For decades, Berks County schools were maintained almost exclusively by churches. This continued until 1834, when Pennsylvania passed the Free Schools Act which created a state system of school districts throughout the Commonwealth. The act allowed each district to decide when the new system would take effect, and only two embraced the concept immediately: Caernarvon Township and the city of Reading.
Reading hired Rachel Griscom (1808-1901) to teach girls in the city’s south ward, for a salary of $13 per month. Rachel initially agreed to teach 37 pupils, but on the morning of her first day, January 20, 1835, she found herself responsible for 75 students, ranging in age from 4 to 15 years old. By March 1st, she was teaching 105 students, all while grappling with a lack of teaching materials and a sizable population of students who spoke German as their first language (Rachel did not speak German).
Rachel Griscom continued teaching into the 1860s, and then subsequently served as librarian at Reading Library. She was a co-founder of the Reading Home for Widows and Single Women, and she actively raised funds for the Reading Dispensary – predecessor to the Reading Hospital. Rachel was acquainted with Betsy Ross, who was her grandfather’s first cousin. Additionally, her brother, Samuel, was one of three “chief managers” for the Underground Railroad in Berks County. Considering that Rachel lived with Samuel, it is plausible that she also played a role in this work.
We are fortunate that Rachel had the foresight to save her original attendance books, and thankfully, her family donated them to the Berks History Center in 1901. Her first attendance book, which begins on March 1st, 1835, is preserved in the archives of Berks History Center’s Henry Janssen Library, located at 160 Spring Street, Reading, PA 19601.
Assistant Director of the Berks History Center
Berks History Center
Historical Society Museum & Henry Janssen Library