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A Day in the Life of a Pioneer Child:

The School Day, Tacoma in the 1870s

Written in Summer 2020 by Jillian Eliel, Museum Volunteer

Edited for blog publication by Holly Stewart, Program Manager

This is the second in a four-part series about childhood in the frontier town of Tacoma.

The fourth part about evening routines is available here.

What Was School Like for Pioneer Children?

Tacoma's First Schools

The first settler children in Tacoma attended school in the cabin of William and Sarah Baker along the Tacoma waterfront. In 1869, the townspeople decided it was time to build a school. They contributed $300, equivalent to almost $6,000 today, for the construction of a one-room log schoolhouse. The first year in the schoolhouse 13 students attended from three local families.

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The stone monument at the corner of N 28th and Starr Streets marks the location of Tacoma's first school house.

In 1875, however, the log school building burned down under mysterious circumstances. Some believed this was a misguided attempt by the students to stop a lousy teacher from continuing his practice. The teacher was not discouraged, however, and quickly reopened the school in another nearby building.

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Marker for the First School House in Tacoma

By the 1878 census, Tacoma City (Old Town) had 45 students attending school and New Tacoma (Downtown) had 77 school children. As the population grew, new and larger school buildings were constructed across the city.

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Tacoma's Central School was constructed in 1883 at South 11th and G Streets. The building was replaced in 1913 with the building that now houses Tacoma Public School's Central Administration Building (CAB). Source: Tacoma Public Library

Learning at a Pioneer School

For most students on the frontier, school education usually ended by 8th grade unless the family could afford to send their child to a high school. When the teacher rang the school bell around 9am, the students formed two lines, one for boys and one for girls, from tallest to shortest. Younger kids, often called ‘Abecedarians’ since they were learning their ABC’s, sat in the front of the classroom and older students sat in the back. After taking their seats and before starting lessons for the day, the class said a short prayer or sang a song. By the 1880s, Tacoma had grown large enough that students were divided into classes by grade level.

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The First Ward School opened in 1886 for students in the Old Tacoma neighborhood. The name was changed to Lowell Elementary School in 1890. This building was replaced after an earthquake in 1949. 

Source: Spike's Illustrated Description of the City of Tacoma, 1891.

The students learned about reading, writing, spelling, penmanship, math, history and geography. Virginia McCarver Prosch was one of the first Tacoma teachers in the early 1870s. Her students used several textbooks, including Salem Town's reading and spelling books, arithmetic books by Charles Davies and Joseph Ray, a geography book by Sarah Cornell, and a grammar book by S.W. Clark.

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Students and teachers at the schoolhouse in Fern Hill, ca. 1888. Source: Tacoma Public Library

One of the most popular sets of text books in schools around the United States was the McGuffey Readers. This series of 4 books written by William Holmes McGuffey was first published in the 1830s. Two additional texts were published in the 1840s by his brother, Alexander. Most schools in the 19th century only used the first two readers, which lead to the equivalent of about a modern 4th or 5th grade education. Readers introduced children to the alphabet and showed them how to arrange letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs. They used poems, fables, stories, and quotes from famous authors to help students understand written English. The texts also included non-fiction lessons in agriculture, science, history, philosophy, and ethics. Students were encouraged to memorize the texts and to recite their lessons aloud.

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The first lesson in McGuffey's First Eclectic Reader, Revised Edition from 1920.

Misbehavior at school in the 19th century and early 20th century was treated harshly. Students could be punished for not completing their assignments, being unable to answer the teacher’s questions, or acting in any way that the teacher disapproved. Students might receive detention, by missing recess or staying after school. They might have to sit in a corner of the classroom, hold a heavy book for a long period of time, or clean the classroom. The teacher might assign the student to write a sentence again and again on the blackboard. Teachers were also allowed to use corporal punishment, hitting a student’s knuckles, palms, or backside with a ruler or pointer.

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Students in Miss Rice's class at Franklin School in Tacoma, ca. 1895. Source: Tacoma Public Library


The students generally had one hour for lunch and recess. Initially, schools did not have a cafeteria, so students either brought a lunch from home or walked home for the lunch break. Lunch at school, called ‘nooning,’ might include cold pancakes, bread with lard, jam or meat sandwiches, hard boiled eggs, dried meat, baked goods like muffins, cookies, and maybe even a slice of cake. The school also did not have a playground, so children enjoyed recess activities such as tag, jump rope, tree climbing, and chatting with their friends. More lessons followed the lunch break, with the school day ending between 2 and 4pm.

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Having a foot race during a school field trip at Job Carr Cabin Museum.

Lunch on non-school days was called ‘dinner’ and was the largest meal of the day, served between noon and 3pm. The menu may have included various cooked meats, such as stewed liver, mutton, boiled ham or roast veal. In Tacoma, families often ate fish and shellfish since it was a readily available source of nutrition along the waterfront.

"Table fare of those early days in Tacoma was plain but wholesome. While the Sound furnished Fish and clams, the farmers of the Puyallup Valley and the Prairies, furnished sheep, cattle, hogs; as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. The forest supplied berries and plenty of game. The latter could be trapped, shot, or bought from the Indians. Flour was a home product, consequently cakes and pies were served freely." 

~ account of Mrs. Howard Carr

The settlers planted many fruit trees soon after their arrival, so within a few years there were an abundance of apples, plums, cherries and pears. Tacoma’s founders, Job Carr and Morton McCarver had agricultural knowledge and experience owning fruit orchards. McCarver is renowned for originating three new varieties of apples during the time he lived in Oregon, and Job Carr was known to have planted apple trees in the North Slope neighborhood. It's possible that some of the fruit trees Job Carr cultivated are still bearing fruit in Tacoma.⁠

Families also planted gardens for growing vegetables like succotash, onions, spinach, potatoes, corn, peas, cauliflower, carrots and tomatoes. In the early 1870s, the teenage McCarver girls complained about the many skunks they found in their chicken coop, wood shed, porch, and yard of their home in Old Town Tacoma.

Meals varied seasonally with a reliance on dried meats, fish, fruits, and vegetables when they were out of season.

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Pretending to make a meal in the hearth kitchen at Job Carr Cabin Museum

Find out more about what pioneer kids did for fun after school and on weekends in the next post.

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Students at Lincoln Elementary School in Tacoma, ca. 1901. Source: Tacoma Public Library

By 1903, Tacoma had 21 public schools with a total enrollment of 8,455 students.

Please note that this series is a glimpse into the lives of settler children and does not accurately reflect the lives of Coast Salish Native American children. The traditional life ways of the Puyallup People followed a seasonal rhythm. Their language and cultural traditions were under constant threat, however, as children were separated from their families at a young age and forced to attend the Cushman Indian School. For more information about the experience of the First Peoples, we recommend the Puyallup Tribal Language Program's video series about The Boarding School & Cushman Project.


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U.S. Census Bureau (1878). Washington State and Territorial Census 1857-1892. Retrieved from

About the Author

Jillian Eliel is a senior at Annie Wright High School. She calls herself a big history nerd, especially when it comes to life on the frontier and the old west. She has dragged her family and many friends to historical re-enactments, from a re-creation of Tombstone down in Arizona to the Mount Vernon Living History Museum in Virginia. She loves working with Job Carr Cabin Museum, because she is fascinated with the lifestyle that people used to lead and because the people she gets to work with are passionate about what they do. She says that putting herself in the shoes of people who lived in the past opens up a whole new universe of experiences and interests. Walking in the footsteps of people from hundreds of years ago is an almost indescribable experience; wondering what they were thinking about and how they were feeling is the most interesting thing about history.