This page conforms to the XHTML standard and uses style sheets. If your browser doesn't support these, you may not see the page as designed, but all the text is still accessible to you.


Bringing the heritage of Schenectady County, New York to the world since 1996

You are here: Home » Education » Neisuler's History » Chapter IV

The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter IV: The Lancaster System

Go back to Chapter III | ahead to Chapter V

[This information is from pp. 38-49 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.]

The year 1816 deserves a double accolade. Organization of the Sunday School Society was only one of its significant accomplishments in the city. That same year witnessed the inauguration of the most spectacular educational move since the founding of the city: the Lancaster School System. This system was at once a dramatic break with the past, and an intriguing prediction of the future. It was the first system to open the school door to so many. And the key which had unlocked the school door was the unprecedentedly low rate of tuition of $1 per child per quarter.

Legislation Approved

All over town people had been discussing the new system of education. "Can't be so bad; Troy's using the system already, I hear." "So many children all in one building I dunno." "You think what we have is so good?" "If men like DeWitt Clinton, Mayor of New York, and Dr. Eliphalet Nott, President of Union College, are so enthusiastic about it, that's good enough for me." Small meetings all over town threshed out all phases of the matter, and finally a mass meeting was called, and a report presented. There were nine hundred children between the ages of five and fifteen in the city, the report said, and "Sunday schools recently established prove that nearly or quite 200 of these children are growing up without moral instruction. To rescue these from ignorance and vice, is an object worthy of every patriot — of every Christian." (1) A petition, spearheaded by Mr. Maus Schermerhorn, Mayor of the city, was drawn up, signed, and delivered to the Legislature of Albany, requesting an Act incorporating the Lancaster School System for Schenectady. The request was granted.

Lancaster System Established

The system was to be under the management of thirteen trustees, to be elected annually by the citizens. The first Board of Trustees included Maus Schermerhorn (Mayor, 1813-1817), Henry Yates, Jr. (Mayor, 1817-1825), Cyrus Stebbins, Jacob Van Vechten, Hooper Cummings, Isaac Riggs, Elisha Taylor, Dr. Eliphalet Nott, James Bailey, David Boyd, Abraham S. Groat, Charles Kane and James C. Duane. The two inner wards raised $213.72 in taxes, and the state matched that amount.

In the shadow of the College building, between Long College (built in 1805-1810 on College Street and in part still standing) and the Hooker building on the corner of Union and College streets, a two-story brick building was erected at a cost of $809.95, including fifty-four acres of land at $9 an acre. The school was divided into eight reading classes, and Dr. Nicholas Van Vranken, who had taught Latin and Greek at the old Academy, was made the first teacher. He was to be paid $750 a year — provided the school collected that much; otherwise, he would get whatever was left after expenses were met. The indefiniteness of his salary was caused by the fact that the $1 tuition was based upon attendance every day of the quarter, and money had to be refunded for absences. Some students found their appetite for education was satiated after two or three days of schooling. Since there were no truant officers, there was no one to persuade them to the contrary.

Phenomenal Success

Success was, nevertheless, instantaneous and phenomenal. Within a year the school was packed with 267 students. In less than five more years the tuition was reduced to twenty-five cents. And after a generation of Schenectadians had been exposed to the system, the Federal Census of 1840 reported that there were only seventeen people over twenty years of age in the city who could not read or write as opposed to 145 illiterates in Albany that year and 1,228 in Rochester.(2) Everybody had progressed but the teacher; his salary had been cut and his duties increased. Henceforth, he was to receive $500 plus some tuition, and he would be expected to bargain for and supervise all repairs, the building of walks, and similar upkeep.

Why was the Lancaster System of education at first such a fantastic success, and why, finally, was it such an abysmal failure?

Basically, the system's accomplishments were threefold: it brought education financially within the reach of almost everybody; it taught the schools to cope with masses of children; and it accustomed the general public to paying for education. None of these accomplishments would have been possible without the one feature which characterizes the Lancaster School: the monitor system.

The Monitor System

The English schoolmaster, Joseph Lancaster, instrumental in developing the system and introducing it to America, was dedicated but impecunious. A motto he displayed in his schoolroom gives evidence of the first, and reason for the second. It read: "All who will may send their children and have them educated freely, and those who do not wish to have education for nothing may pay for it if they please." (3) Apparently, few insisted on paying and Mr. Lancaster found himself with too many children to teach, and not enough money with which to hire assistants. He hit upon an ingenious method of correlating the two. Every day he drilled some of the older and brighter boys in the new lesson. Then, he assigned each of them to teach the same lesson to eight or ten of the younger children.

This, in essence, was the monitorial system. From the moment a child entered the school, he was caught up in its mechanical spirit. There was a monitor to admit him, a monitor to examine and promote him, and a monitor to check attendance. There was a monitor in charge of the cloakroom, a monitor in charge of ruling the paper, and a monitor in charge of books and slates. Every action was executed on command, and with military precision. "Sling your hats!" ordered the monitor, and every hat was grabbed off, and slung around the neck on a string attached for the purpose. "Show slates!" "Stand up!" "Be seated!" Ten to the row, the children were sorted and seated, drilled and directed, like inanimate objects on an assembly line. And woe betide the non-conformist who dawdled or broke ranks!

The system was completely impersonal. When properly executed, Lancaster bragged, the system would take over, "not the master's vague, discretionary, uncertain judgement." (4) In a Lancaster school, he observed, the class would proceed as well with or without the teacher in the room; the role of teacher was merely that of a bystander and inspector, anyway. (5)

Seats and tables were all in the center of the room. The teacher instructed the monitors from a printed card, and then each monitor led his row to one of the regular "stations" along the wall. There, on stiff pasteboard cards hanging from the wall was the lesson to be drilled. "Toe the mark!" came the order, and all toes touched the semi-circular guide-line painted on the floor. Anyone who failed to assume the proper stance felt the bite of the rattan in the hand of the chief monitor, whose sole duty was to patrol the room, his switch "on the ready."


For the writing lessons, the tables were divided into partitions, or shallow boxes filled with white sand. To save paper, which was very expensive and not very good, the beginner was taught to trace the letters of the alphabet in the sand using his finger as a pencil. When he showed sufficient improvement, he was given a stick, sharp at one end and flat at the other, with which he could draw the light and heavy lines characteristic of old time writing without having to retrace them. To prepare the sand for starting again, a ruler the same size as the partition was first drawn along the sand to smooth it out. On the other side of the ruler were evenly spaced pegs which, as the ruler was drawn along, made straight lines — the equivalent of lined paper. After the pupil had completed the work of the a-b, or alphabet, class, he was rewarded with the use of a slate or pencil. Ultimately, he was allowed to try pen and ink.

At first the three "R's" lagged far behind such subjects as bookkeeping, navigation, and surveying. "Grammar and geography although not entirely neglected, have been attended to by… few," observed an article in the Schenectady Cabinet of March 14, 1827. But soon these subjects, as well as reading, writing, spelling and ciphering were all receiving greater emphasis. In some reports, an astonishingly modern attitude was apparent. One newspaper account said,

The instruction in this branch (arithmetic) has been adapted, as much as possible to the capacities of the pupils, and the explanations have been made by the introduction of familiar objects and every day transactions, so as to enable the scholar early to apply his knowledge to some useful purpose. (6)

Further explanation of the attention given to basic subjects appeared in still another copy of the local press. It read:

As good spelling is an indispensable requisite in forming a good reader, our scholars are made to spend a considerable portion of each school time, in writing words dictated to them on their slates, and spelling them, when written under the inspection of suitable monitors, appointed to attend to that particular business… Whenever a scholar is able to write a plain and fair hand on the slate, he is then furnished with paper and other necessary articles at the expense of the school, and allowed to write twice in each week. (7)

Then, lest any reader suspect the school of being less than circumspect with tax money, the report hastened to add that "if he wishes to write every day he is then required to furnish his own paper."

Frequently, the students studied their spelling orally. An early Schenectadian tells of standing across the street from the school, and hearing the whole school drawl in unison: "A, b-o-m, abom, i, abomi, n-a, abomina, t-i-o-n, shun, abomination." (8) A childish love-note, discarded on the street outside the schoolhouse either by the sender from temporary loss of courage or by the recipient from permanent lack of interest, tends to prove that even this concentrated drill in spelling was insufficient for some students. Its touching sentiment, nevertheless, pleads leniency for its mechanical imperfections.

If you love me as I love you,
know knife will cut our love into,
the rose is red the vile is blu
the pink is sweet and so is you.
my pen is poor my ink is pail
my love to you shall never fail.
Read this write as you will see
Ile have you if youle have me.
(Signed) Marian Davis (9)

The achievement of the system was necessarily limited by the individuals fed into it. Boys and girls who "on a summer's morning, came patting up the aisles with their bare feet and with one simultaneous feeling rushed for the tin cups and the water-pail" or who, on a cold winter's morning "came stamping in the door with twine tied around the bottom of their satinet pantaloons, clustering around the stove and pushing each other against the hot metal," (10) remained, in spite of anything the system could do, human beings with human desires and human frailties. In order to be inspired to work, they required motivation. The only known motivation in those days was reward that could be seen, and punishment that could be felt.


Being a Quaker, Joseph Lancaster did not approve of physical punishment. Too bad this could not be said of more of his imitators! On a platform in the middle of the room was the "Master's" desk, flanked on either side by two smaller desks belonging to the "much dreaded and more hated" monitors of order. It was the duty of these officers to apprehend and punish anyone caught sneaking a goody into his mouth, doodling on his slate, carving initials into desks, or in any other way stepping out of bounds. If the monitor's chastisement proved ineffective, the offender was hauled up before the Master, who quickly taught him the difference between sense and nonsense.

There seems to have existed no dearth of corrective measures. Many were worse than beatings, and some must certainly have taxed the ingenuity of their inventors. One Schenectady teacher immortalized his reputation by tying boys up by their thumbs while making them stand on their toes. (11) Sometimes a split stick was fastened to a boy's tongue, nose or lip. Sometimes he was made to stand endlessly, it seemed, on his right foot and left hand, or vice versa. And sometimes he was forced to hold a stick of wood or a heavy poker in one hand with his arm outstretched until both muscles and boy screamed in pain. For a lesser offense, it was considered sufficient to shame the child, to crush only his spirit. In such cases, a boy might simply be tied to a pillar. Or, as a Schenectady contemporary reminisced, "If two boys shared the mischief, one would have to sit on an old sheet-iron snow shovel, while the other, with a chain attached to the handle and a string of tin cups hung around his neck would pull him around the schoolroom, amid the jeering of their classmates. (12)

Punishment, though heavily counted on, was only one means of influencing behavior. At the other extreme was a complicated system of rewards. Excellent work and good behavior were rewarded by degrees of rank, badges and mill tickets. Tickets came in denominations of one, two, five and ten mills. Each mill ticket was worth one penny. At the end of the term the teacher would put several piles of bright shiny pennies on his desk. Each child would then exchange for their equivalent in hard cash all the mill tickets he or she had received during the year.

Some might collect as many as sixty mill tickets, some even one hundred. Eut the only one who could amass the fortune of 250 mills was the one called, for some reason lost to posterity, "the poet." He had earned ten mills a week by carrying home the jug filled with homemade ink every winter's night to keep it from freezing. This system of rewards did stimulate enterprise and exertion; but it also inspired bitterness and snobbery.

Whether because of rewards, in spite of punishments, or irrespective of either, things certainly looked promising for the Lancaster system.

Notes for Chapter IV

  1. Schenectady Cabinet, October, 1816.
  2. Suggestive Information to Assist Schenectady Public Schools Observe the Centennial 1854-1954, comp. W. B. Efner (Schenectady, N. Y.: Schenectady City School District).
  3. Mary R. Healy, The Lancaster School System with Special Application to Schenectady, New York (1953), p. 5. (Manuscript loaned to author).
  4. Ellwood F. Cubberly, Public Education in the United States (Boston, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1919 and 1934), note on p. 131.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Schenectady Cabinet, March 14, 1827.
  7. Ibid., March 9, 1825.
  8. Schenectady Cabinet (or Freedom's Sentinel), July 20, 1841.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Notes made by William Nelson Potter Dailey, D. D., from reminiscences of Harriet Bowers Mumford Paige. (City History Center and Schenectady County Historical Society, Schenectady, N. Y.).
  12. Schenectady Cabinet, July 20, 1841.

Go to top of page | back to Chapter III | ahead to Chapter V

You are here: Home » Education » Neisuler's History » Chapter IV updated March 31, 2015

Copyright 2015 Schenectady Digital History Archive — a service of the Schenectady County Public Library