Little red school house and the three Rs – New York State Quarter Coin

Today, the New York State Quarter Coin tells the story of the first building dedicated to be a public school in New York on December 11, 1809.

Not quite so little, Archie Emerson Palmer described that first public school in his history book, The New York Public School, published in 1905.


At the session of the Legislature in 1808 an act was passed, at the request of the Society, abolishing its unwieldy name and making it simply The Free School Society of New York, and, at the same time, extending its powers to include “all children who are the proper objects of a gratuitous education.”

In the ensuing autumn another appeal was made to “the city Corporation, which promptly responded by presenting to the Society “an extensive lot of ground in Chatham street, on which was an arsenal, on condition of their educating gratuitously the children of the Almshouse.”

The lot, with the old building on it, was valued at $10,000, and the Corporation subsequently contributed $1500 to aid the Society in constructing a new school building.

The following year, 1809, was devoted to the erection of a brick structure, 120 by 40 feet in size, “capable of commodiously accommodating in one room five hundred children.”

In the lower story were apartments for the family of the teacher, for the meetings of the Trustees, and for a second schoolroom, with a capacity of one hundred and fifty.

The amount expended by the Trustees in ” the erection and completion of this extensive building” exceeded $ 13,000. They received contributions of timber and other materials of the value of $1000, and “also negotiated with a master-mason and two carpenters, who generously superintended the work, and paid the laborers, without receiving themselves the customary profit.”

The situation of this school, long known as New York Free School No. 1, is a matter of interest.

By some historians it has been represented as located on Chambers street.

The lot on which the arsenal stood, however, was on the corner of Chatham street and Tryon row, and the school building was situated on the westerly side of Tryon row, fronting on Chatham street.

The greater portion of this site is now included in Centre street (the extension of which caused the removal of the schoolhouse in 1837), but the building, being 120 feet long, must have covered, in part, land now included in City Hall Park.

The transfer of the school, on December 11, 1809, to its new “spacious and permanent habitation,” to quote the Account of 1814, was an event of importance to the little city.

Interesting exercises were held, the principal feature being an address by President Clinton, who reviewed the work of the Society and laid special emphasis on the merits of the Lancasterian system.

He called attention to the fact that the system of instruction adopted by the Society had received legislative sanction, and, with pardonable pride, quoted from the preamble of the act of February 27, 1807, the statement that the Society’s “plan of extending the benefits of education to poor children, and the excellent mode of instruction adopted by them, are highly deserving of the encouragement of government.”

He also referred to Colonel Rutgers’s gift of two lots in Henry street, and to the necessity of enlarging the work of the Society. On this point he said:

“The law from which we derive our corporate existence does not confine us to one seminary, but contemplates the establishment of schools. A restriction to a single institution would greatly impair our usefulness, and would effectually discourage those exertions which are necessary in order to spread knowledge among the indigent.

“Colonel Henry Rutgers, with his characteristic benevolence, has made a donation of two lots in Henry-street, worth at least twenty-five hundred dollars, to this Corporation.

“By a condition contained in one of the deeds, it is necessary that we should erect a school-house by June, 1811; and it is highly proper, without any reference to the condition, that this should be accomplished as soon as possible, in order to meet the wants of the indigent in that populous part of the city.

“If some charitable and public-spirited citizen would follow up this beneficence, and make a similar conveyance on the opposite side of the city, and if the liberality of the public shall dispense the means of erecting the necessary buildings, then the exigencies of all our poor, with respect to education, would be amply supplied for a number of years.”

In reference to the opening of the new building, the Account of 1814 contains the following:

“A building, dedicated to the gratuitous instruction of five hundred children, under the care of a single individual, was a spectacle, which had never before been exhibited on the American continent.”

In the erection of the new building the Society incurred a considerable debt, which it had no means of meeting. Another application was soon made to the Legislature, and in 1810 an act was passed providing that the fee for membership in the Society should be $50, and also granting it an additional appropriation of $4000 from the excise moneys, “for the purpose of erecting suitable accommodations for the instruction of poor children.”

As the gift of Colonel Rutgers was conditioned on the erection of a schoolhouse on the Henry street lots by June, 1811, and as the funds in hand were insufficient for the purpose, the Trustees decided to make another appeal to the liberality of the community.

Subscriptions were solicited in the various wards, and the citizens responded so handsomely that in a short time the sum of $13,000 was collected.


The Journal of Education describes the educational process chosen by the Society:

“The Lancasterian system, successfully established in London, received careful consideration, and commended itself to their attention. This system, stated briefly, embraced in its course of study reading, writing and arithmetic. The pupils were made instructors by dividing the school into small classes of ten or fifteen, and placing over each class a monitor from a higher class.”

In short, the newly dedicated building housed an educational system focused on the “three Rs.”

The New York State Quarter Coin shows beside an image of the first public school building.

New York State Quarter Coin