Education IconFrom Specimen of Printing Types from the New England Type Foundry (Boston, 1834). Image courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Teachers in the colonial period relied on Scripture for reading practice, and on repetition and memorization for writing instruction. Colonists at that time viewed education as a means to moral and material uplift, and evidence of the value placed on it abounds in the historical record as schools were established and teachers hired. Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826) proclaimed in his mass-produced geography textbook (1819) that no country “attend[s] to ... Common schooling” more than the United States. He claimed that “a family of children who could not read, write, and understand common arithmetic could probably not be found.”[1] Morse had in mind only white, affluent children, yet his sentiment was correct: Americans prized education.

Miss Sanborn's Kindergarden Class ca. 1890Miss Sanborn's Kindergarden ca.1880. Tappan Family Collection. Accession #2085. Image #15179. Cape Ann Museum.

Gloucester’s first public school was established in 1678; the classes, taught by Thomas Riggs (ca. 1631–1721), were held at the Meeting House. It was not until 1708 that the first dedicated schoolhouse was built in town.[2] As the documents in this section demonstrate, much learning took place outside of formal classrooms. Joseph Moore (1763–1845), the son of a public schoolteacher on Cape Ann, taught two generations of seafaring men at his home in Fresh Water Cove from 1790 to 1842.[3] In exchange for his teaching, Moore accepted firewood as well as cash.

Moore’s account book indicates that his instruction was not reserved to white males. He educated Cato and Zacharia, the sons of Robin Freeman, an African American man.[4] It is hard to say how common the teaching of African Americans was at the time. Throughout the colonial period, there were no legal barriers to teaching enslaved people to read because reading was so closely tied to Christian indoctrination. Writing instruction was banned in South Carolina and Georgia in the mid-eighteenth century, and in the southern colonies there is little evidence of efforts to educate enslaved people.[5] Practices were different in the north but are hard to quantify, making Moore’s account book a valuable indication that education was not strictly limited to affluent white boys.

Moore also extended his tutelage to girls and indentured servants. Twelve percent of the entries in his account book are charges for educating girls.[6] Among the 177 entries in the book, the last names of 27 boys were different from those of their patrons, indicating that apprentices and servants were also receiving instruction.[7] In fact, indenture documents often stipulated that bound children be taught. Usually the terms are laid out in the blank indenture forms: this manuscript mimics much of the language on printed versions. Nanny will be “taught to read and write to knit sew and spin and to do household work,” so that at the end of her term, at age eighteen, she will have skills she can use for other domestic service. In exchange, Nanny must “gladly everywhere obey,” and she must “not commit fornication,” or “haunt taverns, alehouses, or play houses.” Almost half a century later, Amanda Babson’s (1811–1857) teacher M. E. Hayes (b. 1801) offers a window into the more formal education of an affluent young woman, praising her “Neatness, Diligence, Obedience, and Politeness.” By 1823, women were learning more than reading and writing; Hayes reported that Amanda had “progressed rapidly” in the study of arithmetic and that her progress “bids fair to understand its nature." The assumption that girls could not excel in mathematics did not yet prevail in the popular imagination.

Classroom education in the early days of the republic emphasized moral and often overtly religious models.[8] The letter from “A Citizen” is a heartfelt articulation of the importance of teachers in fostering their pupils’ “health, preservation and ... moral and spiritual improvement,” reflecting the fusion of religious and secular instruction in this public institution. The letter writer asks that the teacher “by precept and example” teach students to “venerate and adore the great Author of their being.”[9] By signing the letter “A Citizen,” the letter writer not only preserves anonymity but also presents the possibility that this letter could be from anyone, that this is the opinion of all “citizens.”[10]

The emphasis on education that transcends today’s secular model can also be seen in Charles Farrington’s Penmanship Book of 1810. By repeatedly practicing his cursive script, the student is assumed to absorb moral messages, thus shaping his character. Farrington adopted a religious message from the writings of Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson (1630–1694), which Farrington or his teacher encountered in a book of short passages of moral instruction chosen for pedagogical purposes.[11] Copying these sentences also gave pupils the opportunity to master the mechanics of capitalization, punctuation and spelling. Important nouns were habitually capitalized.[12] Farrington’s other practice lines include instructions for how pupils should conduct themselves beyond the classroom: “Our reputation depends on the choice of our company” and “Protracted regret weakens the mind and impairs the health.” He also includes the Enlightenment sentiment “Liberty is the birthright of man,” which was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, if not fully put into practice in the new nation.

Other evidence of learning found in the archives includes marginalia or notes that readers left in books as they read and learned from them. Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820) added a handful of such notes to a copy, presumably from her father’s library, of the Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: Or, a General English Dictionary. Imported from London and bound in leather boards, this book would have been a valuable part of the Sargent family’s library. Judith’s notes offer further proof of dedication to her own education, which surely inspired her advocacy for broader opportunities for female education. Dictionaries were not published in the United States until Noah Webster (1758–1843) started producing and distributing them en masse in the early nineteenth century.


Squam SchoolCaroline Griffin's class 1897, Annisquam School. Miller Photo Co. Barbara Erkkila Collection. Image #12695. Accession #12695. Cape Ann Museum.

Through the writings of the American educational reformer Horace Mann (1796–1859), teaching became increasingly professionalized in the nineteenth century, with women filling an estimated 25 percent of all teaching positions in the country by midcentury.[13] Sarah G. Duley (1839–1920), who taught at Dean Academy (now Dean College) in Franklin, Mass., before coming home to Gloucester, was particularly dedicated to classroom teaching and was also engaged in the community, as evidenced in her Autograph Album. The first female member of the school committee, Duley was active in the affairs of the Universalist Church and was particularly interested in Salem Normal School (now Salem State University). She was an amateur songwriter, and her lyrics for the normal school’s 1872 graduation ceremony were published in the local newspaper.[14] Duley collected the autographs of several people of note. Catharine Beecher (1800–1878), founder of the Hartford Female Academy and the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, signed with the message “Trust in the Lord / And do good.” The New York newspaper editor Horace Greeley (1811–1872) signed Duley’s book “Gloucester Sept. 21, 1870,” and the Boston publisher and Manchester summer resident James T. Fields (1817–1881) gave Duley “all my best wishes” in January 1873. Duley’s book is but one of the many indications in the archives that teachers were a vital part of life on Cape Ann, as they continue to be today, not only for their daily service in the classroom, but also for their engagement with the larger community.


[1]. Jedidiah Morse, The American Universal Geography (Charlestown, Mass.: Lincoln & Edmands, S. T. Armstrong, West, Richardson & Lord, 1819), 300.

[2]. John J. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, Cape Ann: Including the Town of Rockport (Gloucester, Mass.: Procter Bros., 1860), 233.

[3]. Babson, History of the Town of Gloucester, 395.

[4]. Vital Records of Gloucester, Massachusetts, to the End of the Year 1849 (Topsfield, Mass.: Topsfield Historical Society, 1917), 802, 805.

[5]. E. Jennifer Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press and American Antiquarian Society, 2005), 243.

[6]. As Catherine Hobbs notes, we will never have exact literacy rates before 1900, and these rates are especially hard to determine for African Americans and women. Increased access to education for both men and women suggests that women’s literacy rates were rising by the middle of the nineteenth century, especially in the northern states. See “Introduction: Cultures and Practices of U.S. Women’s Literacy,” in Nineteenth-Century Women Learn to Write, ed. Catherine Hobbs (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995), 11.

[7]. I am indebted to Stephanie Buck, Cape Ann Museum Librarian and Archivist, for this data.

[8]. For more on Puritan influences in early American education, see James Axtell, The School Upon a Hill: Education and Society in Colonial New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

[9]. A Citizen, “Letter to the Selectmen of Gloucester. September 20, 1811,” MSS., Box 53 Folder 2 CC215 (Gloucester, Mass.: Gloucester City Archives).

[10]. Michael Warner, The Letters of the Republic: Publication and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), 34–72.

[11]. This passage is reprinted in John Tillotson, Twenty Discourses on the Most Important Subjects: Calculated for Every Class of Readers (London: printed by T. Whittingham for N. Hailes, etc., 1820), 33.

[12]. Monaghan, Learning to Read and Write in Colonial America, 290, 202.

[13]. Glenna Matthews, The Rise of Public Woman: Woman’s Power and Woman’s Place in the United States, 1630–1970 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 96.

[14]. See, for example, the song she wrote for the graduation ceremony in 1872, “Salem Normal School,” Cape Ann Light and Gloucester Telegraph, July 6, 1872.

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