By Michael Day
For much of the 19th century teachers were itinerant laborers who moved from one community to another in search of work. Certainly there were "home-grown" teachers, particularly in view of the fact that no special training was needed for the job. But if a community expected to attract an educated teacher, special accommodations had to be made, so communities routinely provided room and board for the teacher.
In a story called "The Sufferings of a Country Schoolmaster", William Austin described how one community solicited bids at the Annual Town Meeting for the job of boarding and feeding the schoolmaster. There was, in effect, a reverse auction with the lowest bidder getting the job of keeping the teacher. Austin wrote that he was, "at noonday publicly sold at auction", and went on to describe how he was so poorly fed that he had to catch squirrels and wild rabbits in order to avoid starvation.
But more often than not, the teachers were expected to "board round", that is, live with their students' families, often moving each week from one house to the next. This was considered a good way for the teacher to get to know the children and the families, and it did reduce the town's out-of-pocket expenses. For the teacher, "boarding round" could be a trial, and the conditions of their "board" are a common theme in the letters and stories that teachers wrote. One teacher from Wisconsin in an 1851 letter wrote of her experience boarding round: "I found it very unpleasant, especially during the winter and spring terms, for one week I would board where I would have a comfortable room; the next week my room would be so open that the snow would blow in, and sometimes I would find it on my bed, and also in it. A part of the places where I boarded I had flannel sheets to sleep in; and the others cotton. But the most unpleasant part was being obliged to walk through the snow and water. I suffered much from colds and a cough." Another young lady from Connecticut on her first teaching assignment on the frontier of Wisconsin , wrote a similar letter, and added, "But what was worse than all, I was obliged to sleep in the same room with Mr. & Mrs. Richardson. It is a very common thing for both sexes to sleep in the same room."
The practice seems to have been wide-spread, but specifics are hard to find. In 1846 the report of the Connecticut Board of Education noted that, state-wide, 911 teachers were found to "Board round" while 174 were found to "Board themselves". In the more rural counties "boarding round" was the norm. Windham County , in the northeast corner, reported 101 teachers boarding round and only one boarding himself; in Litchfield County , in the northwest corner, 157 teachers were boarding round, while 5 boarded themselves. Unfortunately, follow-up statistics were not included in subsequent State reports. That the practice continued is suggested by the fact that State reports on teacher pay throughout 1860's included the caveat, "including board". In the 1870's, teacher pay was reported as "including board where provided" but by 1885 the "board" notation was dropped entirely.
The practice of "boarding round" probably died out gradually. By the late 1860's and early 70's, there was a significant increase in the number of female teachers and concerns were being voiced about the propriety of the arrangement. A correspondent was quoted in the 1869 State Board of Education report as saying, "The teachers in nearly all the districts "boarded round." This practice is especially objectionable, now that so many female teachers are employed in winter. It is in every respect for the interests of the town that the teachers should have one boarding place." The idea of "one boarding place" seems to have taken hold, and in later years we hear of towns owning a "Teacherage" where the teachers would live. When did this happen, and to what extent was this practice followed? At what point did the whole idea of community provided accommodations go by the wayside? It would be interesting to delve more fully into this topic, and if anyone has information, particularly on the "Teacherage" approach, I'd appreciate hearing from them.
Michael Day has been a regular contributor to our e-newsletter and we thank him again. Visit his website at www.clippership-publications.com for resources for your one-room school museum. He will be a featured speaker at the Country School Association Conference in Nashua, NH, June 18th-20th, 2007.