Skip navigation

About the Teachers (1900s)

by Rebecca A. Edwards


Teachers’ dress was very similar to that of the children they taught. They wore simple clothes, perhaps something they themselves had made. In the early 1900s, female teachers wore long skirts with petticoats and blouses with puffy sleeves. Sometimes they would wear jackets matching the skirts. They wore stockings and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes to complete the outfit. The male teachers wore suits with ties and dark, ankle high lace-up shoes with dress socks to match.

In the 1930s, female teachers wore short-sleeved, long dresses that went to about the mid-calf. They also wore skirts of the same length and button shirts, sometimes with a jacket and scarf to make a suit. They either wore slip-on high heels (only really about an inch high) or lace-up or buckle shoes that did not cover the ankles. They normally wore hose rather than socks. The male teachers wore dark suits with vests and ties and dark, lace-up dress shoes and dress socks.

Much of the description of teacher’s clothes of the 1900s came from 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), page 13. This information was confirmed by observation of photos of teachers from the 1900’s on various websites and books. Teacher dress from the 1930s was observed from photos on various Internet websites and in various books. (Observation by Rebecca A. Edwards, NIU, April 2004).

Rules to Live by

Each school district set up rules for the teacher to follow. Some of them were very strict, but they were important to the farmers in the district and made sense to them. Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1872:

  • Teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys.
  • Each teacher will bring a bucket of water and a scuttle of coal for the day’s session.
  • Make your pens carefully. You may whittle nibs to the individual taste of the pupils.
  • Men teachers may take one evening each week for courting purposes, or two evenings a week if they go to church.
  • After ten hours in school, the teachers may spend the remaining time reading the Bible or other good books.
  • Women teachers who marry or engage in unseemly conduct will be dismissed.
  • Every good teacher should lay aside from each pay a goodly sum of his earnings for his benefit during his declining years so that he will not be a burden on society.
  • Any teacher who smokes, uses liquor in any form, frequents pool or public halls, or gets shaved in a barber shop will give good reason to suspect his worth, intention, integrity, and honesty.
  • The teacher who performs his labor faithfully and without fault for five years will be given an increase of twenty-five cents per week in his pay, providing the Board of Education approves.

Obviously there was a double standard for male teachers and women teachers. 
(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Raymond Bial’s One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999).)

Following is a list of rules for a teacher in 1915:

  • You will not marry during the term of your contract. You are not to keep company with men.
  • You must be home between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless attending a school function.
  • You may not loiter downtown in any ice cream stores.
  • You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have permission of the chairmen of the board.
  • You may not smoke cigarettes.
  • You may not under any circumstances dye your hair.
  • You may not dress in bright colors.
  • You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he be your father or brother.
  • You must wear at least two petticoats.
  • Your dresses must not be any shorter than 2 inches above the ankles.

(This list of teacher rules can be found on page 29 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). The rest of this information can be found on pages 28-30.)

These rules were to be followed very strictly. If a teacher broke any one of these rules, she/he was dismissed immediately.

The reason for the rule against marriage is that it would normally be followed by pregnancy, and the farmers did not want a pregnant woman teaching their children. Also, the teacher would most likely be unable to finish the term if she were to become pregnant and it would be difficult to replace her. As for the other rules, the farmers felt it was improper for a teacher to behave that way, so they made rules prohibiting that type of conduct.

The farmers expected teachers to be models to hold up for their children. If they did not want their children to do certain activities, they would forbid these activities for the teacher. For example, the farmers did not want their children smoking, so they did not allow the teacher to smoke. They were also very careful to ensure that the teacher was respected. They did this by forbidding any actions that could call the teacher’s honor into question. For example, a female teacher spending too much time in the company of a man alone would call her honor into question and so was forbidden unless the man happened to be a male relative. The farmers wanted to avoid controversy, and they did so by instituting these rules.


The teacher had many duties. As well as teaching the students, she was responsible for the upkeep of the school. She was the school’s janitor. She had to sweep the floor every day after school and scrub it with hot, soapy water every week. She had to clean the chalkboards and erasers everyday as well. She also had to make sure that, during winter, the fire was started well before the students arrived. Many times, she gave these jobs to the older students.

She also had the responsibility of preparing for school events such as the popular Christmas pageant. She not only had to decide what to include in the program each year, she had to teach each student what his or her part was and decorate the building for it. There was no rest for the country school teacher!

Page 29 of Jerry Apps’ One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996) and page 28 of Raymond Bial’s One-Room School (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999) contain pertinent information on teacher’s duties at the one-room schoolhouse.

Living Accommodations

The living accommodations for teachers differed from district to district. Many times, the teacher would board with a local family until she was able to buy a house of her own (which was rare) or by marriage (which would disqualify her of teaching for the next term). Another possibility was that she only boarded with the family until she moved on to another district, which was a frequent practice.

The teacherage was another possibility. It was a room added to the one-room schoolhouse to serve as living accommodations for the teacher. Occasionally school districts added this room to the schoolhouse itself rather than boarding teachers in the home of one of the farmers in the area. Teacherages were rather convenient for teachers since they would not have to walk to school. They could just roll out of bed and prepare the school for the day.

Information about teachers’ living accommodations can be found in a story written by Mary Boydstun contained in Luther Bryan Clegg’s The Empty Schoolhouse: Memories of One-Room Texas Schools (U. S.: Texas A&M University Press, 1997) on page 52. Other information about teacher accommodations can be found on page 43 of Myrna J. Grove’s Legacy of One-Room Country Schools (Morgantown, PA: Mastof Press, 2000).

Contact Us

Blackwell History of Education Museum

The Learning Center
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
Tel: 815-753-1236
Fax: 815-753-1258


By appointment

facebook twitter youtube