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.

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