Skip to Content

What were girls taught in the 1800s?

In the 19th century, a girl’s education was extremely different from what it is today. Girls received little formal schooling and instead were taught domestic skills at home to prepare them for their future roles as wives and mothers. Their education focused on cultivating morals, manners, and accomplishments rather than academic subjects.

Home Education

Until the late 1800s, the majority of girls received their education at home from their mothers or female tutors. Only girls from wealthy families would be sent to private boarding schools aimed at young ladies. For working-class and poor families, formal schooling was not considered necessary for girls. Mothers were responsible for teaching their daughters sewing, cooking, cleaning, childcare and other domestic tasks.

Girls as young as 3 or 4 would start learning “womanly arts” from their mothers. They were given sampler sewing to teach fine motor skills and patience. Young girls helped with chores around the house to learn skills like washing, ironing, cleaning and cooking. Mothers believed preparing daughters to be good wives was more important than book learning.

Curriculum Focus

The curriculum for 19th century girls focused heavily on moral development, etiquette, housekeeping, cooking and other domestic skills. Girls were taught to be obedient, dutiful, modest and graceful. Religion and spiritual studies were considered important to develop morals and values. Girls were also expected to learn feminine accomplishments like music, dancing, sewing, art and letter writing.

Academic subjects like reading, writing, literature, arithmetic and science were considered far less essential for girls. Some basic literacy was taught to enable girls to read the Bible and hymns and write letters. But higher levels of academic education were not encouraged, as society did not think girls needed scholastic knowledge or intellectual pursuits outside the home.

Common Subjects for Girls

  • Moral education
  • Etiquette and manners
  • Domestic skills like sewing, cooking, cleaning
  • Childcare and nursing
  • Religion – Bible studies
  • Basic literacy – reading, writing
  • Feminine accomplishments like music, art, dancing

Women’s Roles and Expectations

The primary role of women in the 19th century was as wives and mothers. Girls were raised to aspire only to marriage and homemaking, not higher education or careers. Their education prepared them for domestic life and focused on qualities desired in a good wife – religious piety, morals, housekeeping skills and a demure manner.

Girls were expected to be innocent, virtuous and ignorant of worldly matters like politics, business or economics. Too much education was seen as unnecessary for their future roles. Parents did not want daughters to seem too intellectual, clever or independent – the ideal woman was submissive and dependent on her husband.

Common Expectations for 19th Century Girls

  • Marry and have children
  • Keep a home – cooking, cleaning, decorating
  • Obey her husband as head of household
  • Nurture and teach children
  • Be pious, pure and modest
  • Manage social calendar, visits, tea parties
  • Improve accomplishments like music, art

Changes in the Late 1800s

By the mid to late 1800s, attitudes towards girls’ education began slowly changing, but curriculum continued to focus on domestic skills.

A small number of private girls’ schools aimed at wealthy families started placing more emphasis on academic topics like English literature, history, math and science. The curriculum remained heavily focused on moral and religious studies, etiquette, and accomplishments like music and French.

Public high schools for girls started opening in the 1870s-1880s that offered some basic academic courses. But most working-class girls still received a predominantly domestic education at home.

Key Changes for Girls’ Education:

  • Rise of elite private girls’ boarding schools in 1840s-1860s
  • Inclusion of some academic topics like English, history, math, science
  • First public high schools for girls established 1870s-1880s
  • Continued focus on moral, manner and domestic training


Throughout the 19th century, girls continued to receive an education focused on preparing them for domestic life and marriage. While their education was limited, it was believed to provide everything a girl needed to become a proper, moral wife and mother. It was not until the early 20th century that girls began to gain greater academic opportunities.