V. 19th Century School Geographies

How Geography was Taught

In the nineteenth century, American schools, in contrast to current education practices, paid great attention to teaching geography. The USA was a new country and one commencing a period of great expansion. There was an impelling desire to present to American, and also to the world, a description of its topographical attributes. Thus, national identity and pride, history and geography, and the creation of informed and patriotic citizens were interwoven in education. The creation of geography texts started early in the century, with the Reverend Jedidiah Morse, often called the “Father of American Geography,” taking primacy. Authors compiled gazetteers (geographical dictionaries), statistical compilations, travel books, and atlases, all which were distinguished by the generous use of maps and other visual material. Wall maps and globes, now comparatively rare teaching tools, were common items in classrooms. As the century progressed and with it, the growth of universal education and literacy, there was an increasing flood of material: heavy on factual description and, frequently emphasizing cultural and racial identities, agriculture and industry, and the physical attributes of the USA and the world. Overall, this output provides a unique resource for understanding the attitudes, ambitions, and priorities of America at a time of rapid change.