Farm Collector Blogs > First Things

Back to School

by Leslie McManus

Tags: education, 19th century,

As you read this, kids across the country are settling back into familiar classroom routines.

Familiar to them, that is: not so familiar to those of us years separated from lessons in readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmatic – and totally alien to those who lived in the era when what we think of as old iron was new.

An examination administered in 1895 in Salina, Kan., sheds a bit of light on classrooms of that era. Assuming that any school’s curriculum focuses on that which has been determined to be the most essential knowledge to impart, the questions in this exam lend an interesting perspective on priorities of life in another era.

The precise application of this exam is unclear. Though initially identified as an eighth grade final examination, it was more likely used as a teachers’ exam. Either way, it offers a glimpse of what constituted education in the late 1800s. Consider just a few of the questions:

A wagon box is 2 feet deep, 10 feet long, and 3 feet wide. How many bushels of wheat will it hold? If a load of wheat weighs 3,942 lbs., what is it worth at 50 cents/bushel, deducting 1,050 lbs. for tare? What is the cost of 40 boards 12 inches wide and 16 feet long at $20 per meter?

Find bank discount on $300 for 90 days (no grace) at 10 percent. What is the cost of a square farm at $15 per acre, the distance of which is 640 rods? Write a bank check, a promissory note, and a receipt.

Show the territorial growth of the U.S. Who were Morse, Whitney, Fulton, Bell, Lincoln, Penn and Howe? Name events connected with the following dates: 1607, 1620, 1800, 1849, 1865.

Of what use are rivers? Of what use is the ocean? Name and locate the principal trade centers of the U.S. Name all the republics of Europe and give the capital of each.

They’re just exam questions, but the tone speaks to an era when every penny was accounted for, when history taught valuable lessons and when awareness of the world beyond was part of a basic life skills set. In a time we can only imagine, this was the stuff of learning – and the foundation of intellect that developed the complex machinery of agriculture. More than a century later and on many levels, these remain valuable lessons.

For a look at the complete exam, visit