The semester is well underway in many U.S. schools and, by now, one would expect their classrooms to have acquired what my family referred to as the “lived-in look.” One of my favorite photo detail explorations is to peer closely at classrooms—particularly what appears at students’ seats, on the chalkboards and adorning the walls—and to ponder what this might say about the values conveyed in the classroom, as well as the resources (or lack thereof), teaching methods, and talents in play.
Not surprisingly, patriotic pictures and messages abound in this wartime classroom photographed in 1943 in Charlotte Court House, Virginia —messages likely intended to influence not only the students who occupied to school room, but also the viewers of the picture, which was distributed by the Office of War Information as part of its coverage of the home front during World War II. A portrait of the president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, has a central spot on the wall. The message at the left of the portrait seems a bit incongruous in a room inhabited only by young women: “Every boy can help win this war by collecting scrap rubber and metal.”
Patriotic portraits are, likewise, prominently displayed in the classroom below, photographed by Frances Benjamin Johnston at the Carlisle Indian School: a flag-adorned Abraham Lincoln adorns the wall at the left, and a portrait that appears to be President William McKinley hangs at the far right. The chalkboard provides the date: March 25, 1901—just six months before McKinley was assassinated. The chalkboard also provides the subject of the day’s conversation lesson: characteristics of a chair. But classroom activity seems to have focused on more than American leaders and man-made objects. The largest picture highlights a landscape scene, and the sentences neatly written at the right summarize characteristics of a robin. As we’ll see, nature often entered the classroom on the walls and chalkboards in this era.
I was struck by what was out of sync and absent in the photograph below, taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston at Tuskegee Institute in 1906. Although mathematics is the subject under discussion, with students working through word problems at the blackboards, the pictures on the wall are reproductions of art works and a portrait of Ulysses S. Grant. Perhaps the Institute used the classroom to instruct in multiple subjects. But what gave me particular pause was the absence of any surface for the students to write on—no desks or tables. That, combined with the non-existence of calculators in 1901, would have definitely cramped my computation style.
What was absent in the Chicago classroom depicted below was, apparently, heat. The photograph, one of some 2,500 images in the Goldsberry Collection showing “open air” schools, where fresh air was the order of the day. I don’t spot any calendars on the wall that would offer a clue as to the month, but with the windows open, it was clearly cold enough to require hooded wraps and mittens. The theory behind the open-air approach to schooling was born in practicality—maximum ventilation in an attempt to forestall the spread of tuberculosis in an era when it was a common public health hazard. What made me chuckle, however, was that the even the art reproductions on the wall seem to be of windblown subjects—no crackling fireplaces or blazing suns here!
One of Frances Benjamin Johnston’s first forays into photographing schools, undertaken before the Tuskegee and Carlisle Indian School work sampled above, was a project to document Washington, D.C., schools for display at the 1900 Paris Exposition. Many of the photographs were also featured in a short publication, The New Education Illustrated. The more than 300 photographs in the survey provide glimpses of many classrooms, as well as student activities and fieldtrips. What first struck me about the school survey photograph below are the challenges posed on the board for these very small students, which involve cutting shapes to precise measurements. But I was also intrigued by the artwork to the right of the assignment, which highlights signs of spring.
The contents of chalkboards of this era have always fascinated me for the sheer neatness of the handwriting and attention to detail apparent in drawings that one would expect to be rather ephemeral. It has made me wonder about the training teachers received and the standards they were expected to meet, not only in penmanship, but also in drawing.
Clearly, developing skills in cursive writing and the ability to depict nature on a chalkboard started early, as suggested by this classroom scene.
Although the efforts of the student at the left in the photo below are not as impressive as the drawings underway in the photo above, depictions of nature extended, in this photo, to a detailed and shaded view of the heart (with a more 3-D view through dissection taking place at the front desk, it seems).
In the photo below, which was published by the Detroit Publishing Company, my eye was first drawn to the neat rows of letter combinations and the shapes on the blackboards. When I looked at the details by bringing up the tiff file, however, the message on the board at the back made me sit up and take notice (although I’ll never achieve quite the excellent posture the photographer captured); the message reads: “Sit and stand as if you had bought and paid for yourself, and you were proud of your bargain.” I’m still pondering, however, what the shapes on the board at the left represent. Any ideas?
Lewis W. Hine’s photo below for the National Child Labor Committee also left me wondering. What is the pattern to the exercise relating to letter combinations that the boy is working on at the left? And who has pride of place in the portrait hanging high above him?
Here’s hoping that today’s classrooms are similarly being documented in photographs, so that historians of the future will have as much to delight in and to wonder about as the historical photos in our collections offer us today.
- Do your own exploration of classroom details by viewing a sampling of images of classrooms in the Prints & Photographs Online Catalog. Please share with us what you spotted!
- Frances Benjamin Johnston entered into a co-publishing endeavor, The New Education Illustrated, with Edith Westcott that resulted in pamphlet-length publications devoted to progressive methods in primary education, arithmetic, and geography instruction. Although I’ve not yet found fully digitized version of the publications, Tova Cooper provides some analysis of the contents of The New Education Illustrated, which she describes as a “short-lived quarterly journal,” in The Autobiography of Citizenship: Assimilation and Resistance in U.S. Education (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015)– view a relevant section on Google Books.
- Frances Benjamin Johnston’s work documenting educational institutions was one phase in a long career. Read about Johnston’s life and work.
- Lewis W. Hine took many photographs for the National Child Labor Committee, but classrooms were not at all in the majority. Learn more about why in this discussion of the National Child Labor Committee photographs.