Back to school in 1756

Recently I was working on a project that called on me to examine the advertisements in our colonial newspaper collection. This collection is one of my favorites in the archives because it gives us a glimpse into daily life in colonial Boston. The weekly newspapers were typically only four pages long, with the last page reserved for advertisements. As I was looking through the various advertisements, one for night classes caught my eye. Nowadays, the end of August and early September are full of back-to-school notices so this seemed especially timely.

The advertisement appeared in the September 13, 1756 edition of the Boston Gazette and Country Journal and read, "Notice is hereby given, that an Evening School will be opened the Third Day of October, at the South-Writing-School, where persons may be taught, Writing, Vulgar and Decimal Arithmatick, & & after the best, and most concise Manner, at Eight Shillings per Quarter by John Vinal. N.B. The said School to continue till the first Day of next April." This short advertisement made me curious to learn more about John Vinal and the South Writing School.

John Vinal was a long-serving schoolmaster in Boston, though his earliest positions were as an "usher" or assistant teacher. A reference in a 1920s American Art Association auction catalog, in which his portrait was listed, described him as being "noted for his penmanship and mathematics" and the "author of Vinal's Arithmetic (a copy in the Boston Public Library)." From 1796 through 1818, Vinal owned a brick house at 41 Beacon Street. At the time, he was serving as the schoolmaster of the South Writing School, also known as the Schoolhouse in the Common, which was located nearby on West Street.

The South Writing School was one of a few Writing Schools and Latin Schools operating in colonial Boston, though there was a difference in the education offered at both. The purpose of a Latin school was a classical education that would prepare an individual for university. A Writing School prepared an individual for business, by providing an education based on penmanship and arithmetic. The activities listed in the advertisement align with this curriculum, and the fact that it was offered at night means that we can guess that at least some of the pupils may have also been enrolled in a Latin School. Clear penmanship was an important part of business in colonial Boston, all letters and financial documents had to be hand-written. Beautiful penmanship was even a status symbol, which would explain why some Latin School students took additional courses at the Writing School.

A side note on preservation - are you surprised that the 18th century paper newspaper pictured in this post is in such good condition? Have you tried to save newspapers on your own and quickly realized that they turn yellow and brittle? The reason for the difference is due to the paper quality. Paper in the 1700s contained a higher content of cotton or linen, while newspaper from the 1800s onward were made of a lower quality paper with a high content of wood pulp, which caused them to deteriorate faster. Those back-to-school circulars that have been appearing in newspapers lately probably won't withstand the test of time the way that this 1756 advertisement did!