Primary Source

Handwriting Assignment, San Telmo Parish


In early 19th-century Argentina, political leaders considered schools to be one of the nation's most important institutions of social control and politicization. The following is an 1817 handwriting assignment from a public elementary school in the parish of San Telmo. This document illustrates how Buenos Aires officials attempted to channel young people's behavior. Classes offered lessons in morality, good behavior, discipline, and above all, a deep respect for authority. For example, notice in the first lesson how children were taught to wash their hands only "after all other persons superior to him have done so. . ." The second part of the document demonstrates how religion reinforced these ideas. This assignment invokes the fourth commandment in the Bible, which, in Catholic teachings, requires a good Christian to "honor" one's parents.

This document also points to the idea that schools reconstituted the social order. Young people from the lower classes rarely completed formal training while those of middle-class and elite families had greater opportunities to complete their education. In this lesson, the role of a "man-servant" in one of the assignments speaks directly to children from middle-class and elite families. These children also had more opportunities to attend private Catholic schools and receive scholarships funded by private donations. Indeed, the middle and elite classes saw education as a means to maintain their social status, and port city leaders from these classes especially valued a literate and educated citizenry who could fill the ranks of the state's bureaucracies.

This source is a part of the Parents, Children, and Political Authority in 19th century Argentina teaching module.


A person must be very conscious of himself at the dinner table, since it is there that he must observe an infinite number of rules in order to avoid all forms of rudeness and ill-breeding. Parting from the notion that cleanliness is never more necessary than at the table, the Child will wash his hands after all other persons superior to him have done so, taking care not to wash at the same time as these others, unless he is expressly not forbidden to do so, in which case the man-servant should be nearby to provide a towel.

The fourth Commandment of the Decalogue indicates to us in the strongest fashion the reverence and respect that must be shown toward our parents. It is the first precept imposed on us by the second tablet of the Law of Grace, and which must be obeyed in the strictest fashion after the first three precepts of the first tablet which refer to God. The Child will look with horror upon all deeds or words that may be interpreted as disobedience, contempt, mockery, or inattention toward his Parents. He will kiss their hands upon entering the house or wherever He encounters them.


Archivo General de la Nación, X-6-1-1, Instrucción Pública, 1812–35. Reprinted in Szuchman, Mark D. Order, Family, and Community in Buenos Aires, 1810–1860. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988. Annotated by Jesse Hingson.

How to Cite This Source

"Handwriting Assignment, San Telmo Parish," in World History Commons, [accessed January 29, 2023]