records, these pieces of '70s memorabilia have aged (and increased in value) like fine wine.

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10 Things We Learned From Vanilla Ice's 1991 Autobiography, Ice by Ice
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Vanilla Ice turns 50 on October 31, which will either make you feel very old or compelled to ask a nearby senior who Vanilla Ice is. The hip-hop artist was best known for To the Extreme, his 1990 album that sold 7 million copies, and its breakout single, “Ice, Ice Baby.” He also had a notable turn as himself in 1991’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze before attempting to reinvigorate his career as a Rasta-infused rapper with dreadlocks after his initial novelty wore off.

Before that happened, Ice (a.k.a. Robert Van Winkle) penned Ice by Ice, a 1991 “autobiography” that has no co-author byline but was probably written by a man named Randi Reisfeld, who is thanked by the rapper in the foreword for “putting my thoughts together.” At an economical 164 pages, it’s essential reading for anyone who wanted to know the name of Ice's signature hairstyle (“the beak”) or how women can grab his attention ("dressing super-sexy”). Here are 10 things we learned about the Iceman in this revealing paperback cash grab.

1. HE CUT HIS OWN HAIR.

Even at the height of his fame, Vanilla Ice wouldn’t trust just anyone to get near his trademark pompadour that he dubbed “the beak,” with lines shaved into the sides and a light stripe whooshing through the front. To maintain the look, Ice preferred a DIY approach. “I sit where there’s a mirror behind me and hold another mirror in front of me,” he writes. “That way I can see my whole head.”

Ice was so demanding of his follicles than anything less than perfection would be met with self-banishment. “I don’t like to be photographed unless my hair is perfect—that’s why you’ll see pictures of me in baseball caps a lot.”

2. HE DOESN’T CRY.

“I don’t cry and I don’t know why,” Ice explains. Even when he shattered his ankle as a teenager in a motorcycle accident, Ice didn’t get weepy. The only time he confesses to feeling even a passing sensation of tears is when he was handed plaques for having a platinum record. “My eyes got watery … it’s as close to crying as I’ve ever come.”

3. HE GOT STABBED IN THE BUTT AND LOST FOUR PINTS OF BLOOD.

Vanilla Ice in a Miami Football T
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As Ice’s popularity grew, much was made of his claims that he grew up in rough parts of Miami and Dallas, where he joined a street gang after his stepfather relocated his family for a job opportunity. Some observers accused him of embellishing his background in order to appear more like a hardcore street urchin. Ice bemoans the fact that he’s felt compelled to pull down his pants to show off the scar on his butt from a knife attack at age 18. According to the rapper, a street fight turned ugly when an attacker pulled a knife and sliced open his thigh and buttocks, requiring an extended hospital stay after he lost four pints of blood. “What they did was put this thing that looked like a Q-tip with alcohol on it down inside my leg to plug up the artery,” he writes. (He didn’t cry, though.)

4. HE WORE MISMATCHED SNEAKERS TO SCHOOL.

Growing up, Ice bounced from school to school, admitting he wasn’t very interested in formal education and jarred by having to be the new kid on a regular basis. To offset that sense of isolation, he began showing up in increasingly outlandish outfits, including wearing mismatched shoes. “I’d wear a boot on one foot and a tennis shoe on the other,” he writes, “wear blue jeans with one leg long, the other leg cut off, stuff like that.”

5. IF HE HAD A PROBLEM, HE REALLY WOULD SOLVE IT.

Ice maintains that he was never comfortable sharing his feelings with others. His mother, who was single until marrying his stepfather when Ice was eight years old, tried to put him into therapy to address his troublemaking ways at school; Ice refused to talk. “I never needed to talk to anyone to solve my problems,” he writes. “A lot of people need someone to talk to, but I’ve never been able to open up and do that. Never could, never will. That’s just the way I am. And that’s just exactly where the ‘Ice, Ice Baby’ hook came from—‘If there was a problem, yo, I’ll solve it.’”

6. HE WOULD SOMETIMES USE DIRTY WORDS.

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Engaging in rap battles growing up, Ice would occasionally deploy some profanity—not because he necessarily wanted to, but because his competitors had started it and he needed to keep up. “The thing is, I wouldn’t do it unless some other rapper started cursing and dissin’ me and the crowd started liking it,” he writes. "'Cause if the crowd starts liking the cursing part, that means to win you’re going to have to curse back at them.” Ice maintains in the book that his raps were clean on his records because “I don’t need to put in dirty words to express myself.”

7. HE WAS ORIGINALLY KNOWN AS VANILLA M.C.

Ice got his start performing at City Lights, a dance club in Dallas owned by future manager Tommy Quon. With “Robert Van Winkle” not having a ton of appeal on a marquee, Ice decided to take the nickname given to him as a teenager when he was beatboxing and rapping in his neighborhood (“Vanilla M.C.”). But Quon pointed out that there were already a lot of “MCs” in the music business, including M.C. Hammer and Young M.C. “You know, your raps, your rhythms are really smooth, smooth as Ice, in fact,” Quon told him. Writing that “it sounded okay to me,” Vanilla M.C. became Vanilla Ice.

8. HE WAS DRAWN TO WOMEN FOR THEIR LOOKS.

Not one to sanitize his image for the masses, Ice admits that his primary concern when dealing with the opposite sex is whether he finds them attractive or not. “My first impression of a girl, whether I’m going to be drawn to her or not, is based on her looks. I know it’s not fair, but then I see what her personality is like.”

Once Ice establishes a woman could engage him intellectually while still “dressing super-sexy,” he enjoys entertaining them at fine dining establishments. But not too fine. “I like candlelit romantic restaurants, but not those where the menu is so fancy that I don’t know what I’m ordering.”

9. HE GOT AN OFFER TO APPEAR IN A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET SEQUEL.

Vanilla Ice and Kristin Minter star in 'Cool as Ice' (1991).
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Ice’s career could have gone in multiple directions following the success of To the Extreme. He filmed a cameo in a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel and had his own starring vehicle in 1991’s Cool as Ice. In between those projects, Ice was offered a small role in a Nightmare on Elm Street sequel, presumably to be murdered by Freddy Krueger, “but I didn’t have room in my schedule to take time off for it.” 

10. HE WAS STALKED BY A SATANIST.

We’re cheating slightly, since Ice doesn’t disclose this fact in his book, but it’s still worth noting. At height of Ice mania in the 1990s, the rapper told Rolling Stone that a woman began following him around in an attempt to convert him to Satanism. Ice first noticed the woman at Wembley Stadium when she flashed him in a trench coat. (See: number 8.) Later, the same woman followed him to Japan and left a book under his hotel door: a Satanic Bible, with a personal message to join the flock. Why? Because his birthday falls on Halloween.

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