In the nineteenth century, the American classroom was sparsely decorated and furnished. School design was simple, expressing the frugality of a largely rural, agricultural economy. Rural communities had few resources to expend on education, and there was a lack of commercially available products for schools. Often the school would be open only for a few months of the year, usually when children were not needed to work at home or on the farm.

Students of all ages and abilities were combined in the one-room schoolhouse. The teacher was usually an unmarried woman and sometimes the students were older than the teacher. Using only the most basic resources — slate, chalk, and a few books — teaching and learning consisted mainly of literacy, penmanship, arithmetic, and “good manners.” Recitation, drilling, and oral quizzes at the end of the day were the norm in classrooms across America.

The power of community and the high value placed on education are evident in the shared efforts involved in maintaining the schools. Farmers supplied the wood or other fuel for the stove to keep the schoolroom warm in the winter. Parents built school desks and took turns cleaning and stocking the stable that housed the horses the children used to get to and from school each day. Teachers often lived with local families, rotating from household to household.