Being a Teacher in 1897

This fine woman looks sufficiently plain enough to be a teacher.

This fine woman looks sufficiently plain enough to be a teacher.

So by now you know that my next novel, In Your Arms, is coming out later this month. Therefore, I’ve been gearing my History Monday posts toward the issues and facts that you’re going to run into when you read it. Last week I talked about the misguided effort to “educate the savages” at places like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. My heroine, Lily Singer, was raised at one of these schools. Lily was also raised to be a teacher herself. So today let’s look at the rules for teachers in the late 19th century.

You may have seen these rules since they’re all over the internet when you do a search for teachers in 1900. The duties and responsibilities of a teacher are:

1) To keep the school room neat and clean, you must:
a) Sweep the floor at least once daily
b) Scrub the floor at least once a week with hot, soapy water
c) Clean the blackboards at least once a day
d) Start the fire at 7 AM so the room will be warm by 8 AM
2) You will not marry during the term of your contract.
3) You are not to keep company with men.
4) You must be home between the hours of 8 PM and 6AM unless attending a school function.
5) You may not loiter downtown in ice cream stores
6) You may not travel beyond the city limits unless you have the permission of the chairman of the board.
7) You may not ride in a carriage or automobile with any man unless he is your father or brother.
8) You may not smoke cigarettes.
9) You may not dress in bright colors.
10) You may under no circumstances dye your hair.
11) You must wear at least two petticoats.
12) Your dresses must not be any shorter than two inches above the ankle.

Ooo, shudder! Makes you kind of not want to be a teacher, eh? Well, these rules come from the book by Jerry Apps, One-Room Country Schools: History and Recollections from Wisconsin (U.S.: Palmer Publications, 1996). Yes, they are accurate, bit they are specific to a certain place and time. The situation that Apps was referring to was a one-room schoolhouse in rural Wisconsin. Schools in other areas might have been a bit different.

A class saying the pledge of allegiance in 1899.

A class saying the pledge of allegiance in 1899.

Now, being someone with two degrees in history and a lot of books on the subject, my educated guess is that these rules were accurate, but way out west in a place like Cold Springs they could have been tweaked or altered to fit the needs of the school in question. The West was famously liberal in its early days. Women were given the vote in most western states before the country at large, for example, and African Americans were afforded a more equal status, at least at first, because the need for settlers and workers was so huge. So I propose that there would have been a little more leeway for teachers.

But not that much. Certainly not when it came to relationships between female teachers and men. This was a different time, remember, and even though the 1890s were considerably more liberal than other decades of the Gilded Age/Victorian era, teachers were still expected to be a moral example to their students. This meant that they should be disciplined, unpretentious, and yes, single.

It wouldn’t have been the worst fate a woman could face though. In an era when women were expected to marry and have children, teaching could be a great escape. It was one of a very, very few professions that was acceptable for women to take up. The 1890s was the very beginning of the time when women could become secretaries and telephone operators. Teaching, however, could enable them to move and have a little adventure on their own. It wasn’t uncommon for women to move out west where teachers were so badly needed.

But no men. It’s right there in Lily’s contract as teacher at the Cold Springs school. You could be adventurous and independent, but you couldn’t be caught in a scandalous situation with a man. I took this little rule for teachers right out of what was expected of female teachers of the day. Hmm…. I wonder if Lily will be able to live up to that rule. Especially with a handsome, devilish man like Christian Avery around….

[images are public domain, from Wikicommons]


2 thoughts on “Being a Teacher in 1897

  1. In my novel the main character Katherine Weldon goes off to teach at an Indian Missionary school (based on much fun research) in the 1870’s. She’s sexually harassed big time by the superintendent 🙂 But I remember reading that many schools made the rules about no men, but lost a lot of first-year teachers to handsome young lads 🙂

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