From the earliest colonial days into the 19th century, any respectable woman who needed a bit of an income could earn it by opening a dame school. Essentially day-care centers located in a woman’s own home, dame schools could be found in most large towns.
Corralled into the dame’s kitchen or parlor, young children received the rudiments of education. Classes were apt to be haphazard and teachers stern disciplinarians. Unruly children were often punished by a rap on the head with a thimble. Kindlier dames might provide a pillow in a corner where hard-working toddlers could rest their weary heads. When children actually got out of the school depended solely on the teacher’s abilities, and some teachers had little more training than their wards.
However much she knew, the dame’s job was to teach children their ABCs. Those not lucky enough to have primers to work with might draw letters in sand or teach the alphabet directly from the Bible. Lucy Laron, who attended Aunt Hannah’s school in 1830, later wrote: “I learned my letters in a few days, standing at Aunt Hannah’s knee while she pointed them out . . . with a pin, skipping over the ‘a b abs’ into words of one or two syllables, thence taking a flying leap into the New Testament.”
Between reading and perhaps singing songs with the dames as she spun* flax or baked bread, many children also learned to sew by working samplers. It was a skill that girls would use for the rest of their lives.
Surrounded by a houseful of lively children, a dame did not earn much for her efforts. A typical salary, if paid by the parents, was a few cents a week per child. If paid by the towns, there might be an arrangement such as one 18th-century teacher had for “£12 and diet, with use of a horse to visit her friends twice a year.”
While some of her pupils would be lucky enough to go on to a private academy, most of them never received any further formal education once they left her kitchen. For pennies a day, the dame, for nearly two centuries, helped keep literacy alive.
*irregular past form of ‘spin’
Taken from Reader’s Digest Discovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History & Lore of Our Great Nation.