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About the Students (1900s)

by Rebecca A. Edwards


Many of the students in the early 1900s had little money for clothes. Sometimes, their mothers made what they wore to school. Other times, children wore hand-me-down clothes that were loose fitting or a little too big. The clothes they wore were generally very simple.

In the early 1900s, the girls wore long dresses, sometimes with an apron to cover the dress. Under this, they wore bloomers and long stockings held in place by garters. In warmer weather, many girls went barefoot because their families could not afford to buy shoes. In winter, the girls wore gathered skirts, long-sleeved blouses and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes. Many layers of clothing were worn to keep out the cold on the long walk to school.

The boys wore plain, long-sleeved shirts and pants or bib overalls. If the pants were too large, suspenders were used to keep them up. Also, knickerbockers were popular during the early 1900s. These were pants that were cut just below the knee. The boys wore dark wool socks with their dark, ankle high lace-up shoes. The boys went barefoot in warmer weather and bundled up in many layers of clothing in colder weather, just as the girls did.

In the 1930s, girls wore dresses much like the ones worn today. Most of these dresses had collars. The girls wore socks and lace-up or buckle shoes that did not cover the ankle. Many times, families could not afford new shoes, so girls would go without socks and shoes during the warmer months of the year to preserve the shoes they had. Girls wore short-sleeved dresses in warmer weather and long-sleeved dresses in colder weather.

The boys wore button shirts and blue jeans with suspenders or overalls. They wore socks and lace up shoes, some which covered the ankle and some that did not. In the warmer months, they went without shoes and socks. Sometimes in summer, they went shirtless under their overalls. Much of the time they wore long-sleeved button shirts with the sleeves rolled up when the weather was warm.

Much of the information on student clothing was found in Jonesborough-Washington County History Museum’s Oak Hill School Heritage Education Center: An 1886 One-Room Schoolhouse Teacher’s Resource and Curriculum Guide(Tennessee: East Tennessee State University Press, 1999) on pages 12 and 13. Also, much of the description was confirmed by observation of pictures of children from the early 1900s taken off the Internet. The description of children’s clothes of the 1930s came from photos in Children of the Depression (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2001), edited by Kathleen Thompson and Hilary Mac Austin. (Observation by Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).

Duties at Home

The children’s duties at home depended on the ages of the children and the kind of farm they lived on. The older children had more and harder duties than the younger children. Each child had particular chores that they were expected to do, and do well, before they went to school and when they got home from school. They had to get up very early in the morning in order to get their chores done and get to school on time. Some of the chores the children had to do were collect eggs, milk the cows, feed the animals, clean stalls, put straw down as bedding in the stalls once they were clean, cut firewood in winter and carry it in the house or if it was already cut, just bring it in. These children had a lot of responsibilities on the farm. If they did their job poorly, everyone would suffer.

During the spring and fall months, many of the older boys were not able to attend school because they were needed on the farm. In the spring, they helped till the fields and plant crops (corn, beans, hay, wheat, etc.). In the fall, they were expected to help with the harvest. Sometimes they would be required to help during the summer, too. There were three cuttings of hay during the summer, about a month apart. The hay had to be cut, allowed to dry for a few days, and then baled. Most of the time baling consisted of throwing the hay into a large hayrack with sides to keep it from falling off and then throwing it into the haymow. A haymow was the second story of a barn that was above the animals’ stalls. The hay was stored there to make it easy to throw into the stalls to feed the animals. Because there was so much work to be done on the farm in the spring, summer and fall, the older boys who helped on the farm normally were only able to attend winter classes at the one-room schoolhouse.

Walter E. Fuller’s book, The Old Country School (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), contains an informative section on children’s duties at home. The rest of this section comes from my own experiences growing up on a working farm (Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).

Expectations in the Classroom

Children in one-room schools were expected to behave and be productive. They were to be silent while they worked unless they were reciting lessons. They would read a story or poem and memorize part or all of it and recite it to the teacher during recitation. The idea was that the only way a student learned was through memorization, so this was stressed in the one-room schoolhouse. The students memorized much of their work, not only stories and poems, but the multiplication tables, geography and many other lessons. The students were also expected to work on their lessons and nothing else. They would be punished if they were caught doing anything but their work. Also, they were taught to be respectful to the teacher and to other students. These expectations are very similar to those of today’s students, who may not memorize as much, but are still expected to do their work and be respectful to the teacher and other students.

However, there were expectations for the students in the one-room schoolhouse that are not expected of students today. The older students had particular duties. Some had to bring in wood for the fire, and some even had to start the fire in the morning. Others had to get the water and bring it in, clean the floors, chalkboard and erasers. Sometimes they were even given the duty of helping the younger students with their studies. If they did not do their duties properly, the whole class would suffer.

Much information has been written on student expectations in the one-room schoolhouse. For this section, I have used Walter E. Fuller’s The Old Country School (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), pages 11-12; Myrna J. Grove’s Legacy of One-Room Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000), page 65; and Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996), page 57.


When students got out of line (were not doing their work, were distracting the class, passing notes, whispering, being disrespectful, etc.), a teacher would punish them as she saw fit. Some teachers preferred the “hickory stick” and gave the disobedient scholar a swift spanking. Sometimes the teacher used a ruler to rap the child on the knuckles or spank them. Other times the teacher made the child stand in the corner facing the wall, hold a heavy book, or stand on one leg for as long as she felt was necessary. Obviously corporal punishment was not yet outlawed.

Many parents did not complain that their children were punished. They were angry with the child for misbehaving, not at the teacher for punishing. These parents were often embarrassed that their child had misbehaved and some punished the child further once he/she got home. Such parents saw no problem with the teacher keeping order in the classroom however she/he saw fit.

There are many books about one-room schools that contain information on punishments students received. For this section, I have used Raymond Bial’s One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999), page 25; Myrna J. Grove’sLegacy of One-Room Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000), pages 65-69; and Luther Bryan Clegg’s The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997), page XIX.

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Northern Illinois University
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