[To “Voices from 19th-Century America”]

The District School As It Was,
by Warren Burton (1833; 1838)

The District School As It Was was published anonymously in its first two editions, though in 1838 the author was revealed: Warren Burton (1800-1866), a minister who worked to improve public education. Reviewers were kind to the work, reinforcing Burton’s descriptions with anecdotes from their own schooldays.

A “district school” education was a public education. Henry Ward Beecher detested his experience at a district school: “It was our misfortune, in boyhood, to go to a District School. A little, square, pine building, blazing in the sun, stood upon the highway, without a tree for shade or shadow near it; without bush, yard, fence or circumstance to take off its bare, cold, hard, hateful look.” (“School Reminiscence,” in Star Papers) Burton isn’t much kinder, describing an uncomfortable building and uneducated teachers. Students ranged in age from three years old to late teens, and education was iffy.

The notion of “summer school” and “winter school” was common in New England; young students unneeded for farm work were educated in the summer; older students attended school in winter. In early Connecticut, the schools were also distinguished by the gender of the teacher: “It was the custom at this place,” according to Samuel Griswold Goodrich, “to have a woman’s school in the summer months, and this was attended only by young children. It was, in fact, what we now call a primary or infant school. In winter, a man was employed as teacher, and then the girls and boys of the neighborhood, up to the age of eighteen, or even twenty, were among the pupils. It was not uncommon, at this season, to have forty scholars crowded into this little building.” (Recollections of a Lifetime, vol 1; p. 34)

The book was well received, especially among those trying to improve education. Memorus Wordwell’s “spelling lesson” was reprinted in several reviews and in Youth’s Cabinet. At least one reviewer wondered that the narrator remembers so many details about Mary Smith, his favorite teacher; it’s been pointed out that Smith is a portrait of Burton’s mother, a teacher who died a few months after Burton’s birth. (See Evert and George Duyckinck. Cyclopaedia of American Literature (Philadelphia: W. Rutter, 1875) vol 2; p. 445.)

Today, the book is an education in early American life. The narrator eats a Pumpkin Sweeting, a large, orangeish-yellow apple. (The apple is mentioned in the 1833 edition of District, which predates the usual date given for first record of this apple.) For lunch, he also takes “ ’lection cake,” an election cake that in The Kentucky Housewife is a sweet yeast-bread. District is also an education in early American spelling. “Visiter” and “instructer” are early spellings, as “swoln” is of “swollen,” “trowsers” is of “trousers,” and “contemn” is of “condemn.”

The second edition, 1838, is presented here as a single file, with the original page numbers. As often in early American books, hyphenation is erratic; I haven’t attempted to standardize it. Pdfs of both the 1833 and 1838 editions are available at archive.org; the frontispiece of the Only Sure Guide to the English Tongue is reproduced in the 1850 edition.

Notices and reviews of the book are on a separate page.

The District School As It Was | reviews of the book

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