Tuesday, August 31, 2021

52 Ancestors - SCHOOL: Education in the One-Room School

I come from a long line of dedicated teachers. It is therefore no surprise that some dusty old textbooks have been saved and passed from one generation to the next along with pieces of china, crystal, and silver. These books belonged to my grandfather, his father, and his uncle.

My grandfather's textbooks

Looking closely at these very old books (over 130 years old) makes me rethink the one-room country schoolhouse. I always assumed those poor kids probably got a second-rate education because the school couldn’t afford to do any better. However, I see now that Rockingham County and Page County picked the best textbooks to be had in their day. 


Walter's arithmetic book

My great-grandfather proudly wrote his name on several pages of his arithmetic book. “Walter B. S. M. Davis.” 

Inside cover of Walter's arithmetic book
(Did he really need 3 middle names?)

But he was not the first to use it. The inscription “A. N. Davis” suggests at least one older brother of the 15 Davis children used the book too:  Amaziah Nathaniel.

Amaziah Nathaniel's initials

The book was “Ray’s Practical Arithmetic, Part Third.” The Ray’s series was one of the most respected textbooks of its day because it emphasized “real life” math that students could apply to practical pursuits of running a farm, a business, a household, even a grocery store. Early on, the series was praised for beginning with the basics using concrete items like blocks and marbles in order to prepare students to be able to visualize the abstract later on. Ray’s almost exclusive use of word problems is credited with improving students’ reading comprehension. 

This textbook is very unappealing by today's standards.
No colorful charts.  Very little "white space."


Ray believed teaching could help students develop high moral character. To that end, he structured his math problems to show honest men and women hard at work plowing fields, planting and harvesting crops, building, buying and selling, being generous and sharing their goods. Look at some typical problems:

  • If 16 men build 18 rods of fence in 12 days, at the same rate, how many men can build 72 rods in 8 days?
  • When cloth costs $4.37 ½ per yard, at what price per yard must it be sold to gain 33 1/3 percent?
  • What is the value of 1 pound 3 pennyweights of gold ore at 3 cents a grain?

Although Dr. Joseph Ray died in 1855, his arithmetic books are still in use today, especially among homeschoolers. However, I’m not sure how the homeschoolers feel about the explanation of pints, barrels, and hogsheads required in beer measurements. But I must admit, the explanation of apothecary measurements could be helpful to today’s drug dealers who might need to know how to answer this one:

  • What will 1 pound 1 dram 1 ounce of opium cost at 4 cents a scruple?

(Who knew drug dealers had scruples?)


History of Virginia - New Edition

I don’t remember how much American history was included in my high school history textbooks, but only once did we make it to World War II. How far did the teachers of my grandfather Orvin Davis get exposing him to American history? 

His book is about the size of a 5”x7” photograph and just about ¾” thick. The last chapter is entitled  “The Reconstruction Period 1865-1890.” I guess there’s something to be said for being born early. 



Stepping Stones to Literature: A Reader for Fifth Grades
is one ambitious collection of works by such people as Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Cowper, Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Ruskin. JOHN RUSKIN!!! Has anyone read Ruskin? I have. Hopefully my grandfather at age 10 was exposed to some lighter weight Ruskin than I got in graduate school. Good grief.


The introduction to the book says it all:  “…its authors aimed to include nothing but good literature …. The tendency of the day is to scrappy reading. It is fostered by newspapers, periodicals, and compendia of literature; and it is hoped that these Readers will help to combat this unfortunate tendency, and lead to the reading of good books.”

As textbooks always do, this one gives teaching suggestions, especially on ways to improve oral reading. The authors are not shy about saying Americans have poor speech habits and “disagreeable voices.” They deem it a “national defect.” They even recommend calisthenics to improve students’ carriage, breathing through the nostrils, drilling for proper enunciation, using a dictionary to assure proper pronunciation, and learning to incorporate the right inflections to express the feeling of the written word. 

So noble. But these are fifth graders. 

Here is what fifth graders did to their books even in 1910:

The message has been erased for the most part, but it says, "Look on page [?] and you will see my sweethearts name."


Flipping pages, I found this on page 25:


On page 300, there's this message saying "She ran away from me and nobody knows where she is."

So who was she, for crying out loud?? DARN! I thought books held the key to all knowledge.  What a let-down.


Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.


© 2021, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. This was a fun post, Wendy, especially reading the history of some of the textbooks. I remember seeing the questions prospective teachers had to answer to teach in the late-1800s schools (1st through 8th grades) and was impressed and amazed at the variety of information they needed to know. It seems to me that the current curriculum in our modern schools is dumbed down quite a lot.

  2. I agree with Nancy...I enjoyed seeing the old texts too, and know that history for one must skip something in order to add something new. I wonder what of the events I learned about have been removed...

  3. Those are some OLD books. I love that there was a type of treasure hunt to find the nugget which, sadly, wasn't much of a nugget.

  4. This comment also disappeared :-( I love that there was a treasure hunt to get to the nugget - sorry it wasn't there.