J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, September 28, 2006

Schoolyard Insults from Revolutionary Boston

The recent kerfuffle over a book distributed to every kindergartner in Maine, discussed on Oz and Ends, reminded me of the deep roots of the American tradition of insulting schoolyard rhymes.

In an 1844 letter, Harrison Gray Otis (1765-1848), the Federalist politician who kept building mansions so Historic New England would have something to catalogue, recalled one such rhyme from his time at the South Latin School, ancestor of today's Boston Latin School.

The nearest School to the Latin School was on the east end of Scollay’s building, forming a part thereof, and since cut off to open the communication from Tremont St. to Cornhill. It was a public Town School, called Proctor’s School though in my time kept by Master Carter. The boys of the two Schools often met in Tremont St. and dealt out their gibes in passing each other—for example:—

Carter’s boys shut up in a pen
They can’t get out but now and then;
And when they get out they dance about
For fear of Latin School gentlemen.
Here are some annotations for full appreciation of this fine verse.

Scollay's building later gave its name to Scollay Square. It touched what before the Revolution was Queen Street, so the school in the end of that building was also called the Queen Street Writing School. Newly republican Bostonians changed the name of that road to Court Street.

Cornhill was part of the main north-south street through Boston, renamed Washington Street in the early republic.

Town School: Boston's public-education system is the oldest in the U.S. of A., the basis of universal schooling in this country. I estimate that only about half of all eligible boys in Boston actually attended town schools in the pre-Revolutionary period, however.

Carter was James Carter, successor to John Proctor as master of the Queen Street Writing School. He served from 1773 to 1790. The town's three Writing Schools prepared boys for careers in business; the two smaller but better funded Latin Schools sent a few boys each year to college.

boys: Until 1789, only boys were eligible for public education in Boston. The South Latin School poet distinguishes between the "boys" of the Writing School and the "gentlemen" of his own institution, thus cleverly implying that the writing scholars were both less mature and less genteel.

pen: The main lessons at the town's three Writing Schools were in calligraphy, and the quill pen was the emblem of a writing scholar. When George Washington visited Boston in 1789, the Writing School boys turned out to greet him, holding their feathered pens proudly. The punning poet turns the word "pen" from an object of pride into a form of confinement, referring not only to the scholars' long hours but perhaps also to their more limited economic prospects.

fear: One of the oddest elements of this schoolboy taunt is that Boston's Latin School boys were greatly outnumbered by Writing School boys, especially as they grew bigger. More than half of each Latin School class dropped out before the end of their studies, many transferring to Writing Schools. So a young South Latin boy chanting this rhyme:
  • had a good chance of becoming one of "Carter's boys" himself.
  • had a good chance of getting beaten up.
Perhaps class deference, school solidarity, and good nutrition gave the Latin School boys enough advantages that they could hold their own. Perhaps they were at the mercy of the Writing School boys. (Henry Adams certainly described such a situation in a snowball fight between the Latin scholars and all comers on the ante-bellum Common in chapter 3 of his Education.) Whatever the case, through Harry Otis the South Latin School boys got one of their taunts into print while the writing scholars' replies, if any, are lost to us.


Charles Swift said...

There were two Cornhill Streets and only a small portion of one of them became Washington Street. Good stuff on Latin School!


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks. I assumed Otis was talking about the Cornhill of his student days, which became Washington. Your entry suggests he meant the second street of that name (a/k/a "New Cornhill"), which went closer to Scollay's building and which his readers in 1844 would have been more familiar with.