Documenting the American South Logo
The School Day and the School Year
Erika Lindemann

For most students, then as now, daily life in the University fell into a routine, the days adhering pretty much to the same schedule as they rolled from one semester into the next. Even so, antebellum students experienced their college days differently from modern students. Many of the documents selected for this project, especially students' letters, chart the daily activities of students: what they did, how they traveled to and from Chapel Hill, where their vacations took them, and how they entertained themselves in a small town with few diversions. Drawing on what these students reveal about their daily lives, we can describe with reasonable confidence the school day and school year throughout the antebellum period.
The academic year was slightly longer than it is today. Classes began in mid-August, and the fall term ended with a four-week vacation beginning in mid-December. Instruction resumed in mid-January and concluded with commencement ceremonies in June. Simply getting to Chapel Hill to begin the school year could be an adventure. Roads in North Carolina were poor. Much of the year they were deep in mud, and the rest of the time, rocky and deeply rutted. Train travel was not an option until 1833, and even then, the Petersburg Line running south from Virginia stopped just inside the North Carolina border, at Blakely, near present-day Roanoke Rapids. From there students had to take the post coach to Hillsborough for an additional $7, then walk or ride on horseback the remaining twelve miles. Traveling by stagecoach was slow and sometimes risky. A trip by stage from Morganton, NC, to Chapel Hill, a distance of 173 miles, took six days, and at least one student was robbed of the money his parents had given him to see him through the semester. William Pettigrew almost lost his life when the stagecoach he was taking to school in Hillsborough overturned (Lemmon 2:183). Making the trip on horseback was faster. Solomon Lea rode his horse from Leasburg, NC, to Hillsborough, a distance of about thirty miles, in four-and-one-half hours. This method of travel, however, offered no protection from the rain, so students and their belongings could be soaked by the time they arrived on campus. Traveling on horseback also meant figuring out what to do with the horse once the student reached Chapel Hill. Though the village had a livery stable, boarding a horse for a semester was expensive. Students either sold the horse1 or arranged for someone to take the animal back home. Students traveling to Chapel Hill by horse and buggy report taking along a servant who would return home with the horse and buggy.
In addition to transporting their own clothing and books, students also carried with them money and property intended for other people. Charles Pettigrew delivered his father's subscription money for an Episcopal boys' school in Raleigh shortly after arriving in Chapel Hill. Other students took books, letters, or clothing to friends and relatives in the Chapel Hill area, errands that might entail a day's travel but that were a relatively safe way of conveying property.
On reaching Chapel Hill, the first order of business was "entering College" and finding a room. A first-year student, known to other students as a "Fresh" or "newie," met with the faculty and was examined on Latin, Greek, and mathematics to determine what studies he might need to review. For older new students, similar oral examinations determined which class they would enter. Irregular students, those not seeking a degree, met with the faculty "for the purpose of ascertaining what studies they wish to attend to and determining what amount of labour shall be assigned to them during the Week" (Faculty Minutes 3:173, UA). Because students arrived at scattered times for several days, approximately a week at the beginning of the fall term was given over to examining students.
Most of the dormitory rooms were designed to accommodate two students, but overcrowding often saw four to six students in a room. Throughout his presidency, Caldwell complained to the trustees about crowded conditions in the dormitories (Henderson 75, 78). By the 1830s Old East had twenty-four rooms, eight on each of three floors (Allcott 10-15). The building (and its twin, Old West) was designed like two adjoining Colonial houses, with four rooms downstairs, two on each side of a central hallway or "passage" running from the front door straight through to the back door. The floor plan for the second and third stories imitated the design of the first floor, which had a stairwell near the back door to permit access to the upper floors. Each room had its own fireplace, located on the outside walls parallel to the passageway, and two windows, which were placed side by side to the right and left of the doors to the passageway. The passageway was twelve feet wide and approximately thirty-six feet long. Each room measured sixteen by eighteen feet. South Building, modeled on Nassau Hall at the College of New Jersey (Princeton), held twenty-three rooms for students as well as several recitation rooms. The sleeping rooms in this three-story building were arranged down a central east-west corridor, with four rooms on each end. Each room also measured sixteen by eighteen feet (Connor 1:165) with a fireplace located on an interior wall and at least two windows (corner rooms had three). Recitation rooms, a Prayer Hall, and society meeting rooms took up the space in the center of the building (Allcott 17-19).2 Furnished with bedsteads, a table, a few chairs and possibly the students' trunks, 288 square feet of living space must have seemed crowded, even with only two students to a room, much less the usual four.
Those who missed the opening of the term by a day or so often found the rooms in the three college dormitories—Old East, Old West, and South Building—filled. Latecomers had to find lodging in one of the off-campus boarding houses. Some students preferred living in boarding houses. They were less noisy than rooms in the college; the food tended to be better; and boarders were less frequently monitored by faculty members and tutors than students living on campus. Faculty members also took in boarders, but there is no evidence that students living in the homes of faculty members enjoyed special standing or were teased by other students.
Shortly after arriving in Chapel Hill, the "Fresh" would be recruited for one of the two debating societies. At least one student, Solomon Lea , expressed concern that students closed out of rooms in the college might be closed out of the Philanthropic Society as well. Competition for good students was keen. Many students, however, already would have made up their minds about which society to join, especially if friends or relatives were already members. During the 1830s the Dialectic Society was slightly larger than the Philanthropic Society, the Dis claiming 274 members between 1830 and 1839, and the Phis, 198 members. Though meeting times varied, by 1839 the societies were meeting in separate halls on the third floor of South Building every Friday night until late in the evening. Meetings resumed on Saturday mornings, when the week's exercises in composition, declamation, and debate would be completed.3 By 1832 the debating societies' halls became so cramped that students initiated campaigns for new buildings. The campaign ultimately failed, and the societies' halls remained crowded until Old East and Old West were enlarged in 1848.
The school day was defined by the college bell, which hung in a wooden tower in the middle of the campus near the campus well.4 It kept students and faculty on schedule. The first bell rang at approximately 6:00 a.m. to wake the students, who had to be in Person Hall for prayers by 6:45 a.m.5 A faculty member called the roll, read a passage from the Bible, and led students in a prayer. Then, before breakfast, students adjourned to their first recitation.6 Each class of students—seniors, juniors, sophomores, and the "Fresh"—attended the same recitations with other members of the class. The 7:00 a.m. recitation was the one students resented most, and seniors earned the special privilege of omitting it from their schedules. The 1838 class schedule reveals that the 7:00 class was not held on Monday mornings. At 8:00 a.m. students raced to Steward's Hall or back to their boarding houses for breakfast and a few hours of study until the second class period, which began at 11:00 a.m.. Dinner, the largest meal of the day, was served at midday. Students then had several hours to prepare for their recitations at 4:00 p.m. The school day ended with prayers in Person Hall. After supper, usually a light meal, students were free to socialize or study. By 8:00 p.m. they had to be in their rooms, the tutors living in the college monitoring the halls or "passages" to insure that students kept curfew. Each of these events was signaled by the ringing of the college bell. It was such a significant part of daily life that students' favorite prank was to ring it at odd hours, then dash into one of the college buildings before being detected.7
Sundays were generally free, but many activities students might have enjoyed—hunting, fishing, swimming, hiking—were prohibited because they "profaned the Sabbath."8 The day began with prayers, and later in the morning students joined townspeople for religious services in Person Hall. Because Chapel Hill had no churches until the 1840s, the responsibility for delivering the sermon fell in rotation to the ordained ministers on the faculty. On Sunday afternoons each class of students met with a faculty member or tutor for a recitation on the "historical portions of the Bible" or on some work of moral philosophy.9 Though these recitations emphasized Christian teachings, they attempted to remain non-denominational.
The village of Chapel Hill held few diversions for students. Taverns and a race track west of town were off limits, of course, and students who were discovered intoxicated or playing cards or watching races could be suspended. Hoping not to be caught, some students nevertheless went drinking. Charles Pettigrew relates in a January 22, 1834, letter to his father the unfortunate decline of a roommate given to too much entertainment:
for the first two months he made no noise studied hard and behaved himself well and properly and I liked him very much, the affection was reciprocated, but after a while he got a fiddle and of course got among the fiddlers in college idle and worthless fellows, then he began somewhat to absent himself from his room and finally he went and staid with one altogether although his trunk was in my room, so we parted and very seldom see each other, after he left me he begun to drink considerably, and to have wines and brandy continually [. . .]. (Pettigrew Family Papers, SHC)
Though fiddlers were for Pettigrew "idle and worthless fellows," a student with a fiddle could provide an evening's welcome merriment. Students also entertained themselves by visiting friends and relatives in the area, playing backgammon or marbles, hunting, or hiking into the countryside. Bandy, a popular form of field hockey, was the antebellum equivalent of baseball, which was unknown until after the Civil War. When it got cold enough, ice skating on a nearby pond offered an ideal opportunity to meet young women living in the village. Students also might be invited into Chapel Hill homes for parties, singing, and candy-pulls. Now and then, a student would pay to have a local cook prepare a possum, turkey, or oyster supper to be sent to his room and shared with his friends.
Reading and letter-writing also were significant recreational activities for students, just as they were for most antebellum adults. The Philanthropic Society's circulation records show that many townspeople as well as students borrowed books from the Society's library, which was open for a few hours each week. Mail service in 1833 was supervised by postmaster Isaac C. Patridge, who also edited Chapel Hill's first newspaper The Harbinger. Patridge announced in his paper that mail coming from the north, east, and south would arrive by post coach on Wednesdays and Fridays; western mail was delivered on Sundays and Thursdays. Mail coming from Clover Garden, a community in southwest Orange County, NC, that had a post office as early as 1822, arrived only once a week, on Fridays. The post office opened for a few hours on these days so that people could pick up and drop off their mail.
Newspapers offered students important connections to the outside world. Letters often mention items appearing in the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette or the Hillsborough Recorder , which in turn reprinted stories from the (Washington D.C.) National Intelligencer , the (Philadelphia) Gazette , or the (New York) Commercial Advertiser. Local newspapers, however, were unable to sustain the support necessary to survive. The Harbinger, a four-page weekly edited by postmaster Patridge, began publication in January 1833 and claimed in its editorial policy to be "Under the supervision of the Professors of the University." Because Patridge received many east coast newspapers in the post office, he published excerpts of what he considered newsworthy items on the inside pages of The Harbinger. The front page was reserved for essays and articles written by University professors and, occasionally, students. Articles covered literature, science, religion, politics, agriculture, and education. A mathematics puzzle was a regular feature. Though encouraged by Professors Elisha Mitchell and William Hooper , Patridge discovered that "subscribers and advertisers were notorious for not paying their bills, and The Harbinger ceased its cry in 1834" (Vickers 39). A second newspaper, the Columbian Repository , began publication in 1836 under the editorship of Hugh McQueen . McQueen's newspaper, also a four-page weekly, followed The Harbinger's format, reserving its front page for scholarly essays. But within a year, the Columbian Repository folded too. Chapel Hill's business community was not large enough to support a successful local newspaper until 1923, when Louis Graves inaugurated the Chapel Hill Weekly.
Now and then Chapel Hill hosted visiting speakers, usually preachers or political candidates eager to address the students and townspeople assembled in Person Hall. In warm weather, usually in late spring or summer, camp meetings and religious revivals lasting several days drew students. Students also celebrated Washington's birthday (February 22), a holiday observed in the nineteenth century with much greater enthusiasm than Presidents' Day is today. Students received a "snap," an excused absence, from all classes that day to participate in the festivities. Students still on campus by July 4th would have enjoyed Independence Day speeches, delicious food, and the opportunity to meet local young ladies. Apart from these celebrations, student life must have seemed fairly routine. Students often report in their letters that they are studying all the time. The claim perhaps represents a perennial complaint of students, or it may be intended to impress parents. But it may also be the case that, most days, studying "tolerable hard" was all there was to do.
A common trope in students' letters is a concern about people's health. Almost without exception, students report whether they are ill or well, comment on the health of classmates, and express concern when letters from home have omitted information about the well-being of family members. The state of people's health is important to antebellum students because they are much more familiar with sickness and death than most of us are. Many students lost younger brothers or sisters to childhood diseases that we now know how to treat. When students became ill, they usually remained in their rooms—no infirmary existed before 1858—which meant that infectious diseases spread quickly to other students. Though students appear to have been generally healthy, occasionally they write about fevers, headaches, mumps, "quinsy" (tonsillitis), and "flux" (dysentery). Chapel Hill boasted several doctors, but they often were ineffectual, leaving such students as Charles Pettigrew and his brother William , for example, to hit upon their own cure for William's illness.
Occasionally, students died at college. In September 1832, as Solomon Lea relates, sophomore James N. Neal of Chatham County, NC, died. The following year, James T. Smith, a sophomore from Anson County, NC, also died (The Harbinger, October 1, 1833, p. 3). The cause of death often was unknown. Disease could come on quickly and run its fatal course in only a few days. Aware of these realities, students were eager to assure their correspondents that they are well, news that must have been a relief to anxious relatives and friends.
In late November students stood mid-year examinations in all subjects. Extending over four days, these examinations were similar to recitations, each class assembling with its professor, who asked students questions about the material covered. Unlike the usual recitations, however, these examinations were attended by "assessors," one or two University faculty members who observed the proceedings.
By December students were eager to leave the campus. Most of them went home for the vacation, enjoying a round of parties, visits with relatives and friends, and perhaps a wedding celebration. A few students took extended trips. In a February 11, 1836, letter to his cousin, Mary Ann Lenoir , John T. Jones describes meeting President Jackson and attending his Christmas party during a vacation that included stops in Washington DC, Baltimore, and New York. Doubtless the holidays ended much too quickly for most students, who were back at their studies by mid-January. Students beginning their University studies in January would meet with the faculty to determine by oral examination which class they would enter.
April saw the beginning of preparations for commencement. Seniors began work on the second of two senior speeches—the first had been delivered during the fall term—and on whatever speeches the faculty had assigned them for the commencement ceremonies. The Latin salutatory went to highest ranking senior; the valedictory, to the second "mite" man. Until 1836 students earning first, second, and third honors would deliver original orations on topics selected with the approval of the professor of rhetoric and logic; after 1836, the debating societies each elected three representatives, seniors who generally excelled at speaking, to deliver commencement orations. Students graduating without honors prepared "forensics," debates on pre-arranged topics. Unless the faculty explicitly excused students from these performances, every graduating senior had a speaking role in his own commencement ceremonies.10
By early May students were eagerly anticipating the "Senior Report," the faculty's announcement of which graduating seniors had earned distinctions. Students had a keen interest in this public report, read before the entire student body. Though students probably received grades from individual faculty members on virtually every recitation, what mattered most—to faculty and students alike—were the rankings of students in their classes at the end of the year. Students seemed to know well in advance of the announcement how the rankings were likely to turn out, which students were in danger of falling behind, and which debating society would claim the most distinctions. As a result, students responded to the senior report with either elation or distress, depending on which debating society had come away with the most honors. For some, the report confirmed students' convictions that the faculty were rogues and rascals whose partiality and favoritism cheated deserving students out of their honors. While the senior report rarely met with universal approval, in 1839 it caused particular hostility, and students of the Philanthropic Society threatened to boycott the commencement ceremonies. Faculty minutes included in this project narrate this episode, which ended when Society members withdrew their threat. Curiously, the senior report was announced prior to the public examinations that concluded the school year. A senior's performance on these end-of-year examinations evidently did not alter his standing.11
The month before commencement, seniors were excused from attending classes and from routine duties in their debating societies. Ostensibly this vacation was meant to give them time to complete their commencement speeches and to pursue their own reading, perhaps in the law, medicine, or theology. Some seniors doubtless took advantage of this opportunity for independent study; many others simply went home, returning a month later to participate in commencement. Students who were not graduating prepared for the annual examinations, which began in mid-June and lasted for about ten days, until commencement week. The examinations were announced in local newspapers and were attended by a committee of the board of trustees. They were public, oral examinations conducted by the faculty, trustees reserving the right to ask students questions. One might think that so public and potentially embarrassing a scene would make students apprehensive, but their letters rarely comment on these examinations, except to report that they took place.
Preparations for commencement week also occupied the debating societies. The societies alternated the responsibility of inviting a prominent guest speaker to deliver a public "address before the literary societies," which the society sometimes published later at its own expense. Each society also held ceremonies for its own members, conferring society diplomas on its graduating seniors. Commencement week also offered the societies an opportunity to show off their meeting halls. Minutes of society meetings reflect students' desires to spruce up their halls by having chairs repaired, new curtains hung, mantelpieces replaced, and ceilings and walls replastered and painted. For most students, however, the most important social event of the year was the commencement ball, an elegant supper and dance held in a local hotel on Thursday evening after the graduation ceremonies. A band played quadrilles, schottisches, redowas, waltzes, polkas, and mazourkas, and some students spent part of the spring semester taking private dancing lessons to make a good impression. Most students anticipated the ball months in advance by making sure that they had appropriate new clothes for the occasion.
Commencement week began on the fourth Monday in June12 and ended with the commencement ball on Thursday evening. The schedule varied little from year to year, though a baccalaureate sermon was added in 1839.13 Most of the events took place in Person Hall until 1837, when the new chapel Gerrard Hall was completed. On Monday evening approximately seven first-year students presented declamations. A comparable number of sophomores declaimed on Tuesday night. These students were selected to represent their classes by virtue of having completed their academic work for the year with distinction. On Wednesday a prominent speaker chosen by the members of one of the debating societies delivered an address. In some years six society representatives—three elected from each society—also gave speeches or conducted a debate. On Thursday morning, the student marshall led a dignified procession of faculty, trustees, students, family members, and guests through the campus to the chapel. The graduation exercises took up most of the day. After an opening prayer, the Latin salutatory was delivered by the senior earning the first distinction. Then the rest of the honors graduates delivered their addresses, which alternated with "forensics," debates by seniors who were graduating without honors. Musical interludes sometimes followed each speech or group of speeches. After a break for the noon meal, the speeches and debates resumed in the afternoon. The last speech was the valedictory address, given by the student earning the second distinction. Then the president read the report on the public examinations, conferred the degrees, including honorary masters and doctoral degrees, and concluded the ceremonies with a prayer. Students and their guests then adjourned to their rooms and local hotels to prepare for the ball, an altogether fitting way to celebrate the achievements of the University's most recent graduates.


1. Thomas I. Lenoir , writing to his father on April 30, 1839, explains that he sold his saddle and horse Henry Clay to his brother-in-law Joseph Norwood in Hillsborough, NC, for $100 (Lenoir Family Papers, SHC).

2. When South Building was renovated in 1827, the large room in the middle of the first floor, known as the Prayer Hall but probably used for recitations, "was converted into a chemical laboratory, and the rooms above made into a library and lecture-room called the Philosophical Chamber, for the President and Professor of Rhetoric" (Henderson 85).

3. The 1837 "order of recitation" or class schedule reveals that all students except seniors attended two classes on Saturday mornings (Faculty Minutes 3:173, UA). The 1838 class schedule omits Saturday classes in response to requests from both debating societies that students be allowed to complete society business on Saturday morning.

4. Though the Old Well is today the symbol of the University, antebellum students do not attach particular significance to it.

5. The schedule described in this paragraph was in effect most of the school year. However, from May through August the afternoon recitation was moved from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. and curfew from 8:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. to take advantage of the longer summer days:
From the 1st of November to the 15th of February, morning prayers shall be at a quarter before 7 o'clock; the rest of the year, morning prayers shall be at sunrise. From the first of September to the first of May, the hours of study in the forenoon shall be from 9 till 12, and from 2 till 5 in the afternoon; and the bell shall be rung for summoning the Students to their rooms at 8 o'clock in the evening. Through the other part of the year, the hours of study in the forenoon shall be from half past 8 till 12, and from 3 till 6 in the afternoon; and the bell shall be rung in the evening at 9 o'clock. ( Acts 11-12)

6. Most classes in the 1830s were held in South Building, but tutors may have held their recitations in dormitory rooms in Old East and Old West. In 1842 several years after Gerrard Hall became the new chapel, Person Hall was divided by thick walls and large chimneys into four classrooms, "one to the Latin, one to the Greek, one to the Rhetoric Professor, and one to the Tutor of Ancient Languages" (Battle 1:554).

7. James Boylan, writing to his sister Kate in Raleigh in September 1839, disparages the practice: "Bell-ringing had gone quite into disrepute, and is never resorted to now, except by Fresh and Newies who deem it quite a novel trick. Some of the above mentioned were engaged, a few nights since, in this delightful amusement, to the annoyance both of Faculty & students—When I, under the influence of my blundering genius, took it into my head to act the part [of] the Faculty and chase them—but instead of coming upon students, I caught one of the tutors, who was then after the offenders—The Fresh exult and try to tease me very much about my quiz—" (John Haywood Papers, SHC).

8. "On Sunday the Students shall refrain from their ordinary diversions and exercises. They shall not fish, hunt or swim, nor shall they walk far abroad, but shall observe a quiet and orderly behaviour" ( Acts 16).

9. Elisha Mitchell's Statistics, Fact, and Dates, for the Sunday Recitations of the Junior Class in the University (New York: R. Craighead, 1850) treats the geography and history of Palestine much as a textbook would, without delving into explicitly religious teachings.

10. Battle's History of the University of North Carolina offers the most accessible, comprehensive listing of topics on which students spoke. In the 1840s and 1850s, as the graduating classes grew larger, only those students earning first, second, and third distinctions gave commencement addresses.

11. Faculty minutes reveal that in 1841 seniors were still being examined in all their subjects at the end of the year; however, by May 12, 1843, seniors took only one public examination, Gov. Swain questioning them on political economy and international and constitutional law.

12. By 1840 commencement week began on the first Monday in June.

13. Elisha Mitchell gave the first baccalaureate sermon. In 1831, 1832, and 1835 the North Carolina Institute of Education was held in conjunction with commencement activities. Attended by teachers and friends of education, the Institute presented talks on such topics as teaching in primary schools, elocution, lyceums, preparing students for college, efforts to promote public education, and "a more sparing use of the rod" (Battle 1:354). The description of commencement week is drawn from Battle's History of the University of North Carolina as well as from commencement programs, ball announcements, and dance cards housed in the NCC.