Learning Lincoln On-line


Education in a Blab School by a "Wizzard" or School Master


Abraham Lincoln's Childhood Education

(Left) Mentor Graham's Schoolhouse at New Salem State Historical Site, near Petersburg, Il



(Right) Mentor Graham would tutor the young adult Abraham Lincoln, and helped him prepare for the law exam he would take to enter the Illinois Bar.


1 A typical schoolroom-- would be a fairly small, one-room log structure. Towns generally did have a school, and in some rural areas, there might be a small country school serving children of a broad range of ages and learning levels. A subscription school was one where parents paid the teacher to enroll their child. 


2 Children of all ages-- would attend the pioneer country school.  Parents would have to pay the teacher, or wizard, as he was sometimes called.


3 The school calendar-- Children were especially needed at home during planting and harvest time, so many attended school during the winter. The majority of children had a limited formal education if any. Few attended school for more than a few years.


4 The Holy Bible-- was the only book read in Abraham's first school would be the Bible.


5 The chief learning method-- was to memorize and repeat.


6 Arithmetic practice-- would be done on slate boards with chalk.


7 The students would take turns reading out-loud-- so that the school-master could listen.  Everyone would continue to read out-loud, all-at-once.  The volume of the voices could be heard for some distance from the log building.


8 When recess would come-- the students could decide whether they go outside or stay inside. 


9 Writing would be taught-- then called penmanship. 


10 Education level of teachers-- Not many of the teachers, or wizards, would be much more than beyond basic literacy. 


11 Abraham's appearance at school-- He attended school dressed in a raccoon cap, buckskin clothes, and pants so short that several inches of his calves were exposed.


12 Abraham's sister, Sarah, was two years older than him, and had dark hair and gray eyes.  She went to school also.


13 Abraham Lincoln's schooling Quality-- a few months when he was ten and another month or two when he was fourteen -- was no better and no worse than the schooling of most backwoods boys in Indiana in that period. 


14 The schools he attended-- Andrew Crawford's, then Azel Dorsey's and William Sweeney's -- were 'blab schools,' where the children studied aloud.  Click Here to read more about Blab Schools.


15 Pike's Arithmetic-- Abe learned 'manners,' simple arithmetic, and how to read and write, from Pike's Arithmetic   and Dilworth's Spelling Book, and by studying and memorizing the speeches of famous men he mastered a kind of oratory. 


16 Abraham Lincoln, after the age of twelve--  used "Pike's Arithmetic," which was the short name for Nicholas Pike's New and Complete System of Arithmetic. While studying the book, Abraham learned simple addition, compound subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, coins, weights and measures.


17 Ciphering to the Rule of Three-- One of the things Pike taught in his book was the "Rule of Three," which stated that if three numbers were known, the fourth could be computed by looking at the proportion between the first and second. According to the rule, the proportion between the third and fourth numbers would be the same.


Dilworth's Schoolmaster's Assistant-- had a small section at the back of the book called "A Short Collection of Pleasant and Diverting Questions". Here we find nine "brain teasers" such as the classic problem of the farmer who has to get a fox, a goose and some corn across the river in a small boat. You may want to consider challenging your visitors with the same "brain teasers" that perplexed students six generations ago. 

Here's the story:

        Before proceeding to another subject we shall examine briefly the "Short Collection of Pleasant and Diverting Questions" in Dilworth.
        We shall meet there with a company of familiar friends. Who has not heard of the farmer, who, having a fox, a goose, and a peck of corn, and wishing to cross a river, but being able to carry but one at a time,
was confounded as to how he should carry them across so that the fox should not devour the goose, nor the goose the corn?

        Who has not heard of the perplexing problem of how three jealous husbands with their wives may cross a river in a boat holding only two, so that none of the three wives shall be found in company of one or two men, unless her husband be present.

         Many of us, no doubt, have also been asked to place the nine digits in a quadrangular form in such a way that any three figures in a line may make just 15? When these pleasing problems were first proposed to us, they came like the morning breeze, with exhilarating freshness. We little suspected that these apparently new-born creatures of fancy were in reality of considerable antiquity; that they
were found in an arithmetic used in this country one hundred years ago.
          Still greater is our surprise when we learn that at the time they were published in Dilworth's School-master's Assistant some of these questions for amusement had already seen as many as one thousand birthdays.

. . . Ciphering Book for the Class:  Often there was no textbook at all, either for the teacher or for the students, and much of the instruction relied on the "ciphering book" approach. The master would dictate a "rule" which would be written down by the student in his ciphering book, (i.e. a set of folded papers sewed together into a "book"). A "sum" (i.e. math problem) would then be written into the ciphering book by the master and the student would solve the sum using the rule. A number of writers reported using birch bark instead of paper for their preliminary work. The learning was mostly rote memorization with little effort made to understand the logic and reasoning behind the process. A lot of class time was spent just waiting for the master to "set the sum" or to check the work, and this time was often used by the student to elaborately decorate his ciphering book. Many of these have come down to us as treasured family heirlooms. A teacher who did not possess an arithmetic book of his own (and there were many who didn't) would use as a teaching text the ciphering book that he had created as a student.   See the picture from a ciphering book below.           


Problems from "Useful and Diverting Exercises" in Pike's Arithmetick are:

       A man dying left his wife in expectation that a child would be afterwards added to the surviving family; and making his will, ordered, that, if the child were a son 2% of his estate should belong to him, and the remainder to his mother; but if it were a daughter, he appointed the mother 2%, and the child the remainder. But it happened, that the addition was both a son and a daughter, by which the widow lost in equity, $2400 more than if there had been only a girl. What would have been  her dowry had she had only a son?

  Answer: $2100

When first the marriage knot was tied
Between my wife and me,
My age with hers did so agree,
As nineteen does with eight and three;
But after ten and half ten years,
We man and wife had been,
Her age came up so near to mine,
As two times three to nine.
What was our ages at marriage?    

Answers: 57 yrs. old and 33 yrs. old






Most of Abraham's later learning-- would be done by reading and private study.



The 19th Century Pioneer School Houses, Students and Teachers

        Of course the early schools were not much like those we are used to to-day.  Suppose we go back and visit one of these old, pioneer schools.  As we walk along, we must watch carefully for rattlesnakes if it is warm weather.  Wolves and wildcats are also around.  Did you see that deer as it ran across the path ahead of us?

        But here we are at the schoolhouse.  It is made of logs and has only one room.  At one end is a large fireplace.  In the winter this has a roaring fire.  There are two windows on each side, but it seems rather dark.  Do you see why?  The windows are not covered with clear glass, but with oiled paper.  This gives some light, but you cannot see through it.  Of course, as the people got more money, they put in glass windows.  You notice, as you walk across the floor, that it is very rough.  It is made of puncheons.

        Now the children are taking their seats.  Instead of the fine desks and comfortable seats you have in your school, these children have only rough benches.  Along each side of the building holes have been drilled into the logs and strong wooden pins have been driven into these holes.  Upon these were laid planks or puncheon slabs, smoothed with drawknife to form desks.

        The seats for these rude desks are also made of planks or puncheon slabs, with strong wooden pins driven into holes on the under side for the legs.  Sometimes these seats had no backs at all.  Then the boys and girls could sit with their faces to the wall or turn around and face the center of the room, just as they wished.  You can imagine that it was hard work to sit still on these benches all day.

        You see all the boys sit on one side of the room and all the girls on the other side. Sometimes the teacher puts a boy over on the girls' side, or a girl over on the side with the boys.  This was usually considered a great punishment.

        But that was not the chief punishment.  Do you see that long, heavy ruler on the teacher's desk and the switches hanging on the wall close by?  The pupils were often beaten on the palm of the open hand with this ruler or severely whipped with the switches.  This might be for disobeying orders or being noisy, but the children were whipped also if they failed to learn the spelling lesson or did not read well.

       The smallest children are leaning their A B C's.  Those just a little larger are studying their spelling lesson.  The larger children are leaning to read, and some of the big boys and girls are working problems in arithmetic on the blackboard.  I know you think that that is a queer blackboard.  You see it is made of planks fastened together and painted black.  The erasers are made of sheepskin with the wool side out.

       Here is a reading class.  The readers are not much like the books you are using to-day. There is no place to buy school books and so each child has to use whatever books his family brought west with them.  Some of the children have Bibles instead of readers.

       Some of the larger pupils have their faces turned towards the wall.  They are writing in their copy books.  Can you see what these are like?  Here is one made of several sheets of foolscap paper fastened together.  It has a heavy cover of brown wrapping paper.  At the top of the sheet the teacher has written the line, "Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you."  The pupil writes this line on the paper beneath the copy and tries to make it look like the line the teacher wrote.

      The boys and girls who are writing have pens made of the quills from a goose.  The hard part of the quill has been cut in the shape of the steel pen point you are using to-day.

      The children's mothers made their ink at home of maple bark and copperas.  They do not have many lead pencils.  Here is a real lead pencil.  It is made of a bullet lengthened out and sharpened.

      At first the parents paid the teacher themselves.  Later, of course, a tax was levied to pay for the school.  Usually the first teachers were men, for the large boys who went to these pioneer schools in the wintertime would not obey unless the teacher was strong enough to punish them.  Since there was no boarding house or hotel near the schoolhouse, the teacher boarded at the cabins of the pioneers.  Usually each family kept the teacher part of the time.  The early pioneers called this "boarding around."

      Sometimes a school was opened in the cabin of a pioneer even before the men had time to build a schoolhouse.  Such a school was usually taught by one of the mothers of fathers.  Or the schoolhouse might be two or three miles away from some of the homes, and in winter the small children could not walk through the snow.  Then as the boys and girls grew large enough to help with the work, they had to stay at home to do chores, plow corn, herd the cattle, or do some of the many things which had to be done on the farm.  Usually the larger children did not expect to go to school during the summer term.

      Most of the boys and girls in pioneer Iowa did not go to school very many years.  The school was usually open three or four months in the winter and two or three months in summer.  Often these boys and girls wanted to go to school more than they were able to--for they knew that a boy or girl who could read, write, and spell well could do many things which an ignorant person could not do.  At that time, good writing, for one thing, was much admired.  There were no typewriting machines and all the writing had to be done by hand.  A young man who could write well might get employment which paid money.  Sometimes a man or woman who could write well would start a writing school in the evenings.  Young people could pay a small fee to improve their writing.

      They they had spelling schools.  Perhaps the minister or the teacher would start a spelling school.  All the young people came to the settler's cabin or the schoolhouse.  For part of the time spelling classes were heard.  It was just like a school, but all the classes were studying spelling.  Before they went home they would "spell down."  Two leaders were chosen.  One leader chose some one.  When all were lined up in two lines, the teacher gave out the words.  The first person in one line spelled the first word, then the leader of the other line spelled a word.  Then the next in line spelled and so on down the lines.  Whenever anyone failed to spell a word correctly, he or she had to sit down.  The last one up was said to "spell down" the school.

       Sometimes the young men and women, or the young men alone, started debating societies or literary societies.  They often called their society a lyceum.  Here the young men debated, argued, and gave orations.  The girls usually recited some selections they had learned.  Such societies took the place of movies for these young people.  They liked to go and they learned a great many things.

       These pioneer young people wanted to learn to sing, too.  In those days none of the houses had pianos, organs, victrolas, or radios.  A few people had violins.  The pioneers called them fiddles.  But for the most part singing was the only music they had.  How glad the boys and girls and young men and women were when some one who could sing well came into the neighborhood!  This gave them a chance to have a singing school.  The music teacher gave out the song and started it on the right key.  How they did like to sing, but perhaps they liked the rides home in the sleighs and cutters even better!

       Probably you are thinking that these pioneer boys and girls could not have learned much in these log schoolhouses.   Many of them did not, but they did learn to work at home and some of them learned to read, write, and spell very well.  Governors, senators, members of Congress, and many other famous men came from these pioneer schools.  Of course the people had academies or high schools and colleges, too, as soon as they could; but most of the pioneers attended only the country schools.






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