Kimmitt Genealogical Research

04 September 2010

Back to School in 1867

The smell of schoolbooks and new shoes is in the air and that can only mean "Back to School!" I imagine there was just as much September excitement 150 years ago as there is today. My great-grandfather, Israel Merritt Barnes Jr., or II (there would eventually be four IMBs), was born in 1861 and I am lucky enough to be the caretaker of some of his school papers.

Little Israel attended school in Boston and his doting parents saved some of his papers. One card, dated only Saturday, 1867, and addressed to Issi Barns, is from a Boston Primary School: “A card of approbation awarded to Issi Barns for Industry, Good Conduct, and Punctuality, during the past week,” and signed by A. J. Baker. Israel would have been 6 years old in September of that year––a first grader. I'm glad to see that even that long ago teachers recognized that approval is a wonderful motivator.

Another card reads; “Reward Card, Maxim: Patience is a remedy for every affliction,” and on the reverse the teacher has written, “To Issie Barnes, A persevering boy, May 22nd, 1869. C. A. Robbins.” All I can say to that is "Awwwww!" 

A series of weekly reports show Israel's grades at the Chauncy-Hall School, a boys school founded in 1828, which eventually merged with two other schools and is still in existence. It was originally located on what is now the site of Macy's in Boston's Downtown Crossing. The school's website says that it "trained the children of wealthy Bostonians for careers in business, and later prepared students to attend Harvard, MIT and other prestigious colleges. Chauncy Hall was known for its many innovations in education, including using literature for reading lessons..."

His 1872 report cards reflect a well behaved young man who attended regularly and scored above average in most classes, usually receiving a 5.5-6.0 on a scale of 7, which was given “only for extraordinary merit.” A grade of 4 was “merely passable.” Some of the subjects he was graded on when he was still ten years old: Reading, Spelling, Writing, Grammar, Geography, History, French, Latin, Arithmetic, Natural History, Defining, Declamation, Deportment, and Attendance. Four reports from 1873, spanning the entire year, show more variation. What a difference a year makes in the life of a child. He received many more 7’s: in arithmetic, defining, geometry, and algebra; but also one 3 in deportment, about which the teacher noted on the back, “If no other low mark is incurred this shall be excluded.” I wonder what he was up to? This sort of report is all-too familiar to this mother of three boys. "I didn't do anything!"

In 1875 he participated in Chauncy Hall’s 47th Annual Exhibition at the Boston Music Hall. Better students were asked to participate in a show of readings, declamations and singing, and Israel Jr. was chosen to read “Man as a Processionist.” It is hard to imagine the children enjoying this exhibition, as among other things, they were required to sit through both the triumphal march and the finale from Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. I'm sure they at least learned patience, if not a love of opera. I found a timeline of the school which tells us that it was one of the first to provide "apparatus for physical exercise." In addition, around the start of the Civil War they organized school companies for martial drill and parade. Israel was not yet a student.

Israel completed his schooling by graduating from Boston English High School in 1877, a few months shy of his sixteenth birthday. Wikipedia says that it was founded in 1821, the first public high school in America, to provide an education for working class boys, giving them training in business, mechanics, and trades. 
At that time the school was located right next door to Boston Latin High School, which, on the other hand, prepared boys for college, the ministry and other scholarly pursuits. The two schools have a healthy rivalry, and their boys have competed in football against one another every Thanksgiving since 1887! Israel was a big fellow, but I don't know if he played football for them.

It is comforting to me at this time of year to think about all of the students returning to school, just as their parents and grandparents did. One thing I'm sure of is that if I could travel in time, the kids would seem the most familiar aspect of anything I could find. Human nature hasn't changed much. I bet half of the mothers cried, half did a happy dance when their little scholars went off in September, just as they do now!
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Claudia's thoughts said...

It boggles my mind that those papers still exist. Kids today have no idea how easy they have it today.

hummer said...

Wonderful heirlooms. Thanks for the informative post.

Mel Wolfgang said...

School records can be great sources for family historians. Thanks for sharing this, especially the images of Issie’s first grade reward of merit.

Rewards of merit are highly collectible, and aside from the personal interest they may hold for genealogists, they are also used by scholars to help document the regional development of printing in the United States. The American Antiquarian Society in Worcester holds a vast collection of them. The best book on the subject is “Rewards of Merit: Tokens of a Child's Progress and a Teacher's Esteem as an Enduring Aspect of American Religious and Secular Education” by Rockwell Gardner & Alfred P. Malpa, published in 1994 by the Ephemera Society of America.

nalexmanz said...

Polly, this is a most interesting posting. I had no idea teachers would have given awards such as the ones I have given during my career. I wonder if any of mine will survive for some future descendant of one of my students who will one day understand his/her ancestor a bit better because of the award. Again, a timely, informative, sentimental post...thanks!

Kathy said...

What a wonderful set of documents to have! Wish more of us could claim such items. Thanks for sharing.

Peter said...

I have some old report cards from 1872, The student's name was Josiah Banghart. The teacher's name was E. B. Mott. Does anyone know the value of something like this?