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Pandemic Education 100 Years Ago
The 1918 Flu & Children's Education
During these unpredictable and scary times, it is interesting to take a look back at the 1918 Flu
Pandemic. One hundred years ago, schools closed temporarily in response to a new flu virus. Like
Covid-19, the illness spread quickly because the population had not yet developed an immunity.
There was no vaccine, so masks, isolation, limited gatherings, and quarantine were standard
Gina Rich, a Washington Post journalist, recently interviewed the Smithsonian’s Debbie Schaefer-
Jacobs, Curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life at the National Museum of American
History. She revealed that for schoolchildren in 1918 some things were the same, but many were
quite different. In this article we share a few of those insights. You will find a link to the entire Post
When schools closed, kids were kept busy with chores in their homes. Because over half of the
population in the U.S. lived on farms in 1918, children also cared for animals and helped with other
farm jobs. The children went to rural schools, also known as country schools, where children of
many different ages learned in the same room with one teacher. When children did attend school
most of them walked, although some did ride horses or donkeys, and in some areas they could
ride in horse-drawn wagons.
In the cities, children also had chores at home but they also had jobs to do--delivering newspapers
and some even went to work in factories, for the labor laws against child workers did not start to
take effect until 1924. Students usually walked to school.
Schoolwork at home was certainly nothing like today’s in which
technology plays such a large part. Teachers probably sent
reading assignments home, but homework was minimal. Reading
the Bible was very common at home, and Bible passages were
even included in the readers used in public schools.
If students wanted to practice spelling at home, they used
alphabet or speller boards, which were popular learning toys at
that time.Shown here is an alphabet board that is part of
the MOTAL artifact collection.
Children in the early 1900’s studied many of the same subjects as today, such as reading, writing
and math. Penmanship and civics education were also included in the curriculum, and there was a
strong emphasis on patriotism and loyalty to country, partly because of the influence of World War I
and also because so many immigrants were coming to America at the time and many schools
Physical Education (PE) looked a bit different in 1918. In city schools, students worked in a
gymnasium or exercised at their desks using “Indian clubs” -- wooden clubs that looked like big
bowling pins. In country schools, kids got plenty of physical labor working on farms, helping in the
school by hauling wood for the stoves that heated the classrooms, and girls pumped well water for
drinking. Students either walked home for lunch or brought their lunches in metal pails or tins.
Many things have changed but we can also learn from history. If you want to learn more
about what school was like 100 years ago, consider the following via the web:
This article was prepared by
Eva Postma, MOTAL Board Member
Greta Nagel, MOTAL Founding President and CEO
Artifact of the Month
We are building a virtual
exhibition of our artifact collection. The selection for
1940S Spelling &
Learn about this!
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