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Merited behavior: Rewarding the 19th century schoolchild

When I was young, one of my favorite things about school was when I could bring something home to show my parents. I relished their approval of countless art projects and watched with glee as my schoolwork received the place of honor on the refrigerator door. For me, the best thing to bring home was not art, or even report cards, but the certificates I received from my teacher congratulating me as an exceptional student; the bumper sticker on my parent's car proclaiming "My Kid is an Honor Student" was a point of pride. I was happy to receive the simple tokens that congratulated me on my schoolwork and behavior—and as it turns out, American children have been earning such rewards from their teachers and schools for hundreds of years.

Rectangular piece of paper featuring flowery garlands, a vignette of school supplies including a globe, and two children reading books.

Referred to as rewards of merit, several hundred examples of these tokens of students' progress and teachers' approval are part of the Dr. Richard Lodish American School Collection, and I have had the opportunity to work with many of them—especially those from the mid-to-late 19th century. While some rewards of merit are medallions and pins, most of these rewards are small pieces of paper with either hand-drawn or printed decoration. Some are elaborately ornamented with illustrations and color, while others are simpler, with only the words "Reward of Merit" and the student's name. While the styles vary, each reward had an important meaning for the student: the recognition of a teacher, approval of parents, and establishment among peers.

Rectangular document with a red flower with green leaves.

The behaviors that merited a reward of merit in 19th-century classrooms are not too different from what teachers value today—achievements like focus, attendance, and punctuality. Many of the rewards within the collection feature little poems that tell of a student's hard work and obedience:

How lovely, how charming the sight,
When children their Teacher obey;
The angels look down with delight,
This beautiful scene to survey.

Rewards of merit celebrate everything from excellent spelling to perfect attendance. Common themes of industry, focus, and diligence can be found throughout the collection. This shows that the responsibility of teaching and enforcing ethical and moral behavior was placed not only on a child’s parents, but on teachers as well.

Simple document with no ornamentation that says "Public schools of San Francisco" dated Feb. 9, 1894.

In the 19th century, growing numbers of young men and women across America were becoming teachers and needed ways to manage their sometimes unruly charges. Many turned to physical discipline, while others found that giving rewards of merit was a better way to encourage and incentivize good behavior, rather than punishments that discouraged bad behavior. According the 1994 book Rewards of Merit by Patricia Fenn and Alfred P. Malpa, some 19th-century teachers seemed to instinctively understand that giving rewards was more productive. Others looked to more experienced teachers, observing their success with rewards for desired behavior. Some rewards of merit explicitly state what behavior would not be celebrated—tardiness, absence, or "misdemeanors."

Rectangular illustrated document with "Reward of Merit" text. In center, a woman in a scene with a ship. On left, man on horse--possibly George Washington. On right, woman in a scene that is difficult to discern.

One of the most powerful things about rewards of merit is their potential as incentives. Clearly they were valued and praiseworthy—the sheer number of intact rewards in the museum's collection show how much their original owners cherished them. To add even more motivation, those with artwork were often part of collectible series; if you continued to behave well in the classroom, perhaps you could collect them all!

Rectangular orange document with "Reward of Merit."

Rectangular document with illustration of a blue bird on a branch with red flowers.

Rewards of merit illustrate other things about American history, such as the evolution of the printing process and the inclusion of religious themes in school settings. For myself, the most interesting factor is their role as incentives to encourage students to continue to strive for high standards in their education. Rewards of merit existed at the same time as dunce caps and other types of physical punishment but, while those negative approaches have diminished in use, these physical tokens of praise have stood the test of time. These seemingly innocuous slips of paper document the successes and hopes of generations of children who carried them home to be proudly presented to their parents. And like my refrigerator door prizes, rewards of merit were just as proudly displayed in the homes of our American ancestors.

Rectangular document with fancy scroll work and flower illustrations. Illustration of a child reading and a proud mother talking to her daughter.

Jenna Collins completed a fall internship in the Division of Home and Community Life, where she worked with Associate Curator Debbie Schaefer-Jacobs in the Education Collection. She is a recent graduate of Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, with degrees in history and museum studies.