During the 1800s, most college curricula were centered around the classics, and a substantial mastery of Latin and Greek was a requirement for admission. Brown University's 1836-7 catalog, for example, says that entrants must
- be thoroughly acquainted with the Grammar of the Latin and Greek languages, be able to construe and parse and of the following books, namely:—Jacob's Greek Reader, the Historical Books of the New Testament, or three Books of Xenophon's Cyropædia, Cæsars Commentaries, Virgil, Cicero's Select Orations, and translate English into Latin correctly.
Most public schools did not prepare students to meet these requirements (those that did tended to be identified by names like "Boston Latin School").
Prep schools of the 1800s were modelled to some extent on the English so-called "public" schools like Eton and Harrow. Many of them had strong religious affiliations, usually Protestant, and tended to feed in to the schools now known as the Ivy League. One group of venerable Episcopalian prep schools is irreverently known as "St. Grottlesex:" St. Paul's School, St. Mark's School, St. George's School, Groton School, Middlesex School.
Following the Civil War and the passage of the Morrill Act, there was an explosion of public state universities. At the same time, many of the private universities, notably Harvard under Charles W. Eliot, sought to diversity their student body and admit more students from public schools. The importance of knowledge of Latin and Greek declined, in part because the great private universities' were becoming more secularized. Gradually, colleges dropped the requirements of Latin and Greek, and the curricula of public and prep schools converged.