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Early School Rooms


Most of the schools of the Sierra Mountains in California in the 1800s were crude, inhospitable dwellings within mining camps and other small communities.  They were usually made of logs, or adobe, with earthen floors, plastered walls, and, in some cases, thatched roofs.  Many students sat upon wooden boxes, without desks, or a single desk would be shared by two pupils.  The older students helped teach the younger ones, and the classes were not clearly defined.  It was a rare school that had a piano or organ, so music was not always part of the curriculum.

All schools were cold in the winter, and the focal point of the room was the stove that sat in one corner.  Lunch boxes (usually made from old tobacco tins), coats, and other necessities were kept in a small area known as the anteroom.

Pupils came from two or three miles away and arrived by horse, cart, or on foot.  On cold days they wrapped their feet in sacks to provide warmth.  Chores were required of each child.  The boys fed and saddled the horses and kept the fire burning. The girls assisted the teacher and kept the classroom clean.  When the temperature was low, the boys ate lunch outside, or in the woodshed, while the girls ate inside the room.

There was no indoor plumbing, and drinking water was kept in a pail with a dipper.  If permission was needed to leave class, the child would raise his right arm, and only one child at a time was allowed to leave the room.  There were two outhouses, one for each sex.  They were freezing in the winter and foul-smelling in the summer.

Fortunately, schools were greatly improved in the later part of the century when school districts became organized.

Women of the Sierra by Ann Seagraves



  1. Fascinating post, Paisley! In a preserved 18th century village in Pennsylvania where we used to do Civil War events, they had a one-room school house. It’s hard for me to imagine students of all ages all being educated together in one small room.

    And the conditions the students and teachers had to endure sound far from ideal.

  2. Wow, what a great post! It really is hard to imagine all those different grade levels in one room, but when my dad was in school in the 1920s, that’s how they did it, too.

    It really is something to think about!

  3. Patricia says:

    This was such an interesting post. I had no idea the boys and girls ate separately.

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