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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 interventions.
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 article below.
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.
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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 promoted Americanization.
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:
Eva Postma, MOTAL Board Member
Greta Nagel, MOTAL Founding President and CEO