School’s in Session (Part 3)

December 31, 2009

Finally to conclude this miniseries I’ll look at some of the school games students played and talk about the different types of punishment students faced if they misbehaved!

School’s In Session (Part 3)

A boy playing with homemade hoops. (image courtesy of OSV)

Recess and lunch were times for students to put away their books and amuse themselves in a variety of ways.  Money was scarce for most families and so toys were often homemade.  Whistles were carved from thick twigs, straw and rag dolls were made with fabric scraps, and bladders of large farm animals, when blown up, served as balls for the boys to play with.  Games didn’t always have to involve toys.  Tag, hide and seek and “Ring Around the Rosy” were popular.  Word games, such as “First and Last Letter”, “Nonsense Numbing” (a rhyming game), “I Spy”, and “Crambo” (also referred to as “I’m thinking of a word…) were another form of amusement.

Homemade Doll

While the children were allowed to have fun during their breaks, they were expected to do their work and behave during class.  If they failed to behave, harsh punishments would be handed out.  Students could be disciplined for many things, not just bad behavior.  Arriving late, answering questions wrong and falling asleep in class were all punishable offenses.  Some of the more popular punishments were memorizing long passages, writing lines over and over after school, wearing a dunce cap (this was believed to shame the student into good behavior), and whipping with a hickory switch or birch rod.

Children playing "Blind Man's Bluff" (image courtesy of OSV)

While school was for the most part very serious and a lot of work, students did get to enjoy some special events from time to time.  Spell-downs or spelling matches (the term spelling bee is modern and wasn’t used in the 1800s) were a source of pride and entertainment for the students as each tried to be the last one standing.  The schoolhouse was also used for community gatherings.  In the later 1800s students would put on Christmas pageants for the townsfolk.  It was a chance for the students to show off their skills by reciting poetry, singing songs, and performing math drills.

One room schoolhouses continued to thrive throughout the 1800s.  The decline of one room schools didn’t come until the 1940s and 1950s when the growth of the population began to increase drastically.  That and the advent of modern transportation would mean the end of the one room school era.  However, there are still some one room schools in use.  Towns with populations too small to meet standard school sizes and too remote to be bused to other communities still use a modern version of the single room schoolhouse.  While no longer prevalent, one room schoolhouses still live on.  And you can still find hundreds of one room schools throughout the United States, carefully restored and preserved so that they may share their rich history with many generations to come.

Classroom Scene (image courtesy of OSV)

If you missed the past two posts check it out here: Part 1 and Part 2 — Come back tomorrow and participate in an old schoolhouse game!

If you wish to see what historical schools might be around your area follow the following link: One Room Schoolhouse Center


School’s in Session (Part 2)

December 30, 2009

Today I’ll continue with descriptions of a typical school day and the text books used by students in the 1800s.

School’s in Session (Part 2)

Example from McGuffey's First Reader - children would learn the alphabet and to spell from examples such as this one.

A typical school day in the 1800’s wasn’t that much different from today.  Students had their lessons, recess and lunch break just like children today.  However, getting to school wasn’t as simple.  Children had to walk to and from school, no matter what the weather was like.  Most students had to walk at least a mile sometimes up to five miles to reach the school.  The teacher ringing her bell signified the beginning of the day.  Students “made their manners,” bowing or curtsying to the teacher, and took their seats.  The opening exercises began with the Lord’s Prayer, Bible reading and roll call, and the pupils would then begin working on their reading and writing lessons.  At midmorning they received a short recess, which was followed by arithmetic and lunch.  Students brought their lunches, usually homemade bread with jam, to school in a basket or tin pail.  The afternoon consisted of lessons in history and geography.  At around 4pm the next day’s duties (no homework, but jobs such as starting the fire) were handed out, and the children were dismissed.

The three most important subjects were reading, writing and arithmetic.  Writing and ciphering were considered especially important, since just about every profession—farmer, storekeeper, craftsperson, miller—needed these skills for bookkeeping and running their business.  Penmanship was also a valuable skill and much time was spent perfecting it.  Up until the early 1830s, students did a lot of learning by “rote,” or memorizing, and then reciting to the teacher.  By the late 1830’s, educational reformists were beginning to stress the importance of comprehension over memorization, and memorization eventually came to play a much smaller role.

Cover page from Colburn's Arithmetic textbook.

In the 1800s classroom you wouldn’t find any pens, pencils, crayons or lined paper.  A student’s only writing utensil was a quill pen— a sharpened goose feather—that he dipped in ink to write with.  Students practiced their penmanship in copybooks—unlined paper notebooks.  They used rulers to draw straight lines to aid them when writing.  A quill pen left a lot of wet ink on the page, and to help prevent smudging students covered the paper with blotting paper to absorb the excess ink.  If a student couldn’t afford a copybook, he used a slate to practice on.

In the early 18th century, students studied their lessons from the New England Primer and the Bible.  The primer contained the alphabet, numbers, spelling words and poems that the student would learn through memorization.  In 1836 William Holmes McGuffey published the McGuffey Readers, a series of six readers that became progressively more challenging with each volume.  The first reader started by presenting the letters of the alphabet.  The children were then taught to form and pronounce words and eventually read passages of text.  Through stories such as “The Greedy Girl“; “The Kind Little Girl“; “The Honest Boy and the Thief“; “The Lord’s Prayer“; “The Effects of Rashness“; “On Speaking the Truth“; and “Consequences of Bad Spelling” the readers extolled, explained and illustrated such virtues as honesty, charily, thrift, hard work, courage, patriotism, reverence for God and respect for parents. The McGuffey Readers would remain one of the most popular reading and writing textbooks throughout the 19th century and even into the early 20th century.

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School’s in Session (Part 1)

December 29, 2009

This week will be dedicated to a short miniseries on schooling and one room schoolhouses in 1800s New England.  Because there is so much to share I have divided this article into three portions to help limit the information overload!  Without further ado I present to you:

School’s in Session!

One Room Schoolhouse in Massachusetts

Schooling in New England has a rich history.  The Colony of Massachusetts established its first school in 1647.  Education in the 1600s consisted mainly of reading, for the Puritans believed that every child should be able to read the Bible.  Most schools started as dame schools—an informal gathering of children taught by women, often located in the home of the teacher, where students were taught the basics of reading and writing.  In the 1700s it became law that every town in Massachusetts had to provide public education where children could learn the “three R’s”—reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.  Massachusetts towns were required to tax themselves in order to provide these tuition-free schools.  By 1800 most towns were divided into several districts with a neighborhood school in each.  These new schools, known as district schools, replaced the dame schools.  District schools were held in school buildings built and owned by the town and were run by teachers hired by the town selectmen.  By the early 19th century, the district school would prevail over the dame school and eventually replace it completely.

Classroom desks in the early 1800s

District schools varied in architectural style from town to town.  They were built by local craftsmen who kept very much to the style of their region.  Despite this vernacular architecture, most schools shared many similarities.  They were typically located on a barren piece of land that could be used for little else.  The schools were always one room, with the exception of a cloakroom, and typically ranged from 20 to 26 feet square.  Every school had a simple front entry.  Some schools also had two back door entrances—one for boys the other for girls—that opened into a small cloakroom that connected to the main room.  Students were also kept separate in the classroom, boys on one side, girls on the other.  Windows typically lined either side of the room.  Many schoolhouses originally had the window sills placed so high that children wouldn’t be able to see out of them.  It was believed that lower windows would distract the children and promote daydreaming, keeping the pupils from doing their work.  This mentality eventually changed, and newer schoolhouses featured lowered windows.  All light was provided by the windows, as there was no electricity or even candlelight in these schoolhouses.

Iron Box Stove (and me playing the schoolmarm)

A single wood stove heated the entire classroom in the winter.  Up until 1820 the Franklin stove was used—a design very much like a typical fireplace today.  In 1820, this was replaced by the Iron Box Stove in schools.  This stove was, as the name suggests, a box that wood was fed into.  A pipe extended from the top and then ran parallel to the ceiling, distributing heat throughout the room.  The teacher’s desk sat at the front of the classroom with a blackboard behind it, and two to four rows of benches and desks filled the rest of the space.  The youngest children, typically around the age of six, sat in the smallest desks at the front of the room, and the oldest children (anywhere from age sixteen to eighteen) occupied larger desks in the back rows.  The privy, or necessary, (commonly known as the outhouse today) would be located outside and far enough away from the school that no odors would filter in.

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Christmas Movie Review: It’s a Wonderful Life

December 25, 2009

This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.

It’s a Wonderful Life
Starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore

Merry Christmas, everyone!  And what better way to celebrate than by remembering what is probably the most popular Christmas movie ever made: It’s a Wonderful Life.  Love it or hate it, you can’t deny it endures as few films have.  Once upon a time, it was on some TV channel somewhere almost every day between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.  Now it’s been limited to one network once a season, like regular old Christmas movies, but fondness for this film lives on.

I waxed poetic yesterday about Cary Grant, but my love for James Stewart, who plays main character George Bailey, runs just as deep.  Jimmy isn’t as devistatingly handsome as Cary, that’s for sure, but Jimmy’s the sort you want as a companion, spending you life getting to know each other.  George Bailey is considered by many to be his signature role, and fresh from a stint in the military during WWII, Jimmy was at the top of his game.  So was the lovely Donna Reed, who plays George’s wife Mary, and director Frank Capra, already known for inspiring films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (which also starred Jimmy Stewart).

George Bailey wants to go places, literally and figuratively, but growing up in the small, sleepy town of Bedford Falls in the early decades of the 20th century, his dreams are always one step away from coming true.  He works for four years for his father’s Building and Loan, an early credit union that cuts borrowers more slack than the local bank owned by the wealthy, heartless Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore).  When it’s supposed to be his younger brother Harry’s turn to take over the job so George can go to college and travel, Harry brings home a wife who wants him to take a job at her father’s company.  George stays on at the Building and Loan through his father’s death, his own marriage to childhood sweetheart Mary, and the Great Depression that threatens to do them in.  His forgetful Uncle Billy falls into a scheme of Potter’s that leaves the Building and Loan broke on Christmas Eve and George considers ending his life, which he feels hasn’t amounted to much anyway.  At the last minute, an angel appears and gives George a rare gift–the chance to see his impact on the world by looking at what the lives of his loved ones would be like if he’d never been born.

Like Miracle on 34th Street, this is another all-around good movie.  Very little of it is actually set at Christmas, just the frame and the last third or so.  Instead, it follows the life of one ordinary man and all its major milestones.  The characters aren’t just quirky small-town stereotypes, but real people who impact each other as they grow and change.

Though the last twenty minutes or so, when George is looking at the world without him in it, has been spoofed a million times, I love this film because of its depiction of small-town life in the early 20th century.  I’ve borrowed many images from it as I crafted my own WWII-era town, from the drugstore soda fountain to the home furnishings.  It also looks candidly at the issue of providing for a family in economically turbulant times, including homebuying, the development of suburbs and subdivisions, and the hassles of getting a mortgage.  We watched it just after buying our first house last year, and the financially-related plot lines came alive to me as never before.  The talk of bank runs and foreclosures couldn’t be more timely, even if houses cost more like $5000 instead of $200,000.

And last but not least, the last scene always makes me tear up, even though I know it’s coming.  Who doesn’t want to know they have made such a difference in the lives of others?  That is love, and that is Christmas.  It is wonderful indeed.

Christmas Movie Review: The Bishop’s Wife

December 24, 2009

This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.

The Bishop’s Wife
Starring Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven

I love Cary Grant.  I love his chisled good looks, his mid-Atlantic accent, his ability to play both suave and screwball convincingly.  I am a happily-married woman, but if I am allowed one great celebrity crush in my life, I pick Cary Grant.  He has made my heart pound since I was about 15 years old, and he is at his most delectible in the late ’40s in general, and this film in particular.

The Bishop’s Wife is the second of my three films featuring a supernatural holiday being (following Miracle on 34th Street‘s Kris Kringle), and the first of the two that will feature an angel.  The angel, appropriately enough, is Cary Grant.  He’s sent when overworked Episcopal Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) prays for help building a cathedral.  But cathedral funds and the unreasonable demands of committee members aren’t Henry’s only problems.  His wife, Julia (Loretta Young), and their young daughter Debbie have been sorely neglected as he runs from meeting to meeting, trying to please everyone else but them.  Dudley the angel, though, has no trouble fitting Julia and Debbie into his schedule.  He takes Julia out for lunch, tells Debbie stories, and pays compliments to their household staff.  Henry gets jealous (who wouldn’t if Cary Grant was romancing your wife), but insists on going to cathedral meetings himself.  As Dudley puts it, “If you asked me to stand in for you at the meeting with Mrs. Hamilton, I would have.  Instead, I’ll stand in with your wife.”  But Dudley can’t have everything he wants either, and must find a way to restore the Brougham’s marriage instead of tearing it apart.

Cary Grant makes this movie.  His angel is flawed but sincere, mischievous but dashing.  He helps all those around him because that’s the essence of who he is, but he develops feelings he shouldn’t have in the process.  And really–he’s gorgeous all the way through.

One thing that has always bothered me about this movie, though, and those who’ve seen it feel free to comment: Julia seems to be a loving mother, but she’s forever running around with Dudley or by herself and leaving her daughter to be cared for by the housekeeper.  Not to say a mother can’t have some time to herself, but multiple times, she’s been out all day and comes in just in time to kiss her child good-night.  If the child is that “in the way” of the story, why is she there in the first place?  But this could just be me…

Christmas Movie Review: Miracle on 34th Street

December 23, 2009

This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.

Miracle on 34th Street
Starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood

When people talk of a movie having “everything,” I’m surprised Miracle on 34th Street doesn’t come up more often.  It’s part fantasy (as are the next two movies on my agenda this week) with the appearance of “the one and only Santa Claus,” masterfully played by Edmund Gwenn.  It’s part romance, as Macy’s manager Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) falls in love with her lawyer neighbor, Fred Gaily (John Payne), despite all her reserve built up after her failed marriage.  Susan Walker, Doris’s young daughter (Natalie Wood) lends a family atmosphere, playing a precocious child who is cute without being gag-me-now sweet.  It’s also a legal drama, with one of the most satisfying courtroom verdicts ever caught on film.

The story and dialogue are tight, with intricate details that move the story along, but a basic summary of the film might go like this:

Doris Walker is in charge of Macy’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade and discovers her hired Santa is drunk on the float.  She finds a jolly, bearded old man to “play” Santa at the last minute, then hires him as the store’s Santa for the season.  He goes above and beyond Santa duty, suggesting a frazzled mom (Thelma Ritter–possibly the greatest character actress of the silver screen) visit another store to find her son’s dream toy.  Mr. Macy hears and pronounces the policy a “goodwill campaign”…but at the same time, Doris discovers that her Santa goes by the name Kris Kringle and he thinks he’s the real thing.  After steeling herself and her daughter Susan against any sort of fantasy when her husband leaves, Doris just can’t go along with Kris’s delusions.  Her new love interest, attorny Fred Gaily, thinks Kris is terrific and may be just the thing to reform the Walkers.  He gets his chance to prove it, though, when Macy’s store psychologist tries to have Kris committed.  Fred brings the case to trial, desperately searching for a way to legally prove that Kris is Santa, right up until Christmas Eve.

So many Christmas movies seem to stop at just being “Christmas” movies–throw in some snow, set the story between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, and you’ve got it made.  Miracle, though, is just a good all-around movie.  The writing, as I said, is very good (worthy of the Oscars it won for its story and screenplay), and the characters grow and change in believable ways.  And the setting?  My mark of a good movie is if I want to be there, and I definitely want to shop at the original Macy’s in all its post-war glory.

Incidentally, this is also one of the few movies I enjoy equally in its original black and white and in its colorized format.  Usually I hate colorizing, but I think it must be Maureen O’Hara’s lovely red hair (the inspiration for making my WIP main character’s guardian a redhead) and the lively department-store Christmas decorations that make this one bearable.  Thoughts?

Christmas Movie Review: Holiday Inn

December 22, 2009

This is a five-part series of reviews of classic live-action Christmas films that are on my must-watch list every holiday season.

Holiday Inn
Starring Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby, Marjorie Reynolds, and Virgina Dale

This is my favorite holiday-themed musical, and it is the origin of several famous songs that have come to be associated with other films.  It also has many things in common with the film I reviewed yesterday, White Christmas.  Both feature Bing Crosby in a leading role, music by Irving Berlin, and one special song that became a Christmas standard.  They’re also both musicals about the ins and outs of show business and the hospitality industry, but instead of White Christmas‘s classic “put on a show to save the day” approach, Holiday Inn‘s shows create more trouble for all concerned.

Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire are song-and-dance partners (no typecasting here, rest assured).  They also perform with Lila (Virginia Dare), who just can’t make up her mind which of them to marry.  When she breaks off her engagement to Jim (Crosby) in favor of continuing her dancing with Ted (Astaire), Jim continues with his plans to buy a farm in Connecticut.  His goal is relaxation, but farming provides anything but.  After a year or so of hard labor, Jim turns his farm into an inn, Holiday Inn, which will only be open on holidays.  Jim figures he can handle working the fifteen or so legal holidays on the calendar, and sets to work writing songs for each holiday stage show.  Linda (Marjorie Reynolds) shares his vision and agrees to be in these shows.  But Ted and Lila never made it to the altar, and when Ted shows up at Holiday Inn looking for work, the romantic rivalries start all over again.

“White Christmas” is featured in several places in this film, and none so beautifully as when Jim sings for Linda in front of a lit-up Christmas tree at the inn.  “Easter Parade,” another song that eventually got a movie named after it, also debuts here.  And while most of the songs are sung as stage shows instead of as part of plot or character development like later musicals (think Rodgers and Hammerstein muscials in particular), the songs often reflect the events of the story better than many other musicals of the 1930s and 40s.  At the very least, they let you know what holiday you’re up to, which is helpful on a movie so dependant on the passage of time.

This film is just a lot of fun.  The dances are great, as Fred Astaire’s dances always are, and my favorite solo dance of his, the “firecracker” number during the Independence Day show, is full of energy.  That same show also features “Song of Freedom,” really the only indication that the US was in full war mode by the time this film was released, with its newsreel images of war production and lyrics such as “all God’s people everywhere shall be free.”  As I watch it, I like to imagine my characters watching it in their local theater, forgetting their cares for a couple of hours, “killing time just being lazy.”