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John Pollack
University of Pennsylvania

Reading and Writing in Colonial Philadelphia: Views from the Quaker School Archives


In this essay, I will present findings from research into archival materials which historians of reading and writing in colonial America have yet to fully explore: documents from the Quaker-supported schools which flourished in eighteenth-century Philadelphia. The essay will attempt to answer two questions: what do we know about what children and youth in Philadelphia schools read, and how they read? And in what ways might patterns of literacy in this colonial city differ from those identified elsewhere in the colonies?

Following upon William Penn’s call for a system of education in his colony, Friends Meetings in Pennsylvania opened a number of schools, and by the 1720s Philadelphia had a true public schooling system, over a century before state-sponsored public education laws. These schools were open to residents of all religious denominations. Quaker Anthony Benezet also began a school for blacks in his home in 1750, which the Quaker hierarchy took over in 1770. Surviving records from these schools include teachers’ account sheets, book order lists, and correspondence from teachers to the Quaker Overseers responsible for the direction and financing of the neighborhood schools. I will use these records to get a sense of which books students were asked to read and how reading tastes altered over time. If some conclusions here are hardly surprising—the presence of Bibles and the works of Penn in the classroom, for example—others may be: students at the Quaker Academy’s English School were handed copies of the radical abolitionist John Woolman’s Considerations on Keeping Negroes as early as 1764.

While book orders tell us much about what the Quaker teachers and Overseers felt their young charges should read, they tell us less about how students actually read what they were given. In order to draw some conclusions about reading habits, I will examine the surviving correspondence of Quaker teachers, some of whom discuss with remarkable frankness the difficulties they encounter in the classroom. I will also analyze The Students Gazette, a manuscript newspaper begun by students at the Latin School in the central Quaker Academy in 1777. Taken together, these records provide a rich picture of the lives of Philadelphia students, rich and poor, Quaker and non-Quaker. This picture, I suggest, also challenges many of our assumptions about urban literacy across social classes and races.


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