What was it like to attend a country school?

Life was very different in the 1800's than it is today and so were the schoolhouses where children received their education. They were small, had only one room, had very few books and learning materials, and were not very comfortable. When you visit the Nashua schoolhouse, you will experience two hours as it was in decades past. But first, a little history!

The wooden school before 1841...

Even though you will be visiting a brick schoolhouse, an earlier wooden schoolhouse stood a short distance from the present location. It was probably unpainted, drafty in the winter, and worn out from decades of use. 

The early wooden schoolhouse as it was before 1841:

Desks were slabs of wood fastened to the walls. The benches children sat on were just planks supported by wooden legs. Inside of this outer circle were seats for the younger children. The scholars sat facing the walls with their backs facing the teacher. The windows were high up so the scholars couldn’t look out and be distracted. The schoolmarm’s desk sat in the center of the room so she could see all the students. There was only one small blackboard at the front of the room. It was usually just boards painted black.

The wooden schoolhouse was heated by a fireplace at one end. The bigger boys had to carry wood from the wood shed outside to keep the fireplace burning in cold weather.

The decision to build a new school in 1841...

By 1841 the little wooden school being used was in very bad shape and the people of the district had to either make repairs on it, or build a new school! The school report of 1840 is very clear about the condition of the District #1. It said:

“The Schoolhouse (District #1) is in great need of repair. The consequence has been considerable irregularity of attendance, from colds. The Committee goes on to say… “There was an unusual coughing at examination. It is hoped that the district, before next winter, will employ a carpenter and thus save the expense of a physician, and increase the usefulness of the teacher…”

After many meetings and much debate, the people of the district decided to raise the money to build a new school. 

The District #1 Schoolhouse was built in the fall of 1841 at a cost of $629. It only took a few weeks to construct the little brick schoolhouse and it opened for classes in November of 1841. There were 11 one-room schoolhouses in Nashua at the time. They were called "suburban" schools, since they were all  a distance from the downtown area. Schoolhouses were given a number instead of a name in Nashua at this time.

The 1841 school is made of brick and is very sturdy in its construction. It was built right next to a cemetery that had been there since the 1600's! People of the district built it there because the land next to the graveyard was very cheap…only $75.00 for the lot where the school stands. Farmer, James Campbell, who lived on his farm adjacent to the Old South Burial Ground sold the land to the district.

In 1842 the Nashua school reports were very complimentary about the new schoolhouse!

"District #1 Schoolhouse has suffered the last few winters for the want of a comfortable school-house. But the good people have aroused themselves and set an example worthy of the rank they hold as No.1. They have built one of the best schoolhouses in town. It is of brick, convenient in its interior arrangement, admirably located, with liberal grounds appended, and provision has been made to adorn the area with verdure and shrubbery. This has cost only about 1% on the taxable property in the district."

What will you see in the schoolhouse?

The measurements of the schoolhouse are 24 feet x 30 feet, with two front doors that have big granite stone steps. Boys entered one door and girls the other. They entered into a small cloak room where they hung their coats and hats and stored their lunches.

There are eleven windows with much of the original glass, and there are wooden shutters on the outside to cover the windows to protect the schoolhouse from bad weather. 

You will see a tiny little fireplace in the back of the room that was eventually replaced by an iron “box” stove. On cold days we still light the stove to heat the schoolhouse. Bigger boys had to carry wood from the woodpile outside and keep the wood box filled during the coldest weather. Girls helped out by passing the water bucket and sweeping the floor.

The slate blackboard at the front of the room is the original from the 1840’s and was installed for $1.25. It is attached unusually high on the front wall of the school because the teacher’s desk sat on a platform, like a small stage, about 10 inches high, right in front of the board. This helped her see to the back of the room since she was elevated higher than the students! (The platform was removed many years ago. Because of modern fire codes, we are not permitted to replace it.)

The wooden seats and benches are much like those the students in 1842 would have sat on, but the originals were smaller in the front of the classroom and larger in the back. Today we have them in only one size for fourth grade students. 

Who taught the school?

The early one-room schoolhouse could have a man teacher known a schoolmaster, or a woman teacher known as a school mistress or schoolmarm. They were usually young and inexperienced, but they worked very hard to teach all the children who ranged in age from 4 to 18 years old or older! They all learned in the one-room school together. The teacher taught ALL grades, all subjects, and all ages in that single room! Children who attended school were known asscholars. 

Teachers were not paid very much in 1842. According to the actual Nashua town reports, Mr. Rodney Kendall was paid $27.00 a MONTH during the winter at District #1, and Miss Sarah Bancroft was paid $9.92 a MONTH for the summer term! Why such a difference?

Why were children of all ages in the one-room school? 

The populations were small in the areas surrounding the schoolhouse, with families living mainly on farms. Nashua had only 5,500 people in 1842.

There were very few families in District #1, or any of the suburban districts.

The number of school-age children would only fill one-room.

There might only be 2 or 3 scholars in each grade.

The district could only afford one teacher.

Children in all the grades were in this one little room, but there were still 9 grades!

They ranged from Kindergarten to Grade 8. Very few children went to school after they graduated from 8th grade in 1842. 

The littlest children were called Abecedarians (pronounced: a-ba-ka-da-re-ans). Their job was to learn the ABC's.

Older scholars would help the teacher with the younger children.

All scholars would hear all the lessons that were taught in the schoolhouse every day!!

The older you were the farther back in the classroom you sat. Littlest and youngest scholars sat in the front of the room.

How long was the school year?

In 1842 school was open for about 10 or 11 weeks in the summer and about 10 or 11 weeks in the winter. They only had two school terms. There was no school in the spring or the fall, so they only attended about 100 days a year. School started around the third week of May and the third week of November. Spring and Fall were the busiest seasons on the farms and children were expected to help with the farmwork. Schools did not open during those weeks.          

What did students learn

The teacher taught all grades and all subjects from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Scholars would hear the teacher ring the school bell and enter the building through two separate doors…one for the boys and one for the girls. They sat on separate sides of the room too!

They learned reading, writing, arithmetic, history, grammar, spelling, history, rhetoric, (public speaking) and music.


The teacher would call each grade to the front of the room for “recitation” of their lessons. They would read or answer out loud while the other students would be doing “busy work” at their seats. When they were sent back to their seats, the teacher would call another grade to the front for recitation. This went on all day long unless the teacher read a story to the whole class or conducted music lessons or worked on special projects with the scholars.

Children were allowed to bring a Bible to school and read it in their spare time. 

What about lunch, recess, and going to the bathroom? 

Scholars had one hour off from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. to eat and play. This hour was called nooning. Students would bring their "dinners" outside and play for most of the hour anywhere they wished, as long as they could hear the school bell at 1:00 calling them back to classes.

Scholars brought their "dinners" from home in “berry pails” or baskets. Their mothers may have packed hard boiled eggs, apples, pears, bread with meat or lard, corn bread, cheese or sausages. In the winter they might bring raw potatoes that the teacher would put in a big iron bucket on the hot stove. By lunch time they would be hot baked potatoes. Students carved their initials into their potato to identify it.

The students’ only drink would be water from the bucket that the bigger boys filled from the well many times each day. They all drank from the same tin cup or dipper! A second bucket of water would be kept in the room for washing hands. 

At one time the school had two outhouses in back of the school, separate for boys and girls. These were little wooden buildings, with wooden seats with a hole. You sat over the hole and did your business and it would simply fall down into a deep hole under the shed! The girls were lucky to have a two-holer and the boys a one-holer. They were also known as privies, short for private. Sometimes the privy was called the necessary. Boys often waited until they could run off into the woods during nooning time.

Scholars brought their own toys from home, simple leather balls, homemade cloth dolls, wooden ring toss games, horse shoes, jacks, marbles and Jacob’s ladders.  They could go swimming in the brook during nooning time, go fishing, have tea parties, chase squirrels, have snowball fights, play Tag, Snap the Whip, Hide and Seek, and many other organized games. They never wasted a minute of nooning time so they rarely went home for lunch. Too far!! 

What materials did the scholars use in class?

Paper was much too expensive for everyday lessons, so students wrote their lessons on slates. Slate is a black type of rock that was cut into thin sheets, ground smooth, and then set into wooden frames. Slate pencils made of clay, or a softer kind of slate, were ground into cylinders and used to write on the slates. Slates could be erased with an old rag time after time as scholars finished lessons. Since slate was rock, it never wore out and there was no waste at all.

Paper was used mainly for penmanship. Until the 1840's scholars practiced with ink and quills (goose feathers). Later, scholars practiced with steel tipped pens that they dipped into ink bottles.

Notebooks called "copybooks" were made at home for their penmanship lessons and for taking important notes. Scholars would purchase a few sheets of cheap "foolscap" paper, and pile five or six sheets on top of one another. The student or their mother would hand stitch the pages together down the middle, fold the "book" in half at the stitching, and create their "copybook." Later in time, they could purchase them at the book store in Nashua.

Schoolbooks were scarce, so children had to bring their own books from home. They might even have to borrow books from a neighbor or a cousin or someone who had graduated from the 8th grade. The teacher never had a whole set of books for the class. In fact, she probably never had matching books for any grade or subject! The books were tiny in size and they were used over and over until they were very worn out. The school “library” might be a just a small book case with only about 20-30 books! 

Discipline in the one-room school... 
Children were expected to be on their best behavior at all times because the teacher had a hard job to teach all grades in such a small space. 

They were polite and knew their manners. They addressed their teacher like this:

 “Yes, Ma’m and No, Ma’m” or “Yes, Sir and No, Sir”

The number one rule was: NO WHISPERING. 

Scholars had to remain busy on their seatwork all day.

Teachers were allowed to punish scholars who did not heed warnings to behave. Parents supported the efforts of the teachers to be good disciplinarians.

Teachers used many creative forms of discipline.

Your schoolmarm may tell you of a few!             


District #1 Schoolhouse

Nashua, New Hampshire