Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 3

Our series on the origins of Chazy Central Rural School concludes this week. This Saturday, October 22, CCRS will officially mark its 100th anniversary with a variety of events—visit for more information.

In Part 1, we looked at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education. In Part 2we saw how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and looked at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott. In Part 3, we’ll see how Chazy Central Rural School implemented the ideas of educational reformers.

Chazy Union School, ca. 1900. The building was later
incorporated into Gray Gables.
In 1915, 189 pupils were enrolled in the Chazy Union School in the village of Chazy, which employed 5 teachers. There were also seven schools in Chazy and three in Champlain that would become part of the consolidated school district. These were one-teacher schools that served between 20 and 40 students. The old one-room country school evoked nostalgic associations, but reformers insisted that it was a thing of the past which had no place in a modern, complex society. Thus, any school reform had to begin with the building itself.

Writers on rural schools painted horrifying pictures of run-down, unsanitary, and poorly ventilated school buildings. George Mott, in his proposal for consolidation, drew a stark contrast between Chazy’s “fine homes, well kept lawns, sanitary barns, flowers, and automobiles” and the “one roomed ‘building’ where ventilation is impossible, sanitary conditions a disgrace, and the whole exterior and interior not only so different from their own homes, but oft-times an offense to the eye and a disgrace to the whole environment of the community.” Children could not be expected to learn in stuffy rooms, sitting in uncomfortable seats (Moulthrop Movable School Chairs to the rescue!), under inadequate lighting.

Shakespeare Room, Chazy Central Rural School.
Decorative features in the school were meant to
inspire a love of beauty in students.
New York State Archives
Aside from these practical considerations, reformers also argued that schools should be beautiful. The building itself should be well-designed and made of good quality materials, and interiors should be painted in cheerful colors and decorated with pictures. George Mott wrote that the new Chazy school would be situated on an “ideal rural school site combining beauty with utility.” The 15 acres of land, purchased from Harvey Fisk by William Miner, provided ample space for a large building, “land for agricultural experiments,” a playground, and recreation areas. It also “offer[ed] a natural knoll, upon which the stately building may be seen above even the surrounding tree tops, a ‘thing of beauty and a joy forever.’”

The new school building was to be the setting for a new curriculum. As reformers were quick to point out, rural schools generally used the same curriculum as city schools, in spite of the fact that much of what was taught was irrelevant or foreign to the experience of country children. Mott pointed out that this system of education tended to have two effects on students. Either it pushed them toward the cities, or they became “disgusted with the hollowness and the unsatisfactoriness of such an education, and fall by the wayside with a contempt for that which they call ‘book learning.’” The solution was to make sure that the curriculum of rural schools was grounded in the everyday life of the country.

Agriculture Laboratory and Lecture Room,
Chazy Central Rural School
The goal of incorporating agriculture into the curriculum was twofold. One, it was hoped that by learning about nature at a young age, children would develop a love and appreciation for rural life that would help keep them in the country. Two, practical instruction in agriculture would be an important step towards introducing modern, scientific farming. Many in the country life movement felt that it was too late to reach adults and that it was better to focus their efforts on children. As William Miner wrote, “It appears to me that in order to improve farming methods in the State of New York, it will be necessary to start with the sons and daughters of farmers, during their school years to thoroughly drill them in habits of orderly, thorough and businesslike methods in dealing with the problems of enlightened agriculture….As you know, the minds of young people accept impressions and improved ideas far more readily than could be hoped for in dealing with the thinking apparatus of middle aged farmers, who proudly announce that the methods of their grandfathers are plenty good enough.”

Scientific Cookery, Chazy Central Rural School

Courses in agriculture were aimed at turning boys into modern farmers, while the Household Arts program approached housekeeping from a scientific perspective. The farm home also needed updating. “Far be it from any of us to criticize the bountiful and satisfying country meal of childhood,” wrote George Mott, “but the question still remains unanswered as to who is educating the growing girl to take the place of her mother in these days of canned groceries, tinned meats and tissue wrapped bread.” It was the school’s responsibility to “teach the girls not only sewing and cooking, but the application of modern scientific principles in food values, well balanced meals, the detection of impure foods, the proper organization and administration of a well organized home on an economic basis.”

Although agriculture, domestic science, and other vocational skills were an important part of rural education, the traditional academic subjects were also taught, along with drawing, music, handicrafts, and physical education. Carrying out this new curriculum required highly trained teachers who understood the special needs of rural schools. Reformers identified what they called the “teaching problem” as one of the main obstacles to improving rural schools. Many teachers had only high-school educations themselves and were barely older than their students. Short school terms and irregular attendance made it difficult for teachers to make progress. Teachers in rural schools had a harder job but were paid much less than their urban counterparts. In Chazy, they earned, on average, about $10 per week. School was in session for 36 weeks per year, and only about 65% of the students officially enrolled actually attended school regularly.

Providing faculty housing was one potential
solution to the problem of retaining good teachers.
One of the aims of the rural school reform movement was to make country schools more attractive to teachers and to find potential teachers who would not be deterred by the special challenges of rural life. The advertisement for prospective teachers laid out the situation quite clearly: “As the village of Chazy has only about 300 inhabitants, teachers who are dependent upon the city for means of study, recreation and amusement, will find few inducements. On the contrary, those who enjoy rural life and who wish to have part in a great undertaking where there is opportunity for pioneer work in a worthy field, will find that this school offers them many advantages.”

When it came time to work out how all these changes in teaching, curriculum, and infrastructure were to be brought about, the answer inevitably was centralization and consolidation. Consolidation of small school districts would increase the financial resources available, facilitating the hiring of better-trained teachers, including specialists in the new subjects proposed for the rural curriculum. Modern facilities could be created, and grading and/or platooning instituted. Children would benefit from schools with larger enrollments that would “provide social and cultural contact with companionable associates necessary to the best development of every child.” However, consolidation was a common sticking point when it came to actually carrying out rural school reform. 

Reformers attributed resistance to conservatism, ignorance, or just plain stubbornness, but rural communities articulated valid concerns about proposed reforms. They worried about the costs associated with changes, and did not want to relinquish control over their small, local school districts. They often felt that reformers were condescending and resented the implication that the rural family was failing in its educational role. They were also concerned that the reforms being instituted were meant to benefit urban areas—that the ultimate goal was to make the countryside more productive in order to support the cities. And there was often some truth to that.

Article from the New York Times,
October 16, 1921
What may be most remarkable about Chazy Central Rural School is not the form of the school itself, but the fact that William Miner and George Mott were able to carry out their ambitious plan. A year after the proposal was first brought before the public, the school was open (though not yet complete) and within a few years was attracting attention from all over the United States. Here was a community that had actually accomplished what most people only talked about.

William Miner’s financial support of the school project eliminated one of the major obstacles and potential objections to the plan. As someone with family roots in Chazy, who had himself attended a one-room district school, residents probably felt that he could be trusted to have their best interests at heart, in spite of his wealth and connections to the broader reform movement. And George Mott, whatever his flaws in other areas, was skilled at generating enthusiasm among the members of the community and making them feel that they had been offered a rare opportunity that they would be foolish to reject.

In the 100 years since Chazy Central Rural School welcomed its first students, much has changed in American society. Although agriculture still plays an important role in the economy of Chazy, we no longer assume that most boys will grow up to be farmers, and most girls to be housekeepers, and the curriculum has changed to reflect that. In 1968, a new school building was erected and the original building torn down. But Chazy Central Rural School continues to be, in many ways, the center of public life for the community. Indeed, that may be even more true now than it was in the early 20th century. In those days, the school was closely identified with William Miner, but now we can say it is an institution that truly belongs to the community of Chazy.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 2

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the opening of Chazy Central Rural School, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at its origins. These blog posts, which will delve into the historical context of the school’s founding, are based on a talk I gave for the Clinton County Historical Association. Part 1 looked at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education. In Part 2, we’ll see how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and look at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott.

Interior of a Rural School
Instructional Lantern Slide produced by the NY State
Education Department
New York State Archives
For the most part, early progressive education reformers focused their efforts on urban schools. Cities had more resources and seemed to be in greater need of attention. So, by the turn of the century, the differences between urban and rural schools had become quite striking. The one-room country schoolhouse, where children of all ages were taught by a single, minimally-trained and supervised teacher, seemed all the more backward when compared to urban schools. Rural school reformers thus started from the presumption that the most effective way to help rural schools was to introduce the modifications that had been implemented in city schools.

In their correspondence regarding the Chazy Central Rural School, William Miner and George Mott most frequently cited three urban schools as their inspiration: John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago; the Speyer School of Teachers College, Columbia University, which was a combined elementary school, social settlement, and teacher-training facility; and the school systems of Gary, Indiana under superintendent William Wirt.

Elementary Geography Class,
Laboratory School
George Mott spent two months in Gary taking a course for school superintendents in the winter of 1916. Like many people who were interested in education reform he was captivated by what Wirt had accomplished there, and in fact the original proposal presented to the town in November 1915 stated that the new school would adopt the so-called “Gary Plan.” Although CCRS ultimately decided not to implement the plan, it clearly had a powerful influence on Mott and other would-be reformers. 

Gary was a new city—it had been founded in 1906 by US Steel as a company town. When Superintendent William Wirt arrived in 1907, he had the opportunity to create an innovative school system more or less from scratch. Wirt introduced what he called the Platoon System, also known simply as the “Gary Plan.” Its main goal was to maximize use of school facilities in order to serve a growing number of students in limited space. The platoon system divided students into two groups. For part of the day, Platoon X used classrooms for traditional academic subjects, while Platoon Y did specialized activities—sports, music, art, library, field trips, assemblies, etc. They then switched places for the second part of the day.

Print Shop at Emerson School, Gary, Indiana
From The Gary Schools: A General Account
Wirt envisioned each school as what he called “a self-sustaining child community.” The school should contain all the elements that children would find in the adult world, so that they would be prepared for life in modern society. The Gary schools provided industrial and manual training facilities such as printing, electrical, carpentry, and metalworking shops, so that students could gain work experience and learn real skills. Students also worked on the school grounds, in the office, and in the cafeteria.

The Gary schools are a good example of the way the two strains of Progressive education reform could coexist. On the one hand, the platoon system was designed to maximize efficient use of resources and required coordination and planning from above. On the other hand, the curriculum grew out of a desire to provide an enriching environment in which children could naturally learn by doing.

While city schools frequently served as models for what rural school reformers were trying to accomplish, they also recognized that country children had specific needs and that the country school had a different role to fulfill in the rural community. In addressing the broader problems facing rural residents, proponents of the Country Life movement hoped that education and specifically, the rural school, would become a catalyst for change.

From Country Life and the Country School
The Country Life Movement aimed to counteract the forces that it was believed drove young people away from the country and pulled them to the cities. People left rural areas because of the lack of economic opportunity, but were also drawn toward the cities because of their social attractions. The solution, then, seemed to be finding ways to make country life more attractive so that people would not want to leave. 

In looking at the conditions of country life, reformers identified isolation as the root of many problems. It was unavoidable that people in rural areas would live at some distance from their neighbors, but there were other ways of fostering community and cooperation. Better methods of communication, like improved roads, the telephone, and rural mail delivery, would help. So would organizations like the Grange, Farmers Institutes, village improvement societies, and cooperative associations like creameries.

From Country Life and the Country School
Key to bringing about these changes was education, and so the school was at the center of all discussions about country life. Mabel Carney, one of the most prominent writers about rural schools, pointed out a number of reasons why the school could, and should, be at the forefront of the Country Life Movement. For one, the school was a “democratic community institution, representing the whole community.” Every community had a school, and it was guaranteed at least some financial support. As an agent of the state, it had a certain degree of authority and could compel “attention, support, and attendance.” Finally, properly trained school teachers were prepared to take up leadership roles in the community.

The first step was reforming the school itself. In the 1910 book The American Rural School (which George Mott advised all CCRS teachers to read) author Harold Foght identified six elements that were essential to the 20th century rural school:

1. More thorough school organization and administration
2. Greatly increased school support
3. Professional supervision and instruction
4. Modern school plant
5. Practical course of study
6. Centralization and consolidation of schools

In Part 3, we will see how Chazy Central Rural School implemented these school reforms.


Liberty Hyde Bailey, The Country-Life Movement in the United States (Macmillan, 1911)

Joseph C. Burke, William H. Miner: The Man and the Myth (Langdon Street Press, 2009)

Kenyon L. Butterfield, Chapters in Rural Progress (University of Chicago Press, 1908)

Mabel Carney, Country Life and the Country School: A Study of the Agencies of Rural Progress and of the Social Relationship of the School to the Country Community (Row, Peterson and Company, 1912)

Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling (Kennikat Press, 1979)

David B. Danbom, “Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920,” Agricultural History 53, no. 2 (April 1979), 462-474.

H. W. Foght, The American Rural School: Its Characteristics, Its Future and Its Problems (Macmillan, 1910)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Origins of Chazy Central Rural School, Part 1

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the opening of Chazy Central Rural School, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at its origins. These blog posts, which will delve into the historical context of the school’s founding, are based on a talk I gave for the Clinton County Historical Association. Part 1 looks at the broad social changes happening at the turn of the century and their effect on education.

Chazy Central Rural School
From a set of instructional lantern slides produced by
the New York State Education Department, 1919
New York State Archives
When Chazy Central Rural School first opened its doors to pupils in the fall of 1916, it was like nothing that had ever been seen before in the North Country. A five-story Spanish Mission style structure, topped with turrets and a bell tower, it towered over all the other buildings in the village. Inside were classrooms for students from first through twelfth grade, laboratories and workshops, two swimming pools, a thousand-seat auditorium with film projector and organ, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and a sunlit cafeteria where students ate at marble-topped tables.

Rev. George R. Mott,
first Dean of CCRS
CCRS was formed when the village school and ten other rural school districts in Chazy and Champlain merged under a new state law that allowed for consolidation. The two main figures behind the push for consolidation and the creation of a new school were William H. Miner, inventor, philanthropist, and owner of Heart’s Delight Farm; and George R. Mott, minister of the Chazy Presbyterian Church. While their goal was always to create a school that would serve the particular needs of the children of Chazy, they were also deeply connected to broader currents of thought regarding education. CCRS was very much the product of a particular moment in time and beliefs about the role of public schools in 20th-century America.

Chazy Central Rural School grew out of two early-20th century movements: the Progressive educational reform movement and the Country Life Movement, both of which attempted to solve some of the problems associated with the shift from a primarily rural, agricultural society to an urban-industrial one. In both movements, public schools took center stage as as one of the key sites of social change. Progressive educators and advocates of the Country Life Movement had many ideas about what rural schools should look like and what role they should play in rural communities. In fact, if you read the dozens of books on the subject published between 1900 and 1920, and then planned a school based on what you had read, you would probably end up with something that looked very much like Chazy Central Rural School.

So what were the problems that rural school reformers were trying to solve, and why did CCRS look the way it did when it opened in 1916? Over the course of the 19th century, agriculture and rural life had been transformed by demographic shifts and technological changes. In 1835, more than 2/3 of all Americans lived on farms. If you were a white man, you had a good chance of owning property and working for yourself, rather than for wages. But as the United States became a more industrialized nation, that changed. In 1880, the Census Bureau found for the first time that the majority of the workforce was in non-farming jobs. By 1900, two out of every five Americans lived in cities.

Farm family posing with a threshing machine, late 19th c.
from Passion for the Past
For those Americans who remained in the country, farming was altered by the introduction of new machinery and long-distance transportation. Farming had always represented independence and financial security, but by the 1890s, that was less true than it ever had been. Farmers depended upon seed and equipment suppliers, storage facilities, banks, and railroads, which were increasingly part of impersonal corporate conglomerates. They had little control over what prices their products would command, or where they would be sold.

In both city and country, there was a growing sense that schools were not adequately preparing students for life in a modern, industrial society. In cities, this sense of crisis was compounded by a growing and diversifying student population that included first- and second-generation immigrants along with students who did not plan to attend college. In 1890, less than 5% of American adolescents attended high school, but by 1920 over 30% did. Instead of preparing students for college and professions, the high school now also had to provide a general education to students with varying needs. Traditional academic subjects were supplemented by programs in music, drawing, sports, nature study, and the like. Schools expanded their offerings to include technical, business, and other vocational training.

John Dewey, the best-known proponent
of “education for democracy”
In making these changes to American schools, Progressive educational reformers were guided by two main philosophies, which historians have described as “education for democracy” and “education for efficiency.” Proponents of education for democracy emphasized the need to make schools creative environments. They promoted child-centered activities and programs based on the child’s individual interests. The school itself should be a microcosm of the larger society, where students would learn about all aspects of life and would be given opportunities to use their hands as well as their heads. Nurturing the individual child, it was hoped, would help produce a more just, equitable, and democratic society.

On the other hand, proponents of efficiency in education drew upon the practices of business and industry to make schools run more smoothly. They introduced reforms in administration, supervision, teacher training, and testing, with the goal of turning out students who were prepared to take their places in the modern bureaucratic system. In this case, the personal happiness of the individual child was secondary to the needs of society as a whole. These two perspectives could, and did, exist within the same school system. And although their approaches were different, both ultimately had the goal of producing a harmonious society made up of well-adjusted individuals.

In Part 2, we’ll see how proponents of the Country Life Movement tried to bring city innovations to country schools, and look at some of the urban schools that inspired William Miner and George Mott.


Joseph C. Burke, William H. Miner: The Man and the Myth (Langdon Street Press, 2009)

Ronald D. Cohen and Raymond A. Mohl, The Paradox of Progressive Education: The Gary Plan and Urban Schooling (Kennikat Press, 1979)

David B. Danbom, “Rural Education Reform and the Country Life Movement, 1900-1920,” Agricultural History 53, no. 2 (April 1979), 462-474.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Mr. Moulthrop’s Marvelous Movable Chair

Moulthrop Movable School Chair
One of the most treasured items in the Alice’s collection is the desk from Chazy Central Rural School on display in the Child’s Chamber. Rescued by Orel Boire when the school was being razed in the late 1960s, the desk was donated to the museum by his children in 2008. As a previous blog post noted, the desk was designed by Samuel Moulthrop, an educator in Rochester, New York. The Moulthrop Movable School Chair, manufactured by Langslow, Fowler Co. of Rochester and introduced around 1905, was an innovation in school seating and emblematic of a new attitude toward children and learning at the turn of the century.

Samuel Moulthrop was born in Michigan around 1847, but moved with his family to Elba, New York, as a child. He began teaching in the schools of Genesee County in 1867, and remained there until 1875. During this period, “Moulthrop developed a passion for thinking about the school as space and learning environment. He also tested his theories about the relationship of calisthenics to a child’s ability to concentrate and remain in good health.” In 1876, Moulthrop moved to Rochester and became principal of the Western House of Refuge (later the New York State Industrial School). His final position was as principal of Washington Grammar School Number 26 in Rochester; in addition to his teaching career, Moulthrop was also active with the Y.M.C.A and other youth organizations. 

Pamphlet distributed by Langslow,
Fowler Co., 1909
It was during his time as principal of Washington Grammar School that Moulthrop developed the movable chair. The school had greatly expanded its services to offer vocational and adult education, which meant that it was serving a broader population in more varied ways. Thus, furniture was needed that could accommodate a range of sizes and could be moved to allow flexible use of classroom space. Movable school desks and chairs are so common now that it’s hard to imagine how revolutionary this idea was. But in the 19th century, almost all schools were furnished with iron-framed seats bolted to the floor in rows. The Langslow, Fowler Co. issued a number of pamphlets explaining how to use the new Moulthrop Movable Chair, which suggests that people needed convincing about this new piece of furniture.

“Why are children restless in school?” asked a 1909 pamphlet. “Principally because of the uncomfortableness of the seats and desks. The mental development of the child is conditioned by its physical well-being. Yet most of our children spend the years of their school lives in seats ill adapted to bodily comfort.” The back of the seat was at the wrong angle, and children rarely had desks that fit their height properly—either their legs were dangling or they had to slouch. But now the Moulthrop Movable School Chair had arrived, bringing about “the emancipation of the pupil from the rigid iron framed school seat. It has accomplished the natural evolution from the old-fashioned severely criticized school seat to the Modern, Comfortable, Sanitary, Movable and Adjustable School Chair.” Originally offered in four different sizes, by 1913 the chair was available in eight sizes, with seat heights ranging from 10 to 17 inches, and could support up to 200 pounds.

CCRS elementary school classroom with desks
moved to allow room for recreation, 1919
However, the advantage of the movable chair was not just in its superior comfort. “The appearance of the room is much less formal, and more inviting.” It “permits of the most elastic arrangement, and the teacher can get the utmost service from a given amount of floor space....In recreation periods or calisthenics, the chairs can be quickly cleared from the floor, the pupils in each grade being easily able to handle chairs used in that grade.” Chairs could be moved about the room to take advantage of shifting light, or so that students could work in pairs. Moreover, the “hygienic and sanitary benefits derived from its use are many and varied.” It was easier to clean around and under movable chairs, and “the pupil having no place in which to stuff papers or other rubbish, is forced to keep his belongings in order, and slovenly habits are not formed.” In short, the Moulthrop Movable School Chair was a key to the reform of education.

The old-fashioned and immobile desk
Writers on rural school reform in the early 20th century frequently aimed much of their criticism at the environment of the one-room schoolhouse. Inefficient heating, poor ventilation and lighting, and outdoor privies (the “breeding place in first steps of crime,” according to one author) were all pointed out as hindrances to learning. And while the bolted-down double desks may have had sentimental associations with “dear old school-days,” they were nonetheless “very unsanitary and inconvenient.” The old desk symbolized the rigid, one-size-fits-all approach to education, where the individual needs and abilities of children were not taken into account. A comfortable student would be more attentive and interested in learning; a classroom that allowed for recreation, exercise, and hands-on learning would produce better results than one based on rote learning and recitation.

It’s no surprise, then, that William H. Miner chose the Moulthrop desk to furnish the new Chazy Central Rural School when it opened in 1916. No doubt Langslow Fowler’s claims of the chair’s “efficiency” appealed to him, but it was also a way to clearly demonstrate the difference between the old one-room schoolhouse and the new, modern consolidated school.

Thanks to the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation at Rush Rhees Library, University of Rochester, for providing copies of the Moulthrop Chair pamphlets.

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Elusive Alexander Hamilton

Timothy Cole, Alexander Hamilton
Artist’s proof of wood engraving, 1922
Since the museum opened for the season this spring, a number of visitors who are fans of the musical Hamilton have asked if we have any Alexander Hamilton items in the collection. But while George Washington, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Thomas Jefferson are well-represented at the Alice, Hamilton is hardly to be found. You will see a portrait by engraver Timothy Cole in the ballroom, and a letter from Hamilton to his father-in-law Philip Schuyler (mostly concerning a horse) in the manuscript collection—and that’s all. I became curious about what Hamilton’s reputation among historians and the general public was during the period when Alice was collecting, and whether this might have influenced her decisions about what to acquire—or not.

People have been expressing strong opinions about Alexander Hamilton since he rose to prominence as an aide to General Washington during the Revolutionary War. To some, he’s the archetypical American story, an immigrant who came from humble beginnings and achieved dazzling success; a brilliant political and economic theorist; and one of the few founding fathers who accurately foresaw the direction the new nation would take. But others had doubts about his Americanness and his commitment to democracy, accused him of being a secret monarchist, and questioned his moral character (he admitted publicly to at least one extramarital affair). Hamilton died in 1804, when he was only in his late 40s, while Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (two of his most prominent detractors) lived well into old age and were able to shape Hamilton’s reputation. 
Portrait medallion of Thomas Jefferson

For the first half of the 19th century, Jefferson’s vision of America as an agrarian nation of independent farmers whose primary ties were to the individual states, rather than the federal government, predominated. But this started to change as tensions built between north and south leading up to the Civil War. Jefferson’s reputation suffered because of his authorship of the 1798 Kentucky Resolutions (which argued that each individual state has the power to declare that federal laws are unconstitutional and void) and because of his position as a slaveholder. Jefferson’s beliefs about the power of the states seemed to lead directly to the Civil War, while Hamilton was vindicated in his advocacy of a strong national government.

This view of Hamilton was supported by two biographies published in the post-Civil War period. John Torrey Morse’s The Life of Alexander Hamilton (1876) was highly critical of Jefferson while depicting Hamilton as nearly flawless. Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge published a best-selling biography of Hamilton in 1882 and edited the nine volumes of Hamilton’s writings that appeared in 1885-86. Lodge, too, argued that Jefferson’s view of the nation as a “confederacy” of states had led to war. It was Hamilton who had truly understood that the future lay with the federal government.

Advertisement for The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds 
in Exhibitors Herald, 1918
These historical works, which reached a broad audience, may have led to the spate of Hamilton-themed novels, plays, and films which appeared in the late 19th and early 20th century. These works tended to emphasize the dramatic and romantic aspects of Hamilton’s life, such as Gertrude Atherton’s The Conqueror: Being the True and Romantic Story of Alexander Hamilton, published in 1902. George A. Townsend’s Mrs. Reynolds and Hamilton: A Romance (1890), makes Hamilton the hero, and Aaron Burr is decidedly the villain of the piece. In this telling of the story, Burr conspires with Maria Reynolds’s husband to blackmail Hamilton in order to keep their affair a secret—all part of Burr’s larger plot to destroy Hamilton. This book later was turned into a film, The Beautiful Mrs. Reynolds, released in 1918. This was just one of the movies about Burr and Hamilton made in that year—in the other, My Own United States, a young man attempts to exorcise his ancestor’s treasonous support of Aaron Burr by enlisting to fight in World War I. Another film was made in 1931, called simply Alexander Hamilton and starring George Arliss, based on a stage play he had written and performed in 1917.

So it seems that by the time Alice Miner was collecting items for the museum, Hamilton’s reputation had been restored, both as a politician and as a flawed but essentially good human being. But because he was so controversial and disliked in the early 19th century, he was never seen as a suitable subject for the kinds of commemorative prints, ceramics, and other household objects on which other figures of the revolutionary era appeared so prominently.

Douglas Ambrose and Robert W. T. Martin, eds., The Many Faces of Alexander Hamilton: The Life and Legacy of America’s Most Elusive Founding Father (New York University Press, 2006).

Friday, July 29, 2016

1926 Meets 1776 at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial

In 1876, the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition kicked off the craze for world’s fairs that would grip the United States into the 20th century. Each subsequent fair was bigger and more successful than the last—Chicago in 1893, St. Louis in 1904, San Francisco in 1915. So when it came time for Philadelphians to start planning a fair to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, it was only natural to assume that it, too, would succeed wildly. After all, they were returning to the site of the first American fair, it was a period of economic prosperity, and the Colonial Revival was in full swing. 

Yet the 1926 fair was plagued with troubles from the start, and it had hardly begun before the general consensus emerged that the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition was a disappointment and a failure. Some observers even argued that the great age of fairs was over—there were simply too many other entertainment options available competing for attention. Why should someone travel to a fair when he or she could experience the world via radio or the movies, or just by going to a department store?

Colonial musicians parading on High Street
But there was one part of the fair that succeeded, and in fact prevented the whole thing from being a complete financial disaster. This was High Street, made up of reproductions of 21 structures from various parts of colonial Philadelphia, brought together to create an imagined 18th-century neighborhood. Organized and operated by the Women’s Committee, High Street was intended to provide fairgoers with “a temporary escape from the complexity of modern society.” Here there were “no radios, no Charleston Dancers, no automobiles, no skyscrapers, no night clubs, no traffic semaphores.” Instead, there were town criers, hostesses in ruffled caps, and (of course) weekly pageants. In its own way, however, High Street did address the world of 1926 by suggesting ways in which Americans could come to terms with modernity by looking to the past.

The President’s House, based on the Philadelphia
residence of Washington and Adams
High Street directly or indirectly addressed three main issues: anxiety about excessive materialism and consumerism, the changing roles of women in the wake of the passage of the 19th Amendment, and the shifting demographics of Philadelphia (and the nation as a whole). In all of these cases, looking back at the colonial period provided reassurance that these changes were not as dramatic as they seemed. 

The buildings of High Street were each run by a different organization, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the League of Women Voters, which used their building to promote their ideas and sometimes to sell products. Most of the houses were decorated with modern reproductions of colonial furnishings, provided by department stores and other businesses. The sponsoring companies then produced pamphlets that were essentially catalogs telling visitors where these items could be purchased. The overall impression created by these interiors was that “colonial people had been surrounded by the material abundance of modern society,” and that consuming material goods “was a longstanding American tradition.” Americans in 1926, then, need not feel anxious about their own consumption habits.

Pageant performer
In a similar fashion, the organizers of High Street tried to show visitors that they should not be worried about women’s expanded public roles because women had in fact always been important parts of public life, even in the 18th century. The exhibits showed that even when women were not directly involved in politics, they still were essential to the civic, economic, and social life of the nation. At the same time, the domestic setting of the High Street exhibits assured visitors that women were not going to abandon their responsibilities at home. Modern women were simply adding electoral politics to these other activities.

The question of racial and ethnic diversity was harder to handle. The organizers of High Street were members of Philadelphia’s old-stock, white Protestant elite, and they believed they should continue to be the city’s cultural and political leaders. They thus used the fair to reassert their own (largely fictive) versions of a homogeneous past dominated by their ancestors. On High Street, for example, the only non-white people to be found were the black musicians performing “plantation songs” in the tavern.

Circular advertising the pageant
“Loyalty’s Gift”
UMass Amherst Special Collections
However, the fair’s organizers did not achieve their goal of making sure that their vision of the past was the only one represented—largely because African-American and immigrant organizations pushed back strongly against their exclusion. Irish, Polish, Italian, Swedish, and Jewish groups held exhibits, parades, and pageants in order to demonstrate the contributions they had made to American history and to show that they were also loyal Americans. 

For African-Americans, efforts to include black history at the Sesquicentennial were part of a broader movement among black leaders to find a “usable past.” Their messages were intended for both white and black audiences: to counteract portrayals of the past that excluded or denigrated African-Americans, and to strengthen racial pride. Historical exhibits, pageants, and speeches aimed to correct the notion that blacks did not have a history in America, or at least not one that was relevant to white Americans. They demonstrated that blacks had a distinct history but one that was also inseparable from wider American history. 

Historians still disagree about the reasons for the Sesquicentennial’s low attendance, though the weather certainly had something to do with it—it rained 107 out of 184 open days. And as it turned out, the era of world’s fairs was not over. The Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933-34, and the New York World’s Fair of 1939-40 would both be very successful fairs. Both of these fairs took different approaches than the Sesqui, fully embracing modernity and looking to the future for inspiration. In some ways, we might see 1926 as the last of the “Victorian” fairs, but in others, such as the way High Street tried to make the past relevant to the present, it was decidedly of the 20th century.


Lydia Mattice Brandt, ”Picturing Female Patriotism in Three Dimensions: High Street at the 1926 Sesquicentennial,” in Meet Me at the Fair: A World’s Fair Reader (2014).

Calista K. Cleary, “The Past is Present: Historical Representation at the Sesquicentennial International Exposition,” PhD Dissertation, University of Pennsylvania (1999).

Ellen Freedman, “The Women’s Committee and Their High Street Exhibit at the Philadelphia Sesquicentennial Exposition of 1926,” MS Thesis, University of Pennsylvania (1988).