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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter III: Early 19th Century Gropings

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[This information is from pp. 28-37 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

From the beginning of the national period until the middle of the 19th century, education was in a transitional period. While most schools were still private, an attitude was slowly but unmistakably taking root that education was not just a public charity but a public debt. In 1805 New York State added another laurel to its educational reputation by being the first state to establish a permanent fund for the purpose of encouraging and maintaining schools. (1) Other states had assumed little direct educational responsibility. At the turn of the 19th century, New York was one of the only two states which had enacted school laws. (2) Within twenty years the schools of this state had become probably the best in the whole country. (3)

Schenectady wasn't missing a trick. Whatever other cities tried, this city tried. Experiment followed experiment, not in a spirit of confusion, but one of groping. The only similarity which all the experiments seemed to have had in common was that learning was restricted to two groups: the very rich who could afford to pay the required tuition, and the very poor who could not. The great bulk of in-betweens did without.

Schenectady County Formed

The year 1809 was an outstanding year for Schenectady. It was the year when Schenectady broke with Albany and became a county in its own right. It was the year when the Board of Supervisors leased the old Academy building (on the corner of Union and Ferry streets) for $1 "for uses and purposes of a court house and gaol for the said county… reserving… suitable accommodations… for meetings of the Common Council." (4) And it was the year of the construction of the first bridge to Glenville.

Pauper School Act

On the state level, 1809 was the year that the Pauper School Act was passed. In effect, it taxed the rich to pay for the schooling of indigent children. Free education for poor children was nothing new to the New York State Dutch; they had been accustomed to that since earliest times. The bite in the new law was that in order to be eligible for help, parents had to declare publicly that they were poverty-stricken. "Schoolin's good," most of them conceded, "but if it comes to crawlin' for learnin', our young 'uns kin just stay ignorant." Civic-minded, charitable organizations came to the rescue. A report of a fair given by the ladies of St. George's Church to raise money to support a parish school shows the public concern and how it was expressed. "There are 30 Females consisting of the poor children who are picked up about the streets," it said. "They are decently clothed and taught…" (5) Even Pauper Schools, despite their obvious evils, made a contribution to the crusade for universal education; they made common day schools seem possible.

School Rate-bill

In 1812, the rate-bill was passed. Its purpose was to assess each man in proportion to the number of children he had in school. Unfortunately, as far as collecting school money was concerned, the bill made a better loophole than a lasso. It was entirely too easy for a man to cut down on his bill. All he had to do was keep one or more of his children out of school. The ideal of general and compulsory taxes for schools had a long way yet to go.

State Superintendent Named; Matching Aid Begins

A positive strengthening of the educational structure did, however, occur this same year, 1812, when New York appointed a Superintendent of Common Schools. This was the first state school officer in the United States. (6) Also, a new system of common schools, or elementary schools, introduced state aid. This was to be distributed on the basis of the school census, the state's contribution matching local taxation. There was a string attached to the offer of state aid, however. In order to collect, a school had to submit to state supervision — no supervision, no state aid. Schools were jealous of their independence. They found it hard to agree to supervision. But they found it even harder to refuse state aid. In the end, supervision, however reluctantly accepted, resulted in an inevitable raising of educational standards.

Another educational responsibility was recognized this same year. Although manumission was becoming common here, slavery was not to be outlawed in the state until 1837. There were, in 1812, still about three hundred slaves in Schenectady, and the Dutch Church that year authorized the expenditure of $50 "to instruct the people of color in this place." (7)

Competition Among Independent Teachers

Teachers were still in open competition with one another. They peddled their wares via the weekly local newspaper. Judging from the number and variety of the advertisements, there must have been almost as many Schenectady teachers as there were potential pupils. They offered to teach anything from the grammatical construction of the English Language to the science of Sacred Music. One announced the opening of a "SCHOOL at his dwelling house in Ferry Street where he will attend to the instruction of a few young gentlemen in the French and Spanish Languages." (8) Another advertised his evening school at his room in Church Street where "he will teach Reading, Writing, Navigation, Surveying &c." (9) H. L. B. Dean

author of the Analytical Guide to the Art of Penmanship… begs leave respectfully to inform the Ladies and Gentlemen of Schenectady that he has taken a room at Col. Willet's Boarding House, for the purpose of instructing both sexes in the useful art of writing…

and promises to teach the "gentlewoman a hand writing less masculine than usually taught…" (10) Even the hours of instruction varied. One man offered to teach the first five fundamental rules of arithmetic in four months upon an entirely new system at $10 a scholar with a limit of twenty scholars at 6 to 8 o'clock in the morning. (11) (italics added)

Not only did each teacher act as his own business agent, but sometimes the competition appears to have become really rough. There is more than a suspicion of the existence of professional throat-cutting in an angry insertion which states:

Whereas, designing and self-interested persons have taken considerable trouble to spread a report, that the subscriber was about to discontinue his night and day school, or both in this town, this is therefore to inform his friends and the public, that their report is groundless and formed upon self-interested and malevolent schemes. He furthermore wishes to inform his friends, that he proposes to continue his school as long as he can give satisfaction and meet with the encouragement and approbation of the public. He assures those, who please to favor him with their tuition, that no pains shall be omitted in the advancement and improvement of those placed under his care and instruction. (12)

"Female Schooling"

The early Latin schools had been for boys only. The advent of the Academy, besides introducing a broader system of education keyed to the needs of more people, was responsible for another innovation: the education of the female. Female "select schools" sprouted all over town. And though men were still considered the only really capable teachers, women were thought adequate for Female schools. In 1796 Mrs. Marie Fontaine presented her respectful compliments to the people of Schenectady, and begged to inform them through the pages of the Mohawk Mercury that "unfortunately having lost her estate in the French Revolution, and being driven into exile to preserve her life, she is obliged to have recourse to the occupation of teaching, for which she flatters herself that she is fitted by a good education." She has opened a school, she says, in the tavern of Mrs. McDougall, in North Street,

where she proposes to teach the French Language grammatically and according to the most modern practice; as also EMBROIDERY and NEEDLE-WORK of various kinds; to the young ladies in the day-time; and in the evening she will attend a class of young Gentlemen who may chuse to learn the language. Her terms are, Three Dollars & a Half per quarter, and half load of wood for each scholar. (13)

Even as early as 1807 when the term "weaker sex" still referred to mental as well as physical capacity, Schenectady boasted a Female Academy of outstanding reputation on Church Street (where the Masonic Temple later stood, and the Civic Playhouse is today). And in 1816 Governor Yates was instrumental in bringing to Schenectady a boarding school which drew pupils from all the surrounding area. After Napoleon's downfall, Monsieur and Madame de Vendell came to Schenectady and started their private school as a day school in the Governor's office on the corner of Front Street and Governor's Lane. Instruction was given entirely in French and Monsieur taught penmanship. Before long it had expanded into a boarding school, and was moved to larger quarters, located for a time at 10 N. Church Street next to the Dutch Reformed Church, and later at 6 Union Street, where the parsonage of the First Presbyterian Church stood. (14)

While select schools for young ladies offered instruction in such subjects as reading, writing, arithmetic, grammar, and rhetoric, they also included instruction in the "useful and ornamental branches of polite Education" with particular attention to the manners of the pupils. Tuition varied greatly since each subject was paid for individually at rates from $2 to $5 per quarter. Unusual subjects such as WAX WORKS and ARTIFICIALS ran as high as $10 per quarter.

Sabbath Schools

About this time the poor man's education received a boost from an innovation called the Sunday, or Sabbath, School. It took its name not from any curriculum or religious connection with the church, but merely from the day of the week on which it was conducted. It taught the standard three "R's" of the everyday school. Brought over from England, it enjoyed its greatest popularity in the first quarter of the 19th century. Originally, its purpose was to teach the children of the poor, and one of the most astounding educational revelations to the people of the times was that Sunday Schools proved that even children from underprivileged backgrounds could learn.

In Schenectady the Sunday School Society was organized in 1816. Meetings of the Society were regularly conducted except when interrupted by unusual circumstances. In the Schenectady Cabinet of November 30, 1824, a notice appeared that

In consequence of the alarm of fire on Thursday evening last, the contemplated meeting of the Schenectady Sunday School Society was omitted. The citizens are requested to attend for the purpose of adopting and subscribing a constitution, at the Session Room of the Presbyterian Church, on Wednesday next.

From time to time newspapers announced where classes would be held — in the Female Academy, in the "Consistory of the Dutch Church in the lst Ward, and Mr. John B. Clute's School-room in the 2nd Ward for the males, and the old City Hall for the females." (15)

These schools were particularly appreciated by parents because they kept the children out of mischief and yet out from under foot during the lengthy church services. Their additional possibilities were soon recognized by the Church, and the Sunday school was everywhere changed from a full day of secular study to an hour or so of religious study. Before that happened, though, the Sunday school too had done its bit to prove the feasibility of the common day school.

Notes for Chapter III

  1. Education in New York State, comp. and ed. Harlan Hoyt Homer (Albany, N. Y.: State Education Department, 1954, p. 12.
  2. Adolphe E. Meyer, An Educational History of the American People (New York, Toronto, London: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1957), p. 107.
  3. Ellwood F. Cubberly, Public Education in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919 and 1934) p. 99.
  4. Schenectady Sesquicentennial 1809-1959, Historical Souvenir Program. Also in a history of education in the city given in Annual Report of the Board of Education, 1854, p. 36. (Schenectady City School District, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  5. Palmer Diary Transcripts, 1844. (Folder at the City History Center, Schenectady, N. Y. Original Diary located at Union College.)
  6. Horner, loc. cit.
  7. John J. Birch, The Pioneering Church of the Mohawk Valley, (Schenectady, N. Y.: Consistory of the First Reformed Church, 1955), p. 175.
  8. Schenectady Cabinet, October 22, 1813.
  9. Ibid., December, 1813.
  10. Ibid., November 23, 1813.
  11. Ibid., June 15, 1814.
  12. Mohawk Mercury (Schenectady, N. Y.), December 22, 1795.
  13. Ibid., November 22, 1796.
  14. Walton Folder on education, City History Center, Schenectady, N. Y.
  15. Schenectady Cabinet, May 27, 1817; May 13, 1818; and others.

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