Grade Level of Text in 1921 Elementary School Home Economics Textbook

Source: Elementary Home Economics (1921) by Mary Lockwood Matthews

When I flipped through a hundred-year-old home economics textbook, I was surprised how young the girls in the photo looked.

I also was surprised how dense the text was on the opposite page.

page in home ecomomcis textbook
Source: Elementary Home Economics (1921) by Mary Lockwood Matthews

I then flipped to the Preface and saw that the book was intended for use in elementary schools. (Duh – I should have known that – the book title is Elementary Home Economics). BUT, how could elementary students possibly read something so complicated?

Preface home economic text book
Source: Elementary Home Economics (1921) by Mary Lockwood Matthews

I decided to run the middle paragraph on the page – the one that begins, “Since, then, the scientist is able to measure. . . ” – through an online Flesch Kincaid Calculator to see how readable the text was, I was floored to discover that it was written at the 15.8 grade level. Did elementary students really read this stuff in 1921?

Flesch Kincaid Reading Level Chart

13 thoughts on “Grade Level of Text in 1921 Elementary School Home Economics Textbook

  1. I suspect they could, and did. I’ve seen some of my mother’s schoolbooks, and I remember mine. We may have started with Dick and Jane, but by the time we reached fifth or sixth grade, we were well beyond that.

  2. Wow! That is amazing. I know that the grading system has change dramatically since I was in school, but it’s hard to believe elementary students could grasp all that!

  3. I think the reading level was probably higher (pre-tv and even radio for many people). I also agree that it was probably more a teacher’s guide than a student text book. I know that working in professional testing nearly 30 years ago the average reading level of Americans was 8th grade and it appears to still be 7th-8th. What is interesting is that while focusing on practical home skills the girls were learning quite a bit of science! Also looking at the average weight and calorie consumption figures in the chart is interesting.

  4. I do think that children were expected to read at a much higher level than currently. My grandfather was required to memorize sections of the Canterbury Tales – in Old English no less!! (and this was I believe in 3rd grade!)

  5. Not only did they read and understand it. By the time children had graduated from elementary or grammar school they had what is equivalent to a bachelors degree today. I learned to read only from my parents and grandmother reading to me (I loved the National Geographic magazine). Many children did not go on to high school. My father graduated grammar school in 1920 and went on to be a master carpenter and financial secretary of his local union hall, responsible for all the investments, banking, etc. Most grammar school graduates today are not expected to be able to read above a 6th grade level and that is of today, not 100 years ago. The state of our public education in general is abysmal and my parents were told I would have extreme difficulty in life because I had not been taught to read by teachers and I was reading 4th and 5th grade level in kindergarten. Take a look at the McGuffy readers and see what kind of reading and spelling kids had 100 years and more ago.

  6. I just read the page you posted and I’m wondering if by the time I’m 90 I will weigh 110lbs. I do think that those who did go to school in those days did more difficult reading then is expected now. Although some of the reading they give younger children seems way beyond their years in content.

  7. Yes they did, in the US. In Russia, when my son went to 1st grade, kids had to pass two tests to be accepted: Reading (they had to be able to read paragraphs and comprehend them) and Math (including multiplication table). Kids are fully capable of doing all that!

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