Student Copy Books: The Good Old (Math) Days

Melissa Cybulski, LHS Board Member
May 20, 2021

This week, as many families are wrapping up one of the most unusual and challenging school years, let us pause and honor the struggles undertaken by many parents who became acquainted with their children’s “new math” in a way no one ever anticipated.  Remember all the times we challenged our weary teachers with, “when will I ever need to use this!?!”  Well the answer it seems was the 2020-2021 school year during the distance and hybrid learning necessitated by the global pandemic when parents across America sat down with their children to figure how how to support them with their math work.

Marbled cover of Ebenezer Bliss' Math Copybook 
Book measures approx 13" x 9"

Ebenezer Bliss- Longmeadow

These two  copybooks from the archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society are true marvels of “old math.”  One c. 1810 belonged to Ebenezer Bliss (1795-1868) and the other dated 1806 belonging to Ethan Ely (1791-1875) - both of Longmeadow. The beautiful artistry of the penmanship aside, young Mr. Bliss  and young Mr. Ely used their copybooks to collect and demonstrate their understanding of mathematical concepts that must have been taught in their Longmeadow District Schools in the first decade of the 19th century.  They begin simply enough with addition - defining the concept and giving examples.  Then they move through subtraction, multiplication, division.  They then move onto applying these techniques to “Federal Money.”  This is followed by the measurement terms and related math of a variety of items such as Time, Land, Solids, Wine, Bee & Ale, and Cloth.  They progress through “Vulgar Fractions” and Decimals and into the important business of calculating Interest and even the math of Bartering.  No algebra or calculus is included - just the type of math that would benefit the new nation’s farmers and merchants and other ordinary citizens.

"Addition is the putting together of
several smaller numbers into one larger number"
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Definitions and Examples of Simple Subtraction and Simple Multiplication
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Measurement Work
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Vulgar Fractions ... indeed!
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Work with Federal Money math
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Both copybooks beautifully display the firm grasp each scholar had on the material.  They must have been proud of their work to save these paper mementos of their school days. 

The word problems in Bliss’ book are striking reminders of the pride the nation felt in its recent triumph over the British: “General Washington was born in 1732.  What is his age in 1787” (answer: 55 Ans).  It is followed by “The Massacre at boston (sic) by the British Troops happened March 5th 1770 and the Battle of lexington (sic) April 19th.  How long between April 19th 1775 March 5th 1770” (answer: 5yr 1m 15d)

General Washington example from Ebenezer Bliss' book

Revolutionary War timeline example from Ebenezer Bliss' book

The language and organization of both books indicates that they are modeled on a popular Math textbook of the time called, “ Arithmetick, Both in Theory and Practice” by John Hill.  The preface of the book proclaims, “It appears to me, upon the Perusal of it, to be a curious piece: ‘Tis clean, methodical, and handsomely dressed: so plain, that the dullest person may learn by it; and so compleat, that he need learn no more.”

We hope you enjoy a peek into these early 19th century school day relics from our archives.  Then close them up, put away your pencils and enjoy a wonderful math-free summer vacation!

Check back to the History Notes Archive often to read new articles as they are posted.

Longmeadow Historical Society

697 Longmeadow Street
Longmeadow, MA 01106
(413) 567-3600
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