The Vault

School Certificates of Merit For Good Little 19th-Century Boys and Girls

The digital archive of The Henry Ford has a group of 60 examples of rewards of merit given to 19th-century schoolchildren. Early certificates were sometimes hand-produced, while later in the century, they were more commonly preprinted featuring colorful chromolithographed images of flowers and animals or small humorous scenes.

Between 1830 and 1860, historian Carl F. Kaestle has written, American schools, influenced by theories stemming from European educators Joseph Lancaster and Johann Pestalozzi, began to favor the inculcation of “internalized discipline through proper motivation.” In practice, this kind of discipline might include positive reinforcement, like these certificates, as well as corporal punishment. 

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Schools that wanted to teach children to be “obedient, punctual, deferential, and task-oriented,” Kaestle writes, were responding to the exigencies of a classroom environment that could easily descend into chaos. (Nineteenth-century schoolrooms might be crowded with large numbers of students or be required to serve a wide variety of ages and abilities; teachers were sometimes young and inexperienced.) 

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This range of merit certificates shows what kinds of behaviors were valued in 19th-century students: selflessness, “correct deportment,” and diligence. 

School Reward of Merit Given to Belle Forkner, 1850-1895. 

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given to Mary Belot by Her Teacher Lidda Beams, 1850-1900. 

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

Reward of Merit Given to Sarah White by Her Teacher, Alexander McGuffey, Washington County, Pennsylvania, 1833. (Alexander McGuffey was the younger brother of William Holmes McGuffey, who created the McGuffey Readers textbooks.) 

From the Collections of The Henry Ford 

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School Reward of Merit Given to James Grattan by His Teacher, Miss Carman, circa 1840. 

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given to Maude Davenport by Her Teacher M. W. Leland, circa 1880.

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given by Eloise Bradshaw, 1875-1900.

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given to Effie Shaw, 1850-1900.

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given to George Putnam, 1818-1832.

From the Collections of The Henry Ford

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School Reward of Merit Given to Frank Belot by His Teacher H. C. Dunten, 1850-1900.

From the Collections of The Henry Ford 

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