An Introduction to Education in Early Massachusetts

Jan 28, 2021

By Edward S. Gault

Metal medallion marking the Freedom Trail embedded in sidewalk pavementEnglish Puritans settled the town of Boston in 1630 on the Shawmut Peninsula, the traditional and historic land lived on and used by the Massachusett people. The Puritans established their community and civil government with lofty ambitions. According to John Winthrop, they strove to be a “a city upon a Hill, the eies of all the people upon us.” As such, Puritan leaders considered provisions for the education of their children. While the primary focus was on educating boys, girls were not excluded from formal education in all towns and literacy rates for girls gradually increased over the century. In 1635, the colonists established their first school, the Boston Latin School, with Philemon Pormont serving as the headmaster.

Even after the creation of an educational system in the colony, not all children initially attended school. Most families felt that they needed their children’s labor for work on the farm or in a shop, which superseded opportunities for education. This contradicted the aspirations of Boston’s leaders who believed in a societal structure built on the ability to read and comprehend the Bible. As a result, the general court passed the Massachusetts Bay Educational Law in 1642. This law required parents to properly train and educate their children “to read & understand the principles of religion and understand the capital laws of the country, and to impose fines on all those who refuse to render such accompt to them when required.”

The need for this law indicates both the poor state of initial education in Massachusetts and the efforts of civil and moral authorities to correct the problem. At first, enforcement of the law was weak, so parents could essentially ignore it. When parents needed work from their children for survival, education, even for religious purposes, was not a priority. Subsequently, enforcement increased. ‘High stakes testing’ was established, whereby a selectman would visit families and have a child a read a verse out of the Bible. If the child could not do this to the satisfaction of the selectman, the parents were fined. While the use of a religious text for this test might cause concerns today, the need to prove performance and verify compliance is somewhat similar to today’s requirements that homeschooling parents turn in lesson plans and progress reports to local superintendents.

In terms of more formal communal schooling, Pormont’s Boston Latin School grew quickly. On August 12, 1636, just one year after its founding, Daniel Maude was chosen to be the schoolmaster, with the town guaranteeing his first year’s salary. While in theory Maude as schoolmaster would be expected to do most of the teaching and Portmort as headmaster was running the operation, both likely taught students in their homes for many years. The first physical school on Schoolhouse Lane was built in 1645.

From the first free school, Boston’s educational system evolved into grammar and writing schools. While both served the general goals of educating Boston’s young men, grammar and writing schools differed in nature. The primary function for writing schools was to teach the basics: reading, writing, and, ciphering (arithmetic). Around the age of 13, a young man completed his basic education at a writing school and either went to work as an apprentice in a trade or enrolled in a grammar school to further his education. Admission to grammar school required satisfactory reading skills to allow the student to move on to advanced subjects like Latin, Greek, and classical literature in order to prepare young men for Harvard College.

As the population of Boston grew, the town built more schools. The writing school on Queen Street was established in 1684. The writing school on Love Lane was built in the North End around 1699/1700 and the South Writing School opened in March 1719/20 on the Common (West and Tremont streets today). Like Pormont and Maude, new schoolmasters in these locations probably taught out of their homes until the buildings were completed. Teachers were appointed at town meetings and the school was supported by land grants, tolls, license fees, and assessments or taxes. Though listed as ‘free,’ most parents still had to pay fees and provide firewood in the winter.

In their first educational setting, many children learned how to read with a hornbook, a printed page affixed to a thin board and covered by a sheet of horn. According to Andrew Tuer, the horn was taken from oxen, “cut in spirals, and afterwards flattened by means of heat and pressure.” The alphabet was printed at the top of the page, followed by syllables, such as ab, eb, ib, and ob. At the bottom of the page was the Lord’s Prayer. The lower end of the board had a handle with a hole for a string so children could easily hold it or wear it around their necks. It is believed that Puritans brought finely crafted hornbooks with them from Holland. The first actual record of a hornbook could be found in the account book of George Lidgett in 1678, “For a horningbook and paper 8d.” Samuel Sewell wrote that he sent his son Joseph to school with a hornbook in 1691. Hornbooks were followed by printed cardboard battledores. Battledores were printed on stiff cardstock that could be folded like a book, with a little flap to close it. Though similar to hornbooks, battledores covered more material.

New England’s first major educational work, the New England Primer, was published around 1683. Historian Perry Miller estimated that there may have been as many as 7 million copies printed before 1840. The earliest copy still in existence dates to 1727. The Primer began, as a hornbook would, with the alphabet by vowels and consonants. English letters in upper and lower case were printed in medieval block type. The Primer included an exercise in which words are broken down into syllables including “Be-witching,” “E-ras-mus,” “Ex-hor-ta-tion,” and even “for-ni-ca-tion.” An “Alphabet of Lessons for Youth” contained the sayings such as, “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the heaviness of his mother,” “Salvation Belongs to the Lord,” and “Exhort One Another Daily.” The Primer also contained the Roman and Arabic numerals, common prayers, the books of the Bible, and ended with a catechism. The Primer’s ending indicated that even children as young as 8 were expected to grasp abstract theological concepts. Whether the children then went on to higher education was determined by their parents, but the formal use of the Primer proved that education in Boston came a long way over the town’s first half century.

Edward S. Gault is an interpreter at the Paul Revere House

Sources Consulted:

Bailyn, Bernard. Education and Forming of American Society. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1960.

Cremin, Lawrence A. American Education: The Colonial Experience. New York: Harper and Rowe Publishers, 1970.

Earle, Alice Morse. Child Life in Colonial Days. Stockbridge, MA: Derkshire House Publishers, 1993.

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education and of the Conduct of Understanding. Reprinted by Ruth Grant and Nathan Torcov, Hackett Publishing Co., 1996.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, Vol. 1. Beacon Press, 1939.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, Vol 2. Beacon Press, 1953.

Morrison, Samuel Elliot. The Intellectual Life of Colonial New England. New York: Cornell University Press, 1956.

Lockridge, Kenneth. Literacy in Colonial New England: An Enquiry into the Context of Literacy in the Early Modern West. New York: WW Norton and Co, Inc., 1974.

The New England Primer.” Printed by S. Kneeland and T. Green, Boston, 1727.

Plimpton, George A. The Hornbook And Its Use In America. American Antiquarian Society, 1916.

Tuer, Andrew. History of the Hornbook. London: The Leaden Mill Press, 1896.

Seybolt, Robert Francis. The Public Schools of Colonial Boston. Arno Press and the New York Times, 1969.

Shurtleff, Nathaniel B. ed. “Records of the Governor and Company of Massachusetts Bay in New England.” Boston, MA, 1853.