Hundred-Year-Old Rural Math Problems

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Wednesday, October 15, 1913:

10/13 – 10/17: Nothing worth writing about for these days. Don’t go any place or do anything of much importance.

Source: Rural Arithmetic (1913)
Source: Rural Arithmetic (1913)

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

I’m still fascinated by the 1913 textbook I found called Rural Arithmetic by John E. Calfee that I mentioned the previous two days. Since Grandma didn’t write anything specific for this date a hundred years ago, I am going to share a few more problems today.

Here are the problems:

1.  If a cord of wood for cooking purposes lasts a family 3 weeks, how much does the family pay out in the course of a year for cook-stove wood when wood is $2 per cord? . . . when wood is $3 per cord?

2. If a quail, in the course of a year, eats 25¢ worth of grain, and destroys $2 worth of harmful insects and weed seed, how much has a farmer injured himself by killing 3 pairs of quails if a pair raise a brood of 12 each year?

3. If the water running from a piece of land that has been planted with corn contained 1 pound of sediment for every 250 gallons of water, how much soil was carried away from a 40-acre corn field after a 2-inch rainfall, with 1/4 of the water running off?

4. If a team travels 16 1/2 miles a day with a breaking plow, how many days work can a man save in plowing 30 acres (110 rod by 43 7/11 rod) by using a 16-inch instead of a 12-inch plow?

5. A county store on a gravel road pays 1¢ a mile for each 100 pounds of freight hauled from the railroad station.; a county seat of the same road 24 miles from the railroad, 18 miles of which are not gravel, pays 2¢ a miles for hauling 100 pounds of freight. What is the annual bad-road tax paid by this county seat upon 300,000 pounds of freight?

rural.arithmetic.p. 86

rural.arithmetic.p. 87

It’s amazing how much you can learn about routine activities (as well as issues and challenges) a hundred years ago from word problems.

It’s also intriguing to think about how pedagogical experts a hundred years ago must have believed that it was important to have textbooks with problems that were designed specifically for the rural context that the students experienced in their day-to-day lives.


35 thoughts on “Hundred-Year-Old Rural Math Problems

    1. Many of those old problems take some thought. I wonder how the instructor taught the lessons. Were the students given these problems as homework? . . . or did they do many of them as a group in class?

    1. The term is still used around here. We have a fireplace and we buy a face cord every year or two.

      A full cord of wood is 4 ft. high by 4 ft. deep by 8 ft. long. A face cord is 4 ft. high by 8 ft. long regardless of the length of the pieces of wood.

    1. These problems make me want to look at a modern math textbook. My sense is that they also portray what our culture is like–though it might be harder to see without the passage to time.

    1. Those old train problems were horrid. Based upon the number of people who commented about train problems yesterday and today I think that train problems gave many children nightmares.

  1. Those are wonderful problems. I’m tempted to sit down and solve them all. What makes them appear unique and quaint is the content and time in history. Today, we still ask kids to do challenging problems. My teaching colleagues all do that.

    1. You’re exactly right–the context has changed over the years but teachers still give children challenging problems that probably teach them many of the same skills.

    1. Yes, the problems were very practical. As I mentioned in the post, I got them from a book called Rural Arithmetic. I wonder how the problems differed in the books that were used in city schools.

    1. Yes, the problems seem like they were very practical and designed to provide the students with the knowledge and skills needed to answer questions they might encounter in their daily lives. .

    1. It is fun to see how those old problems were very focused on the types of questions that might be encountered in the “real” world a hundred years ago.

  2. That is why schools today are lacking…they are not allowing the teachers to do their job – teach and with all the new technology and the concept of keeping kids busy they are no longer be taught to think, reason and develop common sense. We are raising a generation of non thinkers…and this coming from someone who loves her computer!! LOL

  3. These are great problems. Not just “math” but real problem solving skills. A student reading these would never have been able to complain (as my students have done), “But I’ll never need to USE any of this when I’m out of school.” Love the illustrations.

    1. I was amazed how many very practical problems there were in the book. . . and how what is considered practical has changed over the years. For example, there were problems that required students to know the relationship between rods and acres. Today I don’t think many people have any idea how long a rod is.

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