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This Is What School Was Like 100 Years Ago

Your great- (or great-great) grandparents really did have to walk five miles in the snow to get to school! Here's how American childhood education has evolved since the 19th and early 20th centuries.

A young spinner being watched by the overseer at Yazoo City Yarn Mills.Underwood Archives/REX/Shutterstock

School often played second-fiddle to work

Today's child-labor laws would be unthinkable to early American families. With the exception of professional or fairly wealthy households, parents often couldn't make ends meet without children working the family farms, pitching in at family businesses, or getting jobs in mills, mines, or factories outside the home. Some of those jobs are part of the reason why the school year doesn't start in January

student traveling on horse to school vintageCourtesy Louise Basse/Reminisce

Some students had to travel very far to school

Louise Basse and her horse, Jane, navigated seven fields and gates to get to school in Goldendale, Washington, in the early 1900s.

Young African American men receiving instructionEverett/Shutterstock

School was segregated

The turn of the century was still long before the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, and school still had a long way to go in terms of offering equal opportunities for all students. According to, in 1910, the vast majority of African American students still lived in the South, where schools were far poorer than in the North. Average school years in the South were only 121 days, and there were no attendance laws. Black teachers' salaries were dismally low, and public secondary schools for African American students were few and far between.

Catholic Elementary School Class Portrait, USA, circa 1930Glasshouse Images/Shutterstock

Not all children went to school

At the turn of the century, only 51 percent of children age five to 19 even went to school. By 1910, the number had grown to a whopping 59 percent, per the National Center for Education Statistics. Numbers were approximately 20 percent lower for non-white students. And most of those students only attended school for a few years to learn basic English and math. In 1900, only 11 percent of high school-age children were enrolled in school at all. These 14 everyday objects looked pretty different 100 years ago, too.

school uniform vintageCourtesy Clarice Winters/Reminisce

Students had specific attire that they would wear to school

In 1908, Clarice Winters’ mother, Marjorie Zimmerman (back row, center), was in her last year at Bellview School in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.

class of immigrants in a night schoolUniversal History Archive/UIG/REX/Shutterstock

Night school wasn't just for adults

Child labor on farms and in cities was so common in the late 1800s and early 1900s that many states passed laws requiring largish cities to provide evening elementary and high-school education. One school official said at the time that parents were happy that their kids could finally get a basic education without quitting the farm work or outside jobs that they had during the day.

school sports uniform vintageCourtesy Ruth Nuhfer/Reminisce

They had school sports, but the uniforms were very different

The Emlenton (Pennsylvania) High School girls’ basketball team posed in 1915 in their game attire. Ruth Nuhfer says her mother, Blanche (Grieff) Barnes, is on the right.

one room schoolhouse vintageCourtesy Janet Duebner/Reminisce

Many schools only had one room

Renata Nelesen and her brother Harold attended this one-room parochial school near Marshfield, Wisconsin, and their father was the teacher, says Renata’s daughter, Janet Duebner of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. He was also pastor of the church and posed with his students for this photo in 1913.

debate teamCourtesy Virla Jean Lynk/Reminisce

There was still debate team

Virla Jean (seated at left) was proud of her accomplishments as part of the Farmington (Michigan) High School debate team in 1929. What an extracurricular can do for students is just one of the 33 things your child's teacher wants you to know.

school teacher's desk with books, slate, chalk, bell and strapPeter Carroll/imageBROKER/REX/Shutterstock

Punishment was hands-on

Misbehaving students in the 1800s and 1900s could get detention or be suspended or expelled from school. But they were also regularly spanked, paddled, lashed, or had palms or knuckles rapped with a ruler. Although corporal punishment in schools is outlawed in most of the United States today, it's legal in 19 mostly southern states including Louisiana, Georgia, and Arkansas.

Even preschoolers in these regions can be subject to spanking and swatting in some areas: A national report from the 2015 to '16 school year shows that about 1,500 young children received physical punishment in preschool or pre-K, mostly at schools in Texas and Oklahoma.

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