The Problem with Tests and Exams a Hundred Years Ago

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

Tuesday, April 15, 1913:  Tomorrow witnesses the beginnings of our final examinations. I do hope that I’ll pass.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

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

Hang in there Grandma—you’re almost there. Your graduation invitations have been mailed. You’ll navigate your way through this final hurdle.

The way students are tested today is controversial. I was amazed to discover that people also had concerns about exams a hundred years ago.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the October 1912 issue of Ladies Home Journal called “The Black Beast in Every Child’s School Life”:

No evil in the present American public-school system is, to my mind so great and so manifestly unjust to the pupil as what may very aptly be called “the black beast of every child’s school life”: examinations, as they for the most part now are conducted. .

Examinations, as they are now almost universally conducted in our schools, are a memory extortion pure and simple. An examination is supposed to be a final twist which will forever fix in the memory as a whole the items that have been put into it one at a time.

Why should we longer put our children to these terrible strains as we do now? I have tried to think out a good reason and I am unable to do so.

The dictionary is always at hand when the pupil is studying his lesson, and so can be referred to at will. Besides this the grammar is always accessible, to explain new an unusual forms and phrases that appear in it.

But when examination day s comes every one of these rightful and useful helps in his work is taken away from him, and arm’s length of memory alone if he is asked to translate, give forms of words and account for constructions, without any assistance from the tools that he ordinarily has been permitted to use.

Memory-test examinations must be abolished. Time was when the word “scholar” meant a wailing dictionary. There are too many words now, and knowledge has too vast a reach, to be compressed into any one single head. Besides, what’s the use? Dictionaries are cheap. The missions can have cyclopedias now; and things are so much easier to get at, so much more reliable withal so much more liable to keep in any climate when preserved for ruse in this way.

Which Meal is Dinner?

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

Sunday, April 13, 1913:  Went to Sunday School this morning. Took dinner with Carrie.

Source: Ladies Home Journal (July, 1911)

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

Which meal did Grandma eat with her friend, Carrie Stout?

I’m almost sure that it was the noon meal—but today it seems like most people are refer to the evening meal as dinner.

When I was a child growing up we always called the mid-day meal dinner. But, I’m never sure if other people understand what I mean when I say dinner–so my family eats breakfast, lunch and supper.

What do you call the meals?

Care of the Ice Chest (Ice Box)

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

Saturday, April 12, 1913:  Did some house-cleaning this morning.
Ice Box

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

Maybe Grandma cleaned the ice box.

Here are  the directions in a 1913 book for cleaning the ice box:

Care of the Ice-Chest (Ice Box)

Once a week wash the walls, sides, shelves, and every corner with cold water, borax, and any sweet pure soap, rinse with clear water and wipe dry. The shelves may be taken out and scalded, but must be chilled and wiped dry before they are returned. If anything is spilled, wipe it up at once, and be sure each day that there is no refuse bits of food or berries lying about.

A good scalding is not necessary very often if the chest is kept clean.

It is best to keep everything covered; it is imperative that milk and butter should always be covered, and, if possible, kept in a separate apartment.

Do not keep food too long, to spoil and sour, and thus scent up the ice-box.

A neglected ice-chest is a menace to the life and health of the whole family. A well-ordered household should always mean a sanitary refrigerator. Keep the box full of ice, as refrigeration checks the germs.

One should be as particular in caring for an ice-chest during the winter months as in the summer-time. Keep a saucer of powdered charcoal standing in the ice-box. It will absorb all odors and keep the air pure. When opening a refrigerator that has been closed for a long time, burn for an hour a small-sized sulphur candle, then cleanse thoroughly with warm soapy water and dry perfectly, exposing to air and sun if possible. It is most important to keep the ice-chest wholesome and sweet.

Remember that ice is apt to be dirty, and it is wise to watch the receptacle for the ice, that there be no leaves or anything collected there to decay or to clog the pipe. This pipe or the pan beneath should never be allowed to get slimy, as slime is a danger signal.

It is also important that the door be kept closed; otherwise the temperature will rise and the ice will melt rapidly.

Housekeeper’s Handy Book (1913) by Lucia Millet Baxter

Still Struggling with Behavior

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

Friday, April 11, 1913:  I got a regular call down at school today. Made me rather mad to think I did such a thing as to deserve such a raking. Am busy making out an outline.

The old slate chalkboard now sits on the floor.

This is a recent view of the second floor of the building that once housed the  McEwesnville School.  A hundred years ago today, Grandma probably looked in anger out this window and wished she was not sitting in this classroom–

Recent photo of building that once housed McEwensville High School.

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

Good grief—What did Grandma do now?

Behavior (or to use the old-fashioned term—deportment) still seemed to be an issue. Grandma was having a difficult last few weeks of school.  She wrote several diary entries about her struggles with behavior, but provided few clues to exactly what she did.

Here’s a recap of Grandma’s diary entries over the past 16 days which address her behavior at school:

Teacher gave the school a lecture, but it was really meant for me. I don’t think what I did was so bad, but I guess I won’t do it again. I might catch it right there. . .

March 26, 1913


Don’t have my lessons out very well for tomorrow, but anyhow, I’m not going to get them out tonight.

March 30, 1913


Got my report card today. Had quite a fall in deportment. I must be really very bad . .

April 9, 1913

Of course, the class play was held on April 5, and Grandma was very busy with it—so maybe she had an excuse for not doing homework and other behavior issues.

Hmm. . . If a student today did the same things Grandma did, what would the teacher do?  Have standards for student behavior changed over the past one hundred years?

Went to Sunday School

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

Sunday, April 6, 1913:  Went to Sunday School this afternoon.

The old McEwensville Baptist Church probably was located somewhere on the lot that contains this yard and house.
The old McEwensville Baptist Church is long gone. It probably was once located somewhere on the lot that contains this yard and house.

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

Grandma probably was tired after the wonderful “splash” she’d made the previous evening in the class play.

Grandma wrote a  sentence this Sunday similar to one she wrote most Sundays—”Went to Sunday School this afternoon.”—though she often elaborated a bit more.

How was this Sunday similar or different from other Sundays? . . .

Was it a sunny day. . . or a cloudy one? Was it unseasonably hot. . . or unseasonably cold. . . or just a typical April day?

Was the road to McEwensville dry or muddy? If it was muddy, did Grandma wear galoshes or did she carefully try to avoid puddles?

Had church members seen the play the previous evening?—and did they praise her for her great acting?

What was the Sunday School lesson about? Was it interesting? . . . or boring?

The Play and Related Rambling Thoughts

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

Friday, April 5, 1913:  Tonight expect to stand before an audience and make them smile. I caught a fish this afternoon, and I didn’t’ go a fishing either.


Our play went off pretty well, although we did make some slight mistakes. I cut quite a splash after I was all fixed up. We made over twenty dollars, but our expenses come out of that.


This is the stage in the McEwensville Community Center that Grandma would have stood on a hundred years ago today. Back then the stage was deeper and had curtains. In recent years, the back part of the stage was converted into a storage area.


I can almost picture the room  filled with an attentive audience sitting on rows of chairs.

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

Yeah!—the class play went well.  $20 from ticket sales doesn’t sound like much—but in 2013 dollars it would be the equivalent of about $500 today.

I bet Grandma in blackface, playing the role of Chloe the servant, made quite a splash—and that she enjoyed every moment of it.

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments yesterday. They really help me think about the issues.

When I read the diary, I was surprised that Grandma had once played a role in blackface. I was especially shocked because it brought back another very vivid memory. Let me tell you a personal story—

About ten years ago, right after I got my Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Administration, I interviewed for a faculty position at a university located in a rural area. If I had gotten the job, I would have worked closely with school districts in that area.

During the interview I was told that a nearby rural school district had recently held a school play where some of the white cast members had played the role of Blacks wearing blackface.

I was then asked, “If you worked with this district, what would you do?”


I wish Grandma was still around so that together we could grapple with complex topics and issues. . .

Wore Blackface

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

Friday, April 4, 1913:  We practiced for the last time tonight. Am glad it is over. This certainly has been a late to get to bed week for me and I am beginning to feel the effects of it. They blackened me up tonight. I had an awful time a-getting it off my face afterwards.

McEwensville Community Hall
The play was held in the McEwensville Community Hall

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

Whew, I find diary entries like this one really difficult—and hope that you can help me figure out the best way to think about it.

I want to feel happy that the dress rehearsal for the class play went well—but I also want to look at this entry within the larger context of social history.  Let me try to explain–

Grandma played the role of Chloe the servant in the class play. This entry confirms what I think many of us suspected—Grandma wore blackface when she played this role.

According to Wikipedia, blackface was a type of makeup that performers used in the late 19th century and early 20th century to “create a stereotyped caricature of a Black person.” It is very controversial; and “played a significant role in cementing and proliferating racist images, attitudes and perceptions worldwide, but also in popularizing black culture.”

A hundred years ago, blackface was accepted and audiences thought that blackface characters were funny. Grandma probably enjoyed hamming it up as she played the role of Chloe.  (Back in January when the play was cast, she’d written, “I am Chloe the negro servant. That was the part I really wanted.)


The civil rights movement in the 1960s brought about so many positive changes. At that time Grandma would have been in her 60s and 70s. Did she ever think back to when she was a teen who played Chloe in blackface?. . .


You may enjoy reading a previous post that I did on a related topic:

How Should Offensive Language in Diaries be Handled?