“If 6 horses eat up 21 bushels of oats in a week’s time, how many bushels will serve 20 horses the same time?”

With its reference to bushels and horses – and requiring familiarity with arithmetic’s rule of three – this problem is something you probably won’t find in school exercises today. This was one of many similar problems students in Kings County schools were required to solve in the early 19^{th} century.

The problem about the horses and oats comes from an exercise book, dated 1840; this belonged to Matthew Wood when he was attending the district school in Woodside near Canning. Young Mr. Wood – he was 15 at the time – was required to study simple arithmetic and beyond that, some advanced math that might faze today’s high school students.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m looking at a 1945 Journal of Education report that along with two school exercise books dated 1840 and 1841 was donated recently to the Kings County Museum. In the report is a review of Wood’s exercise books with some revelations that are surprising.

The exercise books are interesting in many ways. They tells us that in Wood’s day the arithmetic taught then was far advanced compared to what is in today’s school curriculum. The report was written by Alex S. Mowat, a Dalhousie University Professor of Education. Mowat marvels that Wood’s exercise books have “a great deal that might scare the Grade VIII or IX pupils of today.” Could any of us do this? asks the Professor, noting the exercise books contains work on “vulgar fractions, followed by decimal fractions, double rule of three, conjoined proportions,” and so on.

Another interesting aspect of the exercise book – used when oxen and horses were common and there were no paved roads or railways – is that it permits comparisons with commodity prices then and now. Well actually not “now.” From the exercise books we can compare prices in 1945 with prices in the 1840s, which then gives us a comparison with prices today.

Commodity prices in the exercise books are given in shillings and pence and Prof. Mowat provides the 1945 value for each. “If you call a shilling 25 cents and a penny two cents,” Mowat writes, “you will have some idea of the price of commodities 100 years ago in Nova Scotia.” Eggs in 1840, for example, went for 1 shilling and 6 pence for two dozen. A teapot sold for 1 shilling and 2 pence, a handkerchief for 8 pence, a jackknife for 6 pence. You can do the multiplication yourself to roughly determine the price of eggs, etc., allowing for inflation of course.

“Some prices mentioned (in the exercise book) are of interest,” and reflect the times, Prof. Mowat writes. “For example, one exercise gives the postage of three letters at 4 shillings and pence, another two waggons of coals costing one guinea (about $5.25) another three oxen for 24 (pounds) and 10 shillings (about $122.50) others bushels of oats at $2.00 per bushel and bushels of beans at $2.00 per bushel.”

All in all, the exercise books offer much more than just an inkling of what school work was all about 175 years ago. We have a glimpse of every day living away back then since the exercises were meant to be of practical use. Prof. Mowat hits it right on when he writes that “here is a piece right out of the very web of Nova Scotia’s past.”

As mentioned, the old exercise books were donated to the Kings County Museum. The donor was Robert Borden of Dartmouth. Matthew Wood was Mr. Borden’s great grandfather.