Education in the 1910s

Washington D.C. school, circa 1910

Education in the 1910s

Melina Druga
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September is the traditional back-to-school season in North America. Education has changed quite a bit over the past century. It’s also stayed the same in many ways.

Let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences.

The More Things Change ….

In 1900, the U.S. high school graduation rate was six percent. During the 1910s in Canada, the highest level of education the average person completed was grade six.

teacher in her classroom
A teacher in her classroom

The majority of teachers were women and, while this is probably still the case today, women were expected to quit working once they married. In some districts, teachers had to abide by curfews and rules about who they could and, more importantly, could not associate. There were other rules as well. There were dress codes, and teachers had to clean their classrooms according to a set schedule as there were no custodial staffs.

Eighth graders needed a minimum score of 80 percent in both math and grammar to pass the exit exam to move onto high school. The minimum for other subjects was 60 percent. Penmanship also was graded.

Education in 1910. A Washington, D.C. school.
Washington, D.C. school, circa 1910.

… the More They Stay the Same

The number of hours a student must attend class to receive credit was established in 1905. The system is still in use today. Then it was called “seat time”.

A few years later, the first junior high school opens. It was intended to increase graduation rates by better preparing students for high school.

The forerunner of the standard test was established in 1918. It was created as a way to determine intelligence among U.S. Army soldiers enlisting for World War One.

Could You Pass the Test?

Overcrowding in classrooms was common in the early 20th century
Overcrowding in classrooms was common in the early 20th century

These are examples of questions eighth grade students were asked in 1910 in an Olympia, Washington, school district. Keep in mind, they needed to pass this exam to move on to high school.

Would you be able to pass?

  • Name three different ways in which a noun may be used in the nominative case, and three ways in which a noun may be used in the objective case.
  • Mark diacritically the vowels in the following: banana, admire, golden, ticket, lunch.
  • Spell 30 words including emblematic, declension, pernicious, laudanum and soliloquy.
  • What has made the names of each of the following historical? Alexander Hamilton, U.S. Grant, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cyrus W. Field, Clara Barton.
  • How do you distinguish between the terms Puritans, Pilgrims, and Separatists?
  • (a) State briefly the causes of the War of 1812. (b) Name two engagements. (c) Two prominent American Commanders.
  • Name five important cities and five products of Canada.
  • What and where are the following? Liverpool, Panama, Suez, Ural, Liberia, Quebec, Pikes Peak, Yosemite, Danube, San Diego.
  • Divide 304487 by 931.
  • Find the square root of 95.6484.
  • Find the sum of 5/9, 5/6, 3/4, 11/36.
  • What number diminished by 33 1/3 percent of itself equals 38?
  • Quote two stanzas of “America.”
  • Name five American poets, and give a quotation from each.
    Female students in science class, early 20th century
    Female students in science class, early 20th century
  • Trace a drop of blood from the time it enters the left ventricle, until it returns to its starting point, and name the different valves and principal arteries and veins through which it passes.
  • Explain why health depends largely upon habit.
  • Locate the thoracic duct.
  • Give some good reasons why boys should not smoke cigarettes.
  • What do you understand about the germ theory of disease?
  • If you succeed in obtaining an eighth-grade diploma, do you expect to attend school next term? Where?

There is a stereotype that our ancestors were not as intelligent as we are, but judging from these test questions, the opposite certainly seems true. They were highly educated and at a young age.

Eighth graders are, after all, 13 and 14 years old.

How many eighth graders today do you think would pass? Do you think the educational system has improved or declined since 1910? Leave your comments below.

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Updated: 2 July 2018

Most kids have an active imagination. My imagination has stayed strong into adulthood, and I’ve funneled that creativity into a successful writing career. I write history, both fiction and nonfiction, because although your school history classes may have been boring, the past is not. My goal is to bring the past to life in all its myriad of colors.

3 thoughts on “Education in the 1910s

  1. Wow, that high school graduation rate seems low, but I think much of that was because after a certain age, children were expected to get jobs and contribute to the family financially. It wasn’t until later on that “child labor” began to be looked down upon. They were expected to work and children now are expected to learn first in order to hopefully help them be able to find work. No, I don’t think I would pass that test, but then, I’ve been out of school for some time. Thank you for sharing that. It’s very interesting.

    1. Actually, child labor laws were in effect by 1910. They just weren’t as strict as today’s laws. Teenagers weren’t really thought of as children in those days. They had more responsibilities than teens today, and so labor laws generally didn’t apply to them, although some did.

      The graduation rate was probably low because the laws only required students go to school until they were 12 (Canada) or 14 (U.S.) years old. Later this was increased to age 16. Students simply completed the highest grade the law required and most were too poor or had no need to continue.

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