Early American Sunday school teachers, emulating their English counterparts as they did in many areas of religious education, used reward tickets labelled ‘the ticket currency’, ‘with passages of Scripture printed with a border on thin red and blue pasteboard’, to encourage attendance and good scholarship from their pupils. 4 In an early and widespread example of what is labelled a ‘token economy’ in modern psychology and educational studies, instructors awarded blue tickets to pupils for regular attendance, for good behaviour or for memorizing passages from the Bible (the criteria of evaluation sometimes depended on the level of the student). 5 Students could also have tickets taken away by the Sunday school for poor conduct in school or in church. 6 Mirroring this philosophy, teachers and superintendents were also fi ned for
absences. If a child collected enough blue tickets, he or she could exchange them for more valuable red tickets (normally valued at half a cent), which, in turn, could be redeemed for religious tracts, New Testaments or complete Bibles. 7 One English Sunday school supporter whose writing was reprinted in America defended the system by arguing that a pupil learning for rewards was no different from adult workers motivated by wages. 8 Through this system, Sunday school children received lessons in monetary reward, without normally being directly exposed to a cash economy. Many Sunday school organizers expressed unease at rewarding pupils with cash – one Sunday school organizer declared the practice ‘peremptorily forbidden’ – but initially saw little harm using tickets, which could be converted into religious prizes, even when they were assigned a monetary value. 9 Earning a Bible or New Testament with tickets was sometimes no easy task for a child; the 1825 New York Sunday School Union annual report recorded that, of their 4,430 pupils, only 165 received a Bible and 211 a New Testament (a greater number received less expensive tracts), signalling consistent attendance, good behaviour and enormous amounts of rote memorization from a boy or girl. 10 Organizers hoped that, when children received reward books, they would be continually reminded ‘of the kind regard and affection of the instructors of their youth, and would often tend to revive their pious precepts in their minds’. 11 To encourage remembrance of the gift’s source and add to the reward’s signifi cance, Sunday school teachers affi xed book plates inscribed with the child’s name. In less common cases, when children were rewarded with cash, their prizes might be linked to benevolence. For example, at one Sunday school where pupils received money, they were encouraged to give half their earnings to charity, to instil the habit of benevolence. 12
Early Sunday school organizers in the United States recognized the potential of tickets and other rewards to attract children, and ordered them from Sunday school publishers as soon as a school was formed. 13 One Sunday school agent in the fi eld in rural Pennsylvania succinctly expressed the usefulness of premiums when he declared: ‘If I did not adopt this plan, I should not succeed.’ The agent explained that the people where he established Sunday schools could not otherwise afford juvenile religious texts. 14 The American Sunday School Union (ASSU) – a national umbrella organization of Sunday schools – responded to the demand from local Sunday schools, printing 726,000 tickets in its fi rst year. 15 Reward tickets became a ubiquitous feature of the Sunday school classroom. Indeed, Mark Twain lampooned the system in his 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer . He was confi dent that his readers would recognize and be amused by the young Sawyer manipulating a Sunday school ticket reward system to win the attention and accolades that came with winning a Bible, without absorbing religious lessons. 16
Besides acting as a localized currency, the tickets themselves were infused with religious messages and meaning. Religious publishers printed tickets
with passages from the Bible to inspire piety in the recipient even before he or she traded them for grander rewards. Indeed, one anecdote that was republished repeatedly highlighted that a single reward ticket could have transformative properties. A wealthy woman asked her servant to bring her a ticket that she saw lying on the ground, mistaking it for something economically valuable. Upon reading the passage, she was spiritually moved, and ‘brought to the feet of Jesus’ as a believer. 17 In another short story, a mother was converted to Christianity when she read the inscription on a Sunday school ticket presented to her by her dying child. 18
A reward system that mirrored market transactions was not the only way Sunday schools could have chosen to reward children. While some American secular schools also used reward tickets (commonly designed to resemble actual currency), and some American parents rewarded well-behaved children with toys and books, a number of nineteenth-century educational institutions employed less material motivational tools. 19 For instance, public schools used desk position to distinguish academic performance, seating the best students in the front. One historian has shown that adolescent girls took their desk positions seriously a few decades later in the nineteenth century, working for grades without a material incentive. 20 In another example of non-physical rewards, Frederic Beasley, a provost of the University of Pennsylvania, advocated rewarding students with days excused from class in recognition of exceptional performance. 21 That the organizers of Sunday schools permitted, and even printed, reward tickets, despite these imaginable alternatives, indicated their willingness to embrace a consumer economy and encourage juvenile desire.