During the 19th century, primary education underwent major changes as public schooling expanded and new teaching methods emerged. If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: The core subjects studied in 19th century primary schools were reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, history, and Bible studies.

But education was gradually broadened over the century to encompass more practical subjects like science, drawing, music, and physical education.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the evolution of 19th century primary school curriculums in detail. We’ll look at the traditional subjects that formed the core of education as well as new subjects that gained popularity during the century as education priorities shifted.

Traditional Primary School Subjects in the Early 19th Century


Reading was a fundamental subject taught in 19th-century primary schools. Students were taught to read using primers, which were books that contained simple stories and lessons. These primers helped children learn the basics of reading, such as letter recognition and phonics.

As they progressed, students would move on to more advanced texts, which included stories and poems. Reading aloud and recitation were common practices to help improve pronunciation and fluency.


Developing good penmanship was highly emphasized in 19th-century primary schools. Students were taught to write using quill pens and inkwells. They would practice writing letters, words, and sentences repeatedly to improve their handwriting skills.

Copying passages from textbooks and reciting them from memory were also common exercises to reinforce writing skills.


Arithmetic, or basic math, was an essential subject in 19th-century primary schools. Students were taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division using textbooks and arithmetic tables. Mental math skills were also emphasized, and students were encouraged to solve problems in their heads.

Practical applications of arithmetic, such as measuring and counting, were incorporated into daily lessons.


Geography was taught to primary school students to help them understand the world around them. Students learned about continents, countries, and major cities. They studied maps and globes to develop their spatial awareness and learned about different climates and landscapes.

In some cases, students were also taught basic navigation skills.


History lessons in 19th-century primary schools focused on the study of national history and important historical figures. Students learned about significant events and their impact on their country. They were taught to memorize important dates and facts and were encouraged to discuss and analyze historical events.

Lessons often included storytelling and the use of visual aids, such as illustrations and maps, to make history come alive for the students.

Religious Education

Religious education played a significant role in 19th-century primary schools. Students were taught the principles and values of their respective religious beliefs. In many cases, religious texts and stories were used as teaching materials.

Students were taught moral values, ethics, and the importance of leading a virtuous life. Religious education was often intertwined with other subjects, such as reading and writing.

Reforms and Expansion of Subjects in the Mid to Late 1800s

The 19th century witnessed significant reforms and expansions in the subjects studied in primary schools. These changes were driven by the need to provide a well-rounded education to children and prepare them for the demands of an evolving society.

Let’s explore the key developments that took place during this time.

Establishment of Public Schools

One of the most significant reforms was the establishment of public schools, which aimed to provide education to all children, regardless of their social or economic background. Prior to this, education was primarily reserved for the privileged few.

With the advent of public schools, subjects taught in primary education underwent a transformation.

The Rise of Science Education

As the 19th century progressed, there was a growing recognition of the importance of scientific knowledge in understanding the world. Science education began to gain prominence in primary schools, with subjects such as biology, chemistry, and physics being introduced into the curriculum.

This shift was fueled by the advancements in scientific discoveries and the desire to promote scientific thinking among students.

Incorporation of Physical Education

Another significant development was the incorporation of physical education into the primary school curriculum. Recognizing the importance of physical fitness and well-being, schools started to prioritize physical activities and sports.

Physical education classes became a regular part of the school week, promoting not only physical health but also instilling values of teamwork and sportsmanship.

Addition of Music and Art

In the mid to late 1800s, there was a growing appreciation for the arts and their role in nurturing creativity and expression. As a result, music and art were added to the subjects studied in primary schools.

Students were exposed to various art forms, including painting, drawing, music theory, and singing. This expansion allowed children to explore their artistic abilities and fostered a deeper appreciation for culture and creativity.

Manual and Vocational Training

Recognizing the need to prepare students for practical skills and trades, manual and vocational training became an integral part of the primary school curriculum. Students were taught skills such as carpentry, sewing, cooking, and agriculture, providing them with valuable knowledge for future employment opportunities.

This emphasis on practical training aimed to equip students with the necessary skills to succeed in an increasingly industrialized society.

The reforms and expansion of subjects in 19th-century primary schools were instrumental in shaping the education system we have today. By broadening the curriculum and incorporating a range of subjects, schools aimed to provide a well-rounded education that prepared students for the challenges of the rapidly changing world.

Regional Variations in Curriculums and Availability of Education

During the 19th century, primary education in different regions varied significantly, both in terms of the subjects studied and the availability of education. Let’s explore some of the regional differences that existed during this period.

Rural vs. Urban Schools

In rural areas, where access to schools was limited, the curriculum often focused on practical skills that were relevant to agricultural or manual labor. Subjects such as reading, writing, basic arithmetic, and practical household skills were emphasized.

In contrast, urban schools had a broader curriculum that included subjects like history, geography, and foreign languages.

Did you know? The lack of access to education in rural areas during the 19th century led to the establishment of traveling schools, where teachers would move from one rural community to another, providing education to children in remote areas.

Regional Differences in the U.S.

The curriculum in primary schools also varied across different regions of the United States. In the Northeast, for example, a strong emphasis was placed on reading, writing, and arithmetic, while in the South, the curriculum was influenced by the agricultural economy, with a focus on subjects such as plantations, farming techniques, and slavery.

Interesting fact: In the mid-19th century, the McGuffey Readers, a series of textbooks, became widely used in American schools. These readers included stories, poems, and moral lessons, and were used to teach reading and morality.

Education in Former Slave States After the Civil War

After the Civil War, education in former slave states underwent significant changes. The Freedmen’s Bureau, established by the U.S. government, played a crucial role in providing education to newly freed African Americans.

The curriculum in these schools focused on basic literacy and vocational skills to help individuals gain economic independence.

Statistical data: According to the National Archives, by 1870, there were over 4,000 schools for African Americans in the southern states, with more than 200,000 students enrolled.

Native American Boarding Schools

Native American children were also subjected to a different educational system during the 19th century. Boarding schools, often run by religious organizations, aimed to assimilate Native American children into mainstream American society.

The curriculum in these schools discouraged Native American languages and cultural practices, instead focusing on English, Christianity, and vocational skills.

For more information: If you are interested in learning more about the history of Native American boarding schools, you can visit the National Park Service website.


Over the course of the 1800s, primary education evolved from basic reading, writing and arithmetic to incorporate more diverse practical and vocational subjects. The establishment of public schools opened access to primary education across social classes.

While curriculums continued to have regional variations, the subjects studied by the end of the century prepared students for an increasingly industrialized society.

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