Our time at school as young children typically has enormous influence on who we are as adults. Education was formalized in the 19th century in small school houses and large urban institutions. In the second half of the century, class pictures became an annual tradition. Examples of class photos are rare prior to 1870, but by the turn of the century quite commonplace. The Clements has several hundred examples scattered across the photograph collections, with the critical mass residing in the David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography. These views into educational settings can reveal how much a community has invested, how much has changed over time, what remains the same, who is included or absent, and how we celebrate achievement. These pictures are also a great instructional opportunity for close reading of visual images. One can learn to spot the difference between the unusual and the ordinary, as well as identifying the teacher’s pet, class clown, or someone having a very bad day.
Photo Div D.4.1.1.
One of our earliest examples of a class picture is a Daguerreotype dating from circa 1850-55. At this time, the taking of an annual class picture was a new ritual, still in the making. This image was taken at an unknown location, posed outside where there was ample light for the photographer—critically important in early photography. Although they are a modestly dressed group—girls in simple calico dresses, boys in shirts, some without shoes—they may be wearing their best. The carefully combed hair indicates some preparation took place. The subjects all must hold still for five or ten seconds for the exposure. A broad range in ages is represented, which is very typical of rural schools in areas of low population density. In the back are three young women, presumably one or all of them are teachers. Their hands rest on the four girls in front, perhaps holding them still for the camera. As the daguerreotype was a unique image, it is unlikely this was a souvenir possessed by a student—it more likely stayed with the school or the teacher.
Tintype photographs can be difficult to date, as the format was popular for several generations. Taken sometime between 1870 and 1890, this tintype shows a schoolhouse that stood on the corner of Grand River Avenue and Vanatta Road near Okemos, Michigan. This site is now occupied by the Winslow Mobile Home Park. According to an inscription, somewhere in this picture is a girl or young woman named Winslow. We can see some commonplace features: a belfry for the call to start the day, and two doors, one for boys, one for girls. The seating inside was probably divided by gender down the middle of the room. On the right we can see the privy. Indoor plumbing was an uncommon luxury. Heat was likely from a wood stove. It may have been chilly outside during this session—several children have their hands tucked under their arms. Note the two girls on the far right in identical smocks—sisters?
It is often difficult to identify teachers because they may not be the oldest people in the group, and may not always be present in the picture. More likely than not, they were female. Single female teachers often boarded with a local family in accordance with social norms. In this case, the instructor may be the woman in the center back in front of the door on the right. She may have assistance from the young woman on the left in the dark dress, or the man on the right wearing a hat.
Taken circa 1880 by “view artist” L. Horric of Leslie, Michigan, this modest schoolhouse lacks the porch, belfry, and double doors of the previous example. The three women in the back left, two with a hand on the shoulder of the next, may be in charge of this group. The carefully aligned students are mostly barefoot. It is likely that some traveled several miles by carriage, mule, or on foot. The schoolyard often served as a pasture for animals during the day. By the 1860s, it became possible that paper photographs like this example could be produced in abundance such that each student could have one as a souvenir.
So what is up with all the hats tossed on the ground? My guess is that after carefully setting up the camera and posing this group in neat orderly rows, the photographer noticed that their hats were casting shadows across their faces and that wouldn’t do. So, dispense with your hats but don’t you dare move!
Part of the fallout from the Nat Turner slave uprising of 1831 was the belief that Turner’s quest for freedom was driven by his literacy. The result was the passing of laws in slave-holding states making it illegal to educate enslaved people. As emancipation came during the Civil War, so did efforts to establish schools for those recently or soon-to-be emancipated. An early effort was the “Port Royal Experiment.” From 1862–1865, northern abolitionists and local people collaborated under the Union Army occupation of the South Carolina Sea Islands to transform a society once dependent upon enslavement into a self-sustaining free community. The first educators to arrive were northern missionaries Laura Towne and Ellen Murray, who founded the Penn School on St. Helena Island, and Charlotte Forten, a talented and well-connected woman from an established Black Philadelphia family.
This carefully staged image from photographers Hubbard & Mix of Beaufort, South Carolina appears in an album associated with the Parrish family of Philadelphia. The image shows Ellen Murray, Gracie Chaplin, and Peg Aiken examining a book. This carte de visite is from a series taken in South Carolina that recorded this historical moment in education history. Unlike other classroom photos, these images were likely aimed at distant audiences in northern cities with fundraising and recruitment in mind.
“I never before saw children so eager to learn,” Forten wrote in her diary, excerpts of which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. “Although I had had several years’ experience in New England schools. Coming to school is a constant delight and recreation to them. They come here as other children go to play.”
Richard Pohrt Jr. Collection of Native American Photography
Forced assimilation programs were central to Native American boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Practical trades and service work were emphasized along with Christian teachings. Removed from everything familiar to them and placed into a harsh, militaristic environment, most children experienced trauma. The emotional and physical toll of Native American boarding schools continues in indigenous communities. This photograph was taken by John N. Choate circa 1880 at the first of these programs, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Run by Civil War veteran Lt. Col. Richard Henry Pratt, it became the model for most others that followed.
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography, Oakland County
Photographic plate sensitivity increased in the late 19th century allowing for class pictures to be taken indoors. This example, taken by Samuel E. Miller of Oxford, Michigan, around 1898 shows an artfully draped flag and hopeful “try, try again” motto, partially hidden by a stovepipe. I suspect this class saw a new teacher arrive shortly after this photo was taken as her image is pasted over the person who was present at the time. If at first you don’t succeed . . .
Civil War Battlefields Photograph Album
This evocative photograph appears in an album of images that may have been assembled by a Civil War veteran revisiting sites of combat in Virginia. We don’t know the exact location. By the time this image was taken in the 1890s, the schools established across the former Confederate states by the Freedmen’s Bureau were gone. The simple furnishings here include a pulpit and two candleholders—clues that this school doubles as a rural church.
Ah! The good old days when students were allowed to discover the laws of physical science through firsthand experience. This impressive facility in Capac, Michigan, was clearly run by a far more relaxed administration than I ever experienced. I am amazed that this was allowed to happen, and that photographic evidence was provided for the school’s insurers.
It isn’t surprising that a class in Allegan County, Michigan, would be studying Dutch culture and heritage considering the region is known for its significant Dutch population. The girls in this circa 1920 photograph are wearing Dutch bonnets, the artwork on the walls is a combination of children’s creations and commercial prints, most showing rural Low Country scenes with canals, windmills, cows, etc. The iron and wooden lift-top desks are bolted to the floor. The students are having a milk break, drinking from small glass bottles with paper straws. Most are looking at the camera with seriousness, except for a couple of crack-ups in the very back. No wooden shoes visible.
There are a surprising number of photos of racially integrated classes in the David V. Tinder Collection. Mostly these are photographs from Southern Michigan urban areas taken in the first half of the 20th century. One has to wonder about the demographics of these same schools in the era of white flight in the 1960s. This picture was taken in 1913 by a photographer in Lenawee County, Michigan, an area that began experiencing Black migration prior to the Civil War. Many school group photographers had contracts to photograph all classes in a given district or county. A child in the front row is holding the photographer’s chalk slate, handy for connecting the image with the correct class. “Rives District No. 8” may refer to Rives Junction. Looks like they all have shoes. Several girls in front are holding hands.
David V. Tinder Collection of Michigan Photography, Oakland County
The Great Depression depleted resources for new infrastructure across the country. Many unused railway cars were converted into storage sheds, chicken coops, and roadside diners. This happy looking school is temporarily established in a converted interurban railcar from the Detroit United Railway. The car still has its headlight intact, along with its DUR number, 7522. This photo was taken in Oakland County, Michigan.
Public education always comes with a cost, as does ignorance. Thomas Jefferson frequently linked the freedoms of democracy to education. In anticipation of objections to the financial burden placed on society he wrote that “the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.” “If a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” I find reassurance in these photographs that through education, our country can continue to be free.
Curator of Graphics Material