Friday, June 12, 2015

School, ca. 1917

Have you seen the chalkboards from 1917 that were recently discovered during renovations an Oklahoma City Public School?  They've been a hot topic in some news.  The lessons were left in place when new chalkboards were installed in 1917.  There are math, history, music, and health lessons plus Thanksgiving quotes and drawings.  (You can see more images at Colossal, The Washington Post, Generation X, and  Yes, go look!)  Seeing them I can imagine girls with braids, boys with short pants, and teachers with their hair in buns.  Talk about stepping back in time!  No computers, no reams of paper, no calculators . . . .

Imagining school in 1917 reminded me of tests I've read while researching in old newspapers.  There were exams to pass eighth grade which, for many students, was the highest level of formal education obtained in the early 1900s and before.  The 1912 eighth grade test from Bullitt County, Kentucky, has questions I can't answer now, and some I never could have answered.  Subjects included spelling, reading, arithmetic, grammar, geography, physiology, civil government, history.  A few questions from the exam:
  • Find cost of 12½ cents per sq. yd. of kalsomining the walls of a room 20 ft. long, 16 ft. wide and 9 ft. high, deducting 1 door 8 ft. by 4 ft. 6 in. and 2 windows 5 ft. by 3 ft. 6 in. each.
  • How many steps 2 ft. 4 in. each will a man take in walking 2 1/2 miles?
  • At $1.62½ a cord, what will be the cost of a pile of wood 24 ft. long, 4 ft. wide and 6 ft. 3 in. high?
  • How many parts of speech are there?  Define each.  
  • Name and give the capitals of States touching the Ohio River.  Locate Erie Canal; what waters does it connect, and why is it important?
  • Name the organs of circulation.
  • Name three rights given Congress by the Constitution and two rights denied Congress.
  • Sketch briefly Sir Walter Rawleigh, Peter Stuyvesant.
  • Name the last battle of the Civil War; War of 1812, French and Indian War, and the commanders of each battle.
  • Who invented the following.--Magnetic Telegraph, Cotton Gin, Sewing Machine, Telephone, Phonograph.

And then there were the examinations given to prospective teachers to determine whether they qualified to teach.  The January 13, 1916 edition of Ohio's The Greenville Journal published the questions of an exam for county teachers wishing to obtain elementary school certificates.  The categories included arithmetic, geography, grammar, history, physiology, literature, agriculture, theory and practice, writing, orthography, reading, and spelling.  (Click image to enlarge.)

A few of the questions from the teacher's exam:

     A man walks 5/12 of a mile.  Express in integers of rods, feet, inches.  Show the outline which you would have the pupils follow in this reduction.
     Give statistics regarding Ireland -- its size, population, industries, cities.  What is its form of government?
     What is conjugation?  Conjugate the verb "dream" in indicative mode, present, past, future tenses.
     Name the leading political parties since 1796.
     What effects has the use of intoxicants upon (a) tuberculosis, (b) pneumonia?
     How does knowledge of a scratch on the hand reach the brain?  Would knowledge of an injury to an internal organ locate so accurately the place and nature of the hurt?  Does the brain control the processes of the internal organs?
     Write a short biography of Robert Burns; name four poems.
     What are the principal points in which a cow of the dairy type differs from one of the beef type?  Name some good breeds of each type.
     Outline your principal aims in teaching some particular subject.  What use can you make of pictures (either textbook, card, magazine or blackboard in your teaching?  What can you do to teach pupils to use their leisure hours profitably?  Of what does loyalty on the part of the teacher consist?
     Mark for pronunciation:  Des Moines [sic], troubadour, sumach, stalagmite, reciprocity, silhouette, quagmire, papyrus, degeneracy, larynx.

This exam was nearly two full newspaper columns long.  I don't know if the exam was published in advance so the applicants could study or if the exam changed from year to year and this was the previous year's exam.  I suppose it was an all- day or several-day exam.

It's clear that most of the questions were appropriate for rural students and their teachers. 

Some have argued that students these days don't need to know information like this and that modern-day students are more advanced.  But I wonder. . . .

Aside from finding the exams and the chalkboards interesting, the only tie I have to this topic is that my parents both attended county schools.  My father was born in 1913, my mother in 1915, so both would have been in schools a few years after 1917, but from the little my father said, I could imagine it was very similar to school in 1917.


Copyright © 2015 Nancy Messier. All Rights Reserved.


  1. I have a math book that belonged to my great-grandfather, and the questions often required the student to do a lot of critical thinking and perform multiple steps. With multiple grades in one room, when did students find time to learn about the government in Ireland???

    1. I remember word problems in school, too. Without an aptitude for math they were my least favorite and most difficult problems. Yes, you wonder how they could fit in the study of Ireland with American history to learn -- all the harder if it's a one-room school. I think by the time of these exams many county schools had at least several classrooms with different grades -- but maybe not. You're great-grandfather's book would be fun to see.

  2. Whenever I see an old abandoned house, I always wonder how its first owner felt the day they moved into that house. Everything has its history and with it their story and I am always so curious about those stories. The pictures drawn on those chalk boards make me so curious about the children who went to school there. I find it strange they didn't clean the boards too. Didn't every teacher clean the boards at the end of the day?

    1. I'm like you, Michelle, in that I want to know the details behind the events -- the stories that tell how people felt, how they reacted, etc. As far as the school, I wonder if there are old records that tell the names of the children. And might one of them have kept a diary or journal. It would be fun and interesting to be able to find out more.

      I think it's strange they didn't clean the chalkboards but maybe they thought they were preserving them for future generations? I find it even more strange that they didn't remove the old chalkboards but just put a layer over them.

      I do really wish I could jump back in time.


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