Most Americans were illiterate before the creation of our public education system in the 1830s.
That seems to be a popular assumption, but is it true?
If you’re looking for statistics, they’re notoriously hard to get when it comes to literacy rates in past centuries. Most historians of early American history have gravitated toward signatures on documents – such as wills and deeds – as indicators of literacy. (Those who could not read simply used a mark.) Signatures are by no means fool-proof evidence of literacy, but it’s the best we have.
…about 80% of men and 50% of women were literate in New England around the time of America’s founding. Scholars have noted that the percentages were probably lower in the South at the time.
We also have the testimonies of widespread American literacy in the early nineteenth century. In 1800, The Columbian Phoenix and Boston Review magazine reported that “no country on the face of the earth can boast of a larger proportion of inhabitants, versed in the rudiments of science, or fewer, who are not able to read and write their names, than the United States of America.”
…According to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 32 million of American adults are illiterate, 21 percent read below a 5th grade level, and 19 percent of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, which means they can’t read well enough to manage daily living and perform tasks required by many jobs. Read more»
Daniel Lattier, “Did Public Schools Really Improve American Literacy?” (September 13, 2016)
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