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What was school like 150 years ago?


Students from Model School in Ottawa, late 1800s. (Photo by Library and Archives Canada licensed CC BY 2.0)

Canada’s 150th birthday is a great time to find out more about 1867, the year the country was founded. In honour of back-to-school time, let’s zoom in on the schools from all those years ago!

One room for everybody!

Mt Hanley School - a one room schoolhouse in the snow

A typical Canadian one-room schoolhouse from the 1800s — Mt. Hanley Schoolhouse in Annapolis County, Nova Scotia. (Wikimedia/Letterofmarque)

You may have had a year where you were in what’s called a “split" class — when two grade levels share the same room. Now imagine all the grades in one room! That’s what school was like for most kids 150 years ago. One-room schoolhouses were common, especially near the farms or small towns where most families lived. The teacher would stand at the front where there would be a big blackboard. The students might have rows of desks or just benches to sit on.

the inside of a one room schoolhouse

You can see the wood stove that heated the room of the École du Rang Cinq Chicots, Quebec, at the back. The light fixtures are modern for visitors — you would only have had light from the windows. (Wikimedia/Malimage/CC BY-SA 3.0)

There wasn’t any electricity back then, so light came from the windows and a few lamps. The schoolhouses were heated by large metal stoves that burned wood. Parents in the school district were expected to chip in to provide wood for the school, so lots of times kids might walk to school carrying a log or two!

School supplies

a desk with a writing slate

Schoolchildren would write in class on miniature blackboards, called slates. (Hutschi at the German Language Wikipedia/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Paper and books were hard to get, so textbooks were often shared. To do math problems or write out answers, students used slates during class. These were like mini handheld blackboards. Kids would write on them with chalk and then wipe off the slates for the next lesson.

an ink pot with quills

Quills and ink were used instead of pens. (Photo by Chris Wightman licensed CC BY 2.0)

For big exams or to practice handwriting, paper and pens would be used, but the pens back then were very different. They were often made out of quills from birds and were dipped in pots of ink in order to write. That could lead to things getting messy! Ink spills and stains can really mess up a test! Even using pencils was tricky — the pencils had to be sharpened with knives!

Who gets to learn

a classroom from the 1900s

The classroom at the Prospect School in Thunder Bay, Ontario, in the early 1900s. (Photo by Thunder Bay Museum)

In the country and small towns, schools went up to Grade 8. High schools — or as they was called then, grammar schools — were in cities or big towns. So usually only children with rich parents got to go to school past Grade 8.

a young girl in a kitchen

A young girl helps cook at the residence of James Ballantyne, in Ottawa, 1907. (Photo by Library and Archives Canada licensed CC BY 2.0)

Lots of people back then didn’t send girls to school at all, because they thought it wasn't important for girls to learn. Even wealthy families didn’t give girls an equal education to boys, and the girls were taught things like sewing and manners instead of school subjects. Kids were also often sent to different schools based on on their race or religion. It was very unfair, and many people had to fight to get any sort of education.

What they studied

teacher standing in front of a blackboard

A recreation of a teacher from the 1800s at Fort Edmonton Park in Alberta, teaching the alphabet. (Photo by IQRemix licensed CC BY-SA 2.0)

When kids did get to go to school, they were expected to memorize lots of things, standing in front of the schoolroom to recite their lessons. The subjects were mainly reading, math and writing, with others like geography added to the curriculum in 1850 and history in 1860.

little boy on a vegetable cart

When things got busy on the farm, you were expected to take time off school to help out — like this young boy helping his family with the vegetable cart on the John Davis Farm in 1913. (Photo by Library and Archives Canada licensed CC BY 2.0)

Kids hardly ever got perfect attendance. Bad weather kept everyone away, and when students’ families lived on farms, they were expected to help out and stay home from school when things got busy. The reason we have summer vacation today is because summer is when everything’s growing. That's one thing we can thank the schools of the past for!