Website Review

19th Century Schoolbooks

In 1958, Dr. John Nietz, an emeritus professor of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, donated 9,000 old textbooks from his personal collection to the Pitt library. 19th Century Schoolbooks offers full-text access to 140 of these volumes as well as two surveys of historic schoolbooks created by Nietz. The books are available as page images as well as searchable text. An index of the collection provides bibliographic records for all 16,000 volumes in Nietz's collection.

The collection focuses on standardized textbooks on general subject matters (most often reading, spelling, geography, arithmetic, and history), published or circulated between 1800 and 1899 for use in K-12 schools. The site allows for several types of searches: basic, boolean, proximity, and bibliographic searches, for those seeking a specific search-term, and a helpful browsing feature for those who simply want to see a sampling of what the collection offers. Clicking on a letter of the alphabet will allow you to browse all titles that begin with that letter.

This site will be most immediately useful to those studying the history of U.S. education, but other historians can find much here that could be of use in their classes. One intriguing aspect of the site is its revelations about the social values of a bygone time. The proliferation of textbooks on elocution and oratory, for example, attests to the earnest emphasis on spoken words in the 19th century: how to pronounce them, how to voice them clearly and "correctly"; how to emote words for dramatic recitations.

Texts like Dr. Scudder's Tales for Little Readers, About the Heathen vividly demonstrate the condescending curiosity in 19th-century Orientalism. Chapter Two, "The Colors and Ornaments of the Hindoos," explains to the child-reader that some heathens are red, some are black, and many of them are beautiful, especially the "children of Brahmins and others, who are delicately brought up."

Entries such as The Ladies' Reader: designed for the use of schools and family reading circles, are valuable for exploring gender. This reader contains selections from famous literary works deemed appropriate for female sensibilities.

Teachers of early American history might find it useful to examine the New England Primer, a valuable resource reproduced in its entirety. The New England Primer was a standard reader used for over two centuries, making it one of the foremost influential pedagogical texts in U.S. history. Examining each page of the Primer, visitors can study its juxtapositions of Puritan theology with elemental reading lessons, as in its famous Rhymed Alphabet (Letter J: "Job feels the Rod / Yet blesses God").

The full texts of two treatises written by Nietz on textbooks are also useful resources: Old Textbooks (1961) and The Evolution of American Secondary-School Textbooks (1966). These texts provide a good historical overview and introduction to the subject matter, as well as providing insight into the approach to analyzing textbooks in the 1960s.

Additional reference materials include Using Textbooks as a Research Resource: A Bibliography, which offers an annotated list of scholarly works that utilize children's textbooks as primary sources. The bibliography includes works from as early as 1908, providing a rare longitudinal glimpse of the field of education-history. One limitation in this bibliography is that it contains no works more recent than the 1990s.

A resource page provides links to related websites, such as the American Antiquarian Society's Pedagogical Juvenile Books collection. The entries are representative (not comprehensive) of special collections and rare-book rooms in U.S., British, and Canadian libraries. Some links are out of date. Overall, this website offers much that is useful in studying the history of American children's education.

How to Cite This Source

"19th Century Schoolbooks," in Children and Youth in History, Item #28, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/website-reviews/28 (accessed November 22, 2014).

The collection focuses on standardized textbooks on general subject matters (most often reading, spelling, geography, arithmetic, and history), published or circulated between 1800 and 1899 for use in K-12 schools.