What Courses Did High School Students Take a Hundred Years Ago?

17-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today: 

Tuesday, August 27, 1912:  Brought home my Latin Grammar, all the time thinking I had my Caesar. Didn’t want the former at all. Must study some now, so I’ll soon be in the midst of my studies this evening.

Guess I will like Mr. Teacher.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Hmm. . . This is the first time that Grandma’s mentioned Latin during the year and a half that I’ve been posting her diary entries. . . . though she apparently had taken some Latin in previous years because she used the Latin term puella bona (good girl) in a diary entry that I posted a few days ago.

I was amazed to discover that a hundred years ago, most females who went high school learned Latin. According to the August, 1912 issue of Ladies Home Journal, here’s what females were studying in high school:

Latin, French, or German:  82 out of every hundred

Algebra and Geometry:  87 out of every hundred

English Literature:  57 out of every hundred

Rhetoric:  57 out of every hundred

History: 55 out of every hundred

Domestic Economy (sewing, cooking, and household economics): 3 out of every hundred

The article was making the point that few females took domestic economy classes—and that maybe more should.

30 Responses

  1. That subject distribution certainly surprised me too. I’d have expected English Lit to be more common. Fascinating!

  2. I would imagine that most of them would know how to sew and cook at that time. Certainly not the case today.

    • I would think that most knew how to cook and sew-but there was a push back then by some intellectuals for students to take practical courses (domestic science, vocational agriculture, business, etc). Grandma went to a small classical three-year high school, but the nearby town of Milton had a much larger new 4-year high school with different tracks.

  3. I liked the statistics — but I am not particularly fond of many of the domestic arts

  4. It depended on if you were born out side of the US. Girls who knew that they would end up domestics stayed in high school if they were able and took coarses in home economics. This helped them to find employment in wealthy homes. Lizzie Black Kander started a school for girls in 1896 for German, Jewish and other girls that had just come to this country to teach them the domestic arts in Milwaukee. In 1901 she published a thin cook book so the girls would not have to stay after school for long hours copying down recipes. Later the school became the Settlement School and the cook book became Settlement Cook Book that is still in print. Charity work was also called settlement work to help these poor girls settle into America.

    I had two aunts that did not attend high school. They only went to the 8th grade in Western Pa. The oldest left school in 1910 the other 1913. So the girls who went on to high school did so because they wanted to be students. Many of them went on to study nursing and teaching or became clerks in business. I have an old high school text book in home economics from that era. It is packed under my bed so I can’t tell you the date right now. But what is so interesting about it is the pictures. The girls had to wear large white aprons and long sleeve white shirts which they put garters on their arms to hold up the sleeves. Also they wore white hats like chef hats to cover their hair. The kitchen was white tile on the walls and a couple of small stoves and ovens that had legs. This was probably in a city high school where they had the money for a class room dedicated to cooking. Most high school where just small buildings in small towns they didn’t even serve lunch.

    My husband’s grandmother told me she had to agree to work after school as a domestic every night inorder for her to go to high school. She was born in 1898. Her parents came from Germany. She would catch a trolly from school and work until 8:30 pm every week day night doing dishes and ironing cloths for wealthy families. She also worked all day on Saturday. She had to give her wages to her mother every month. She gave me the text book on home economics. She had to buy it for the recipes. This was in Akron, Ohio.

    So it really depended on who you were and where you lived.

    I bet the book that she had over the summer was on Latin.

    • I bet that you’re right that the book that she was studying over the summer was Latin.

      I agree that whether or not students had domestic science courses depended upon the locale. My understanding is that some feminists/suffragettes back then saw the domestics sciences as being really forward thinking. They believed that women should learn how to manage their homes scientifically–just like men ran industries and businesses.

  5. Fascinating distribution of statistics, esp. the high math percentage. Latin was in its last gasps as an elective when I was in HS, and I opted for French. Who wants to know a dead language? I thought. It would interest me now.

    • My high school didn’t offer Latin. My mother had taken Latin in high school and she always thought that I’d missed something by not learning it.

  6. I am surprised domestic economy didn’t have a larger number of students taking the course. Come to think of it, cousins who did attend high school in the 20s and 30s never mentioned taking a domestic course and my mother never mentioned it either and she graduated high school in the early 50s.

    • I think that domestic science courses were a relatively new idea in 1912–so in general only the more modern high schools offered it.

  7. They just dropped Latin as a course a couple years before I arrived in high school in 1953 where I went… ;-)

  8. Hey, you found out what the words were, I’ve been wondering about that…Latin, gosh that’s major stuff.

    • I think that the readers comments a few days ago were right. It made perfect sense; and once I knew that puella bona were words in Latin, I felt like I could even read those words in the diary entry.

  9. Interesting comments too. About 25 yrs ago, GMA did a story on a towns centennial and they opened a time capsule. The students left class assignments, homework and projects in there. The work was equivalent to college work today (or 25 yrs ago). My mother was born in Germany and only went to the 8th grade, it was “frowned’ upon to have girls go further, she would have been in the 8th grade in 1939. The young woman then stayed home and her mother taught her how to be a proper housewife. A woman’s place was in the home, married and having babies, end of discussion. According to my mother, my grandfather was pretty strict with that rule. American women I think were always ahead of their time.

  10. Wonderful entry and so many informed comments! Thank you for sharing.

  11. Now I feel 100 years old. I studied all those subjects in school except Rhetoric…although we had our debating teams. We also called Domestic Economy =, “Homemaking”…. I enjoyed Latin a great deal because it helped me with English but I did not enjoy our class. One of the boys was a family friend of the teacher and there was absolute choas the whole class… so any Latin I learned I had to learn on my own. But the alternative was German or Spanish or French… and I felt embarrassed speaking French, and German sounded just too complicated…

  12. That is interesting. I would not have guessed that Latin was taught that much in US high schools. Of course, my Latin teacher in high school would have loved this fact. It is always interesting to see what past generations learned. My great grandmother went to a girls polytechnic school that was certified by the American Red cross. I was able to find a copy of the text she had to use, and they taught her sewing, cooking, basic medical procedures, cleaning, and so forth.

    • When I went to school, in our health class, we had a unit on first aid. It was my favorite part of the class. I enjoyed learning how to use a triangular piece of cloth to make slings, wrap ankles, and knees. When my children were small and they had an ache or pain, I’d pull out my triangular bandage and carefully wrap it using skills I’d learned in health class. It always seemed to cure the problem.

  13. [...] recent post from A Hundred Years Ago asked the question, “What Courses Did High School Students Take a Hundred Years Ago?” This made [...]

  14. When I was in high school 1960-1964, Latin was offered and most of the college prep students took it. I took 4 years of Spanish. They also offered French and Russian. This was in an inner city high school in Detroit. I don’t think many, if any, students who didn’t plan to go to college took any language, except English of course.

    • At the rural school I attended in Pennsylvania, they only offered Spanish and French. And, just as it was in Detroit, only the college prep students took any language.

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