I started this article thinking it’d be fun to learn about what American kids did for fun 100 years ago. As I researched the subject, I realized that most kids didn’t have much fun; they didn’t have much access to free time, wealth, health care and education as kids do today. Although there were compulsory education laws in place and most states had child labor laws, it was not uncommon for kids as young as nine to work in factories in order to help keep food on the family table. Today, it is easy for parents to get disappointed when their child doesn’t make it into the open enrollment school of choice. 100 years ago, a poor family would feel fortunate that their child could spend a few years attending rough public schools where kids ears were boxed if they acted up. Our kids are very fortunate to live in America today. Read on and see if you agree.
American school life in the early 1900s appears to vary, depending on whether you lived in urban or rural areas and also depending on whether you were rich or poor. A poor kid in the city would be fortunate to attend a few years of school with 20-30 other kids their same age. If they did something naughty in school, a teacher might box their ears or hit them with paddles. Rich city kids might pay to go to a private school where only a few other kids their age attended. Subject matter included the basics including reading, spelling, history, arithmetic, geography and handwriting. Most of this was learned via reading, memorization, and reciting. Early writing was learned on either trays of sand or slate boards. Older children used nib pens and ink wells. Rural kids might attend school in a one roomed school house with kids between the age of 5 and 20. It was hard to get a school teacher to go to a rural area so often the school teacher might only be marginally qualified to teach the rural kids.
On top of their teaching roles, in many states, it was law that the teachers had the responsibility to assess the overall well-being of a child (sight, hearing, sickness). If she found a problem, she reported it to the principal who would then inform the parents that the child had to be inspected by a physician. In Colorado, for example, if a parent didn’t seek this medical inspection, they would be turned over to the Bureau for Animal and Child Protection for prosecution.
A child from a poor family would be lucky to receive more than a few years of education and very few children received more than an 8th grade education. Although there were compulsory education laws in effect, truant officers were easily bullied away by factory managers when they came snooping around. It is well documented that kids as young as 5 were sent to the streets to sell newspapers in order to help a family survive. Children as young as 9 years old were reported to have worked in factories for pennies a day. Of note, Nevada was the only state in 1911 that had no child labor laws so who knows what went on there.
Toys and Games
Toys were sparse among most children of the early 1900s. Marbles, jumping rope, wooden hula hoops, and paper dolls were most common. Favorite toys for those who could afford them included: electric train sets, air rifles, the Teddy Bear, dolls, and toy cars. Other interesting toy and game facts from the early 1900s include: it was uncouth for girls to ride bicycles, only girls played hopscotch and skipping, and puzzles for poor children were made out of cut up maps that had been glued to cardboard. Also of note, the Erector Set was invented by A.C. Gilbert in 1911.
Compare this to today where toys are accessible to so many kids and that the most popular of toys today (iPad2, XBox, Nintendo DSi XL, and Zhu Zhu Pets) would be utterly useless to kids from 100 years ago. What good is an iPad without the internet? You can’t play an XBox without a television. Speaking of television, the first woman to run a major television studio, Lucille Désirée Ball, was born on August 6, 1911. She ran Desilu in addition to starring in several popular sitcoms, like I Love Lucy.
Death and Disease
In the early 1900s, 30% of all the deaths in America were of children under the age of 5. They died of tuberculosis, pneumonia, and diarrhea/enteritis. Infant mortality rates were 135 out of 1000 (or 13.5%). With statistics like these, our late President, Ronald Reagan, is fortunate to have survived his birth on February 6, 1911. Also of note, the saintly woman, Mother Theresa, was born just a year earlier than President Reagan. She was born on August 26, 1910. She spent her life helping the sick, poor, orphaned, and helpless until she died in 1997.
Literacy – Then and Now
According to the US Bureau of Census, approximately 7.7% of American kids 14 years and older could not read in 1911. Today, it is estimated that 42 million Americans cannot read and that another 50 million can only read at a 4th grade reading level. This is a scary trend that might lead us to falling back to the grim realities seen at the turn of the 19th century?