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19th-Century Schoolbooks
Created and maintained by the University of Pittsburgh Digital Library.
Reviewed Nov.-Dec. 2011.

Professor John Nietz spent a career collecting textbooks. When he retired from the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh in 1958, he donated approximately nine thousand volumes of primary and secondary school textbooks to the university’s library. 19th Century Schoolbooks contains searchable texts of 141 of those schoolbooks, along with two of Nietz’s essays on the history of textbooks. This straightforward Web site offers a digital glimpse of Nietz’s long labor of love.

Users can browse the entire collection, sorting contents by author, title, or date of publication and use keywords to search the full texts. Scholars interested in the history of education will find texts by such well-known figures as Emma Willard, William Holmes McGuffey, Samuel Goodrich, and Noah Webster, as well as books to teach reading, arithmetic, spelling, geography, and history. There are texts on elocution, penmanship, letter writing, and “The human body and its health: a text-book for schools, having special reference to the effects of stimulants and narcotics on the human system (1885).” A quick read of that text gives you a sense of how a school child growing up in the 1880s learned to handle unhappy accidents, to treat fits, sunstrokes, drowning, and broken bones.

As might be expected, the textbooks preserve the nineteenth century’s social divisions, setting down the lines on race and gender that children followed out of their classrooms. There is an English grammar book especially for the “fair sex” and a “ladies’ reader” with “choice selections from standard authors.” Mrs. M. B. Moore published The Dixie Speller in North Carolina in 1864. I cannot say I found Confederate nationalism in the word lists, but perhaps in those war years it was enough to have published a schoolbook in Raleigh. “The Religious Instruction of the Negroes in the United States,” published by Charles C. Jones in Savannah in 1842, is actually more a treatise on history than a textbook. He concludes by urging masters and ministers to set out on “the moral and religious improvement of two millions eight hundred thousand persons (p. 277),” his italics capturing the sheer numerical weight of a population enslaved.

Some of my favorite scenes of learning appeared in Elizabeth Mayo’s “Lessons on objects, graduated series designed for children between the ages of six and fourteen years,” published in 1863. Mayo believed that teaching children to observe everyday objects around them was the first step “in the business of education.” Do not talk too much, she tells teachers, since too much chatter just lulls pupils into “receiving impressions from others, at a time when they ought to be gaining mental power by the exertion of their own faculties (p. 24).” She recommends sharpening those faculties with careful descriptions of common objects—a basket, a needle, a chair, a watch, a pig, a pencil, a feather, and so on through oysters, mace, nutmeg, and “foreign white wine.” As their powers of observation and description improved, older children circled back through objects, adding layers of complexity to their first observations. While Mayo’s goal seems to have been to discover the divine hand behind various objects, her students learned physics, engineering, geography, history, sociology, and biology along the way.

19th Century Schoolbooks is not a comprehensive site, but it contains rich nuggets of information for historians interested in the ways even simple lessons in reading, writing, and arithmetic carried the values of the larger culture into the classroom.

Ann Fabian
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, New Jersey