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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Friday, November 22, 2013

Word Problems

The University of Pennsylvania library holds a notebook created in Southampton County, Virginia, between 1786 and 1791, according to the notations inside. It shows someone learning practical arithmetic through word problems like these:

An Overseer and 28 Negroes made 37660 lb. Tobacco, I Demand the Overseers Part, who was to have 1 1/2 Shares?

An Overseer and 50 Negroes made 1575 Barrels of Corn — 42000 Pounds of Tobacco — 3150 Bushels of Peas. I demand the Overseers Part, and what was left for the Employer, allowing the Overseer 2 1/2 Shares?
A little thought reveals that the “Negroes” are irrelevant to the calculations. Which was the real problem, wasn’t it?

A page in the back of the book has “Southampton County” written on it several times. It also has the words “Hamilton County, Northwestern Territory” and, at top, possibly the name “Bennet.” James Bennett was one of the first members of the “Legislative Council” elected in the Northwest Territory in 1799. Had he come from Southampton County, Virginia? Was the student who used this notebook a member of his family? If so, by moving into the Northwest Territory the family gave up direct participation in America’s slavery system. But as the arithmetic problems show, that system pervaded nearly all parts of life.

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