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Pittsburgh 1803: Those yearning to learn found plenty of schools

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Most of the people who settled in Pittsburgh by 1803 were Scots, Scotch-Irish or Germans, all with strong religious ties, as demonstrated by the fact that churches were some of the first public buildings in town.

It was important that their children know how to read the Bible and that priority spurred efforts to open schools.

The classrooms in rural Allegheny County tended often to be connected to churches, with the instructor usually the minister of the church.

In the year of Meriwether Lewis' stay, the borough of Pittsburgh was well supplied with men of learning among its 2,000 inhabitants, including about a dozen schoolteachers and private tutors.

While the town had five churches, there was a variety of secular schools, most notably the Pittsburgh Academy, the forerunner of the University of Pittsburgh.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Pittsburgh's leading citizen, was a Princeton graduate who helped found the academy in 1787.

In 1803, its students were boys between the ages of 8 and 12. By that time, according to Pitt historian Robert Alberts, the school was housed in a building at Third and Cherry Way.

Their courses were described as:

"Principals of English grammar and geography ... with their application to parsing the English language, a knowledge of globes, maps etc. The lower classes will be taught Othography ... reading and a just pronunciation. Writing, mercantile arithmetic, navigation, surveying and book keeping ... usual branches of classical education with a succinct view of the histories of Ancient Greece and Rome ... paying particular attention to the Antiquities and Mythology of the same people ... course of examination on the Belles 'Letters.' "

The state Legislature chartered the academy and provided a small grant.

Brackenridge also employed a tutor known only as Gilkison to teach French to his son, Henry.

Despite vague state legislation in 1800 calling for government-subsidized education for poor children, there were few attempts to provide it in Pittsburgh or Allegheny County, wrote historians Solon and Elizabeth Buck.

Pittsburgh's other schools were privately run operations in spaces in store buildings or churches. Their classes were confined to the basics -- "the Latin language, reading English grammatically, writing and arithmetic," announced one schoolmaster in setting up shop in the late 18th century.

For instruction in the "domestic arts" for girls there was Mrs. Mary Pride's academy, started in 1787 and still in operation in 1803. She offered:

"Plain work, coloured ditto, flowering, lace, both by bobbin and needle, fringing, Dresden, tabouring and embroidering. Also reading English and knitting if required."

The texts were typically ones first published in England, then reprinted in Philadelphia, the Bucks said. They included "School master's Assistant" for arithmetic and grammar books by a Lindley Murray.

A homegrown product was "United States Spelling Book."

-- Bob Hoover

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