More on literacy in antebellum Shenandoah – libraries, taxes and public schools

Posted on September 26, 2013 by

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Having spent more time tallying stats, it’s time to share a bit more regarding my thoughts on the antebellum literacy levels in the Shenandoah Valley…

This clip from the September 29, 1830 edition of the Virginia Free Press brings attention to books not properly checked-out from the Charles Town Library. It's unclear why the library was not counted in the 1850 census. Note the titles of the books. An ad for the local Literary Club follows the library piece.

This clip from the September 29, 1830 edition of the Virginia Free Press brings attention to books not properly checked-out from the Charles Town Library. It’s unclear why the library was not counted in the 1850 census. Note the titles of the books. An ad for the local Literary Club follows the library piece.

According to the 1850 census, at that time, the Shenandoah Valley had a total of four public libraries, with a total of 5,510 volumes. Those libraries could be found in only four out of the ten total counties. The distribution of libraries was as follows…

Clarke – 1 library (310 volumes)

Frederick – 1 library (2,000 volumes)

Rockbridge – 2 libraries (3,200 volumes)

Warren – 1 library (1,000 volumes)

That’s not to say, however, that public libraries were the only libraries. Other numbers tallied by the census takers in that year includethe number of libraries and volumes per libraries for… Sunday schools, church libraries, college libraries, etc. Strange to say, the number for all these, throughout all ten counties was shown as “0″. I’m particularly surprised that the two colleges in Rockbridge County were not taken into consideration.

What can we gather from these numbers? I’m not really sure. In fact, the presence of public libraries seems to suggest better literacy rates… just look at Rockbridge County. Yet, how do we explain the fact that Shenandoah and Augusta counties, without a public library, were ranked #2 and 3, respectively, in literacy levels. With that in mind, I question the value of these stats.

What about money? Did funding to public schools make a difference?

Even with this, the numbers make sense in some counties, but not in others.

For example (and also from the 1850 census), we might think, with Jefferson County having $7,628 (the highest amount, among the respective counties of the Valley) toward public education for public schools (by the way… Jefferson County was the ONLY county in the Shenandoah Valley with taxes directed toward public education… 89% of the total public education income coming from taxes.), they would be leading the way in the education of whites over the age of 10. Not so. Jefferson ranked #4. Rockbridge, on the other hand had the second highest funding ($6,681) for public schools in the Valley and ranked #1 in literacy levels. Page County actually ranked as the third highest ($2,252) funded public school system in the Shenandoah Valley, but had the worst literacy rate among whites age 10 and up. The rest of the Valley counties varied, but averaged no more than $1,100 per county (Warren only had $445 for public education).

So far, I’m afraid I’m falling flat in finding a clear explanation for what was behind the different literacy levels.

On a sidebar… and though my primary focus is on pre-war literacy levels and what may have impacted them… the matter of public education became a sticky subject in Virginia in 1870. Mandated by Congress in postwar Virginia, the effort was resented. Interestingly, the major advocate of taxation for public education was Rockbridge’s own (and the son of Page County-born Dr. Henry Ruffner) William Henry Ruffner (see here for further details regarding Ruffner’s advocacy).

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