“No country on the face of the earth can boast of a larger proportion of inhabitants, versed in the rudiments of science, or fewer, who are not able to read and write their names, than the United States of America.”
The Columbian Phenix and Boston Review, 1800
ProLiteracy America an estimated 90 million adults have low functional literacy. This includes a person’s ability to read and write, use computers, do basic math, and skills to develop fundamental English as a new language. 30 million adults in America function at the lowest level of literacy, unable to accomplish those tasks, while an additional 60 million people function at only a slightly higher level.
It astonishes me that this day in age there are still so many adults with such low levels of literacy when at one time our country boasted of almost universal literacy. Yet contrasting the rate of literacy in the 21st century to that of the 18th century is difficult as measurements vary based on how literacy is defined, and is proportional to the population considered during these time periods.
In New England there was a population of 120,000 (1706), 250,000 (1734),500,000 (1762),1,000,000 (1790). Today the U. S. has a total population of over 310 million people. But we must keep in mind that in colonial America only the Anglo population was considered in literacy estimates, excluding Indians, African Americans, slaves and indentured servants.In Virginia, an entire 40% of the population who were slaves were disregarded. Slaves were largely illiterate and prohibited from learning to read as a means of social control.
Historical records are incomplete so the information that has been studied on literacy in our country's past is estimated, but educational historians assert that New England in the late 18th century had the highest literacy rate in the world at the time, nearly 100% in Boston. Literacy was higher in New England and the mid-Atlantic colonies than in the South. Literacy was also higher in cities than in more rural areas. In New England the literacy rate was 60% between 1650-1670, 85% between 1758- 1762, and 90% between 1787 - 1795. In Virginia it was between 54% & 60% in the late 18th century. Literacy in early New York and Pennsylvania was high, owing much to their Dutch and German immigrants. While the average literacy rate was about 70% it was higher than in England, although when taking into account the illiteracy among Indians and African Americans this would place literacy for the total population slightly lower than in England. Immigrants to the American colonies were also more literate than the general population of the countries they left, although Scotland and Wales also had high literacy levels. There were varying levels of literacy among New England women in the eighteenth century - between 45% - 67% during 1731-1800, though some estimates found female literacy to be 90% by the Revolutionary period.
There was a great emphasis on universal literacy in the early colonial era of the 17th century largely based on the puritan belief in the importance of Bible reading. To this end a 1642 New England law stated, "See that all youth under family government be taught to read perfectly in the English tongue..." By 1647 the Massachusetts General Court passed the "Old Deluder Act" calling for the establishment of grammar schools to thwart "one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men form knowledge of Scriptures." So while we may think of literacy in the most basic terms of having the ability to read and write the English language, literacy in the American Colonies held a primary importance on reading.
Students would master their horn book and then move on to the New England Primer. Boys learned to read, write, and do basic math, went on to become apprentices and perhaps obtain a higher education. Reading and writing were taught as separate skills and writing was not considered necessary for females, so she would learn more practical skills and reinforce her reading as well as embroidery skills by working on a sampler. Both the New England Primer and samplers incorporated moral themes into the text.
The ability to read the printed word didn't necessarily result in the ability to read handwriting in any "hand" (writing style). And being able to write one's name or copy phrases did not mean one could compose. Colonists were often expected to put their name to deeds, parish registers, and baptismal records in early America. While some could write, others simply mastered writing their own name, but many signed these documents with their “mark”. Writing in colonial America was predominantly a male skill and tied strongly to class and occupations such as lawyers, clerks, scholars, physicians, clergy and businessmen. But women who could read, write, and do basic arithmetic were better prepared to run their households more efficiently and correspond with friends and family through letter writing. Later in the century women had more opportunity to expand their education.
Literacy has always had the potential to free individuals to be better educated, get better jobs, participate more in their communities, guide morals, and help the next generation to be more literate - both now and in colonial times.
Writing the Past: Teaching Reading in Colonial America and the United States 1640-1940
The Instructor, or American Young Man's Best Companion Containing Spelling, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetick, George Fischer, 1786
Published by Isaiah Thomas, Worcester
Every Man Able to Read - Colonial Williamsburg
How to Read 18th Century British-American Writing