20 October 2009

Culture Spot : School Days in America’s Past – Not Just the Little Red Schoolhouse

Throughout American history, school buildings came in a as wide a variety of styles as there were minds and materials to create them.

Short on resources but long on resourcefulness, parents in Scotts Bluff, Nebraska, constructed their first school from bales of straw. For two years in the late 1800’s, pupils recited lessons inside this grassy shelter while cattle on the outside nibbled it to oblivion. Temporary structures such as this were replaced or improved upon when the community prospered. The evolution of many a Kansas school was typical: they often began as simple dugouts, were replaced by sod shacks, and then by frame or stone structures.

Deciding where to build the school often sparked a lively debate. It needed to be within walking distance for most of the children, yet far enough from farms so that pranksters would not trample crops or harass animals. It should be built on land not suitable for cultivation and, if possible, be located near a road. Simple log or frame schools that lacked fixed foundations were sometimes set on skids and shifted about the countryside in response to changes in the population.

The schools were built from whatever materials were plentiful. Wood and stone were common in the East, sod was used on the prairies, and adobe in the Southwest. The prevalence of red brick schools in the Midwest has probably added to the myth of the “little red schoolhouse.” But, in fact, most schools were painted white. Octagonal schools – the brainchild of a phrenologist and amateur architect – were easy to heat and so were popular for a time in the Middle Atlantic states.

Traditionally, a one-room school was furnished with crude backless benches that were, over time, incised by idle whittlers with '”all sorts of images, some of which would make heathens blush.” There were no individual desks. Instead, a slanted shelf ran along three walls and served as a writing surface; a flat shelf below it held personal items. The windows were glazed with paper greased with lard for translucence and waterproofing. This fragile glazing was often broken, and in winter the openings were likely to be stuffed with hats to help keep out the cold.

Amenities were added as budgets permitted. Yards were fenced, more to keep wandering livestock out that to keep the children in. To ensure propriety, schools sometimes had separate entrances for boys and girls – an extravagant nicety in cases when the school itself was a single room. A more pressing matter was that of privies: some schools had none; others had only one. In the early 1990’s, school superintendents urged that there “be separate toilets for the sexes . . . far enough apart to avoid moral contagion.”

Standardization of buildings and facilities increased dramatically in the 20th century. Playgrounds were built and flagpoles sprang up. Additional rooms and second, or even third, stories were added. What one scholar observed about the one-room schoolhouse was no less true for theses later structures; from here a pupil’s world widenedoutward from the common room . . . in an adventure of growing and learning.”

Taken from Reader’s Digest Discovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History & Lore of Our Great Nation.

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