Category Archives: Education History

The Rise and Fall of Shorthand in Victorian-Era America

Shorthand experienced its heyday in the years immediately following the Civil War.  As the end of the 19th century approached, many reporters began to swear off its usefulness, saying that shorthand’s time had passed, and that it was no longer worth the significant effort required to learn it.  By the early 1890′s, the century’s practice of producing verbatim speeches in the newspapers was on the wane, and this reduced the need for the most skilled stenographers.  Readers preferred more interpretation of great speeches and the happenings of Congress, rather than just reading the proceedings verbatim.  And, speeches were beginning to be transcribed from their prepared written copies rather than the shorthand notes of those who actually witnessed them.

Teach Yourself Shorthand

Teach Yourself Shorthand (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

Often called the ‘wiggling art’, shorthand, or stenography, first emerged as a skill learned by men, hoping to advance their reporting careers in courtrooms or for newspapers.  Many underestimated the time required to learn the art of stenography and overestimated the number of well-paid positions available for those who mastered it.   In the early 1890′s, authorities on the subject estimated that, of the 100 young men who took up shorthand, 90 lost interest within the first six months and lacked the discipline to see their studies through.  Another 5 persevered through 18 months – and became able to write about 130 words per minute, if they were of everyday use on easy topics. Another four reached the verbatim speed of 180 words per minute, as long as the topics were familiar and routine, like political addresses or sermons, or interviews with famous people on famous topics.  It was estimated that only one of those 100 men ever achieved verbatim speed, regardless of the topic.

As the typewriter came into more widespread use in the late 19th century, women began to find work in dictation, or recording their bosses’ memos and letters in shorthand, as amanuenses.  The 19th century world saw the two types of shorthand as so different that it was said that even the best amanuensis would find recording court reporting in shorthand very difficult while the best court and newspaper reporters would find the dictation work performed by amanuenses nearly impossible.

The dictation work performed by amanuenses was said to require much less skill and brought lower pay.  Most amanuensis work involved recording letters and memos while they were dictated by a boss or other executive.  Unlike recording speeches, letters and memos were often spoken more slowly than talking speed.  And, in the one-to-one meetings that often accompanied dictations, amanuenses could ask their speakers to repeat their words, or even to slow down.  Also, over time, amanuenses developed professional relationships with their subjects, making it easier to record what they said, even at higher speeds.

The Lord's Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19...

The Lord’s Prayer in Gregg and a variety of 19th-century systems (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It was said that the stenographic work of newspaper men and court reporters was more difficult to learn than that of dictation shorthand.  Stenographers were judged by their ability to take notes precise enough that they could then be reconstituted later into first class reporting.  This, of course, required good note-taking and an understanding of the material sufficient enough to fill in the gaps.  After six months of diligent study and practice, a dictation shorthand writer might be able to write 120 to 150 words per minute.  During that same time, a person studying court or newspaper reporting might have just begun learning practical shorthand.

The mark of a good court reporter was to avoid becoming ‘rattled’ by rapid, nervous speakers, or speakers who used unfamiliar words or phrases.  Shorthand also required a good vocabulary, which aided stenographers in deciphering and recomposing their messages from their notes later.  Even the most professional reporters could become rattled.  Transcription of a speech also required specialized knowledge of its contents.  One story well-known among 19th century shorthand men told of a reporter who recorded “Amicus Plato, amicus Socrates, sed major veritas” and then transcribed “I may cuss Plato, I may cuss Socrates, and Major Verrytus”.

The pay was best in the government positions, which were few and hard to land.  After that, the most lucrative work was found in the taking court cases and the pleas of lawyers.  This work was mostly reserved for firms who employed shorthand men.  In the early 1890′s, these men, serving as court and general reporters, could earn incomes ranging from $2000 to $1000 a year.  Some earned as much as $5,000.  Salaries of the average shorthand reporter usually topped out at about $40 a week; in smaller cities, these salaries topped out at $25 a week in 1892.

In general, women stenographic amanuenses could command about $12 a week in the northern and eastern cities of the United States, about $8 a week in others.  The best earned salaries of approximately $15 a week.  Some men took work as amanuenses in hopes of advancing into roles of private secretaries and confidential men.  In the 1890′s, shorthand was still seen as a valuable skill in business to be used as a stepping stone into more lucrative and influential positions.

The study and use of shorthand has waned during the last several decades, as more modern recording devices have been introduced.  It is still used in some medical circles for writing notes on medical correspondence or in charts, probably for the privacy that writing in a sort of code provides.  And, that was actually one of the characteristics that led to shorthand’s rise.  Before the Civil War, writers of shorthand mostly used it to write down their thoughts or to secretly record the discussions of others.  Many used shorthand to write their own diaries and journals.


Lowell’s Riverside School: The Lowell Parents’ Strike – 1971

Things have to get fairly dire before your entire student body, well, 97% of your student body, boycotts your school due to “dangerous conditions”.  But, that’s precisely what happened at Lowell’s Riverside School on a Monday morning in late March, 1971.  Of the school’s 205 students in Grades K through 5, just six showed up for school.  Instead, starting at 8:15 AM on March 22, their parents – mostly their mothers – began showing up to picket in front of the school, at Woburn Street’s intersection with Eugene Street.

Robert Healy, Jr., Assistant City Manager, soon arrived at the picket line, which had been announced and expected before that Monday morning.  He arrived with little to offer.  Of the city’s $2.2 million school renovation budget ($12.5 million in today’s dollars), precisely nothing was destined for the Riverside, or any of the city’s other older ‘wooden schools’.  The picketing parents listed and responded by giving Healy a list of no less than 24 problems that they had identified at the school.

The Riverside School – South Lowell, Massachusetts, 1910. (Credit: Lowell Sun: Dec. 3, 1910)

The Riverside, built in the years leading up the twentieth century, had once been a gem of Tewksbury’s school system in the years before Lowell’s annexation of the Wigginville neighborhood of South Lowell.  With its eight rooms (luxurious by period standards), the school was – spacious -; so, spacious, in fact, that two of those rooms were specially designated for its students’ recreation.  A 1910 Lowell Sun article lauded the school’s playrooms and greatly admired the dollhouse and doll tea set that had been built by the students.

Sixty years later, by the early 1970s, things had clearly changed.  The parents’ 24 problems included: crumbling plaster, peeling paint, dim and missing lights, a failing oil heater, shoddy wiring, and a shortage of school supplies.  That wasn’t all.  The school was actually unsafe; the parents charged.  The roof leaked so much water that the wiring in the school’s attic was submerged in puddles.  These were the days before parents worried about mold exposure.

Healy, representing the city manager’s office, wasn’t unsympathetic.  He just had a really tough position to support.  He listened to the picketing parents.  He then explained that the damage to the school’s roof had been a result of maintenance to the school.  An air raid siren had to be removed, and it was – just a month earlier.  The weight of the siren had damaged the roof.  In fact, he said, as the picketers amassed on that March Monday, public works crews had arrived for their second day of work to fix the leaks.  And, a wiring inspector would arrive later that day to review the electrical problems.  The city would fix the Riverside.

Parents picket the Riverside School, Lowell, Massachusetts, 1971.  Credit: Lowell Sun – 3/22/1971

Parents quickly pointed out that maintenance workers wouldn’t fix all 24 problems on their list.  “History is not being taught in the fifth grade because we have no books.”  One parent said.  “Geography is not being taught in the fourth grade because we have only seven books and they have pages missing.”  Another contributed.  One Riverside teacher later confided that she had been forced to use spelling books that dated from the 1920′s.

School officials responded by denying they knew that there was a problem.  The parents insisted that they had contacted the superintendent’s office.  They also reminded school officials about their promise regarding the Joseph G. Pyne School.     When the J. G. Pyne had been built, a few years earlier, the plan had been to move the Riverside children there.  In fact, the School Committee, in 1970, had voted 5-2 to move the Pyne’s seventh and eighth graders to the Moody in order to free up space for the Riverside students.  There was one problem, though.  No one made sure that the Junior High students at the Pyne minded going to the Moody.  They did.  To accommodate the “almost unanimous” wishes of the South Lowell citizenry, school committee officials left the J. G. Pyne students at the J. G. Pyne, and the Riverside students at their crumbling Riverside.

And this led to a mid-March strike where parents kept 199 of the school’s 205 students out of school for a day in protest.    The parents’ list continued.  During the previous winter, classes had been held in classrooms where the temperature hovered near 40 degrees.  With no heat, the students stayed in their coats all day.   As Assistant City Manager Healy listened to their list, he acknowledged that the parents “had a case”.  He promised to fix the school’s supply problems almost immediately, saying that he would talk with the school’s principal and central office.  All they have to do, he said, is call downtown and they’ll get new supplies.

Credit: Lowell Sun – March 22, 1971

Healy knew that the DPW had been addressing the school’s plaster issues, but also acknowledged that he knew it to be only ‘band-aid work’.  Superintendent of Schools Wayne Peters also responded to the picketing parents, saying conditions at the Riverside weren’t really any better or worse than any other old school in the city.  “We could close the Riverside tomorrow if parents and members of the PTAs would be willing to transfer junior high school out of the J. G. Pyne school and bus some students to the Reilly.”  Peters said.  Asked about the school’s extremely low attendance on the morning of March 22, 1971, Peters dismissed it, saying that they would teach the six students.  They would teach just one student.  “It’s only the students who are suffering”.

“The school is not in very good condition, but the city council voted not to include the wooden schools in the $2.2 million renovation program.  I feel for these parents.  I know the situation, but the City of Lowell cannot afford to put good money after bad and renovate these old wooden schools.”

Officials did not perform their investigations into the school’s dismal conditions publicly.  However, over the following four weeks, Superintendent Peters held two meetings with parents to iron out differences and also met with the school’s principal and her teachers.   The principal’s resignation and retirement followed one month later, in mid-April, reportedly at the superintendent’s request.  Repairs came, and the school remained in use, up through the 1981-1982 school year, when its students were, indeed, moved to the J.G. Pyne School.  From personal experience, I can say that I have fond memories of the school, and can still remember its huge classrooms, with long, shiny wood floors, and old woodwork.  I was a member of the school’s final kindergarten class.

Riverside School’s Final Kindergarten Class – Spring 1982. In the years since, I helpfully marked myself with initials that are floating above my head.  Although my five-year-old self enjoyed my time at the school, the maintenance occurring between the time of the Parents’ Strike and this photo ten years later, didn’t quite extend to repainting the main entrance doors.

Today, the Riverside School houses the B.R.I.D.G.E. (Beginnings Respect Independent Diversity Guidance Education) Program at the McHugh Alternative Middle School, a partnership between Middlesex Community College and the Lowell Public Schools.  Established in 1997 for 24 Lowell public school seventh and eighth graders, the program today has grown to serve 50 students.  The B.R.I.D.G.E. program serves students who have experienced past behavioral or attendance problems in traditional school settings.


The Story of Lowell’s Rogers Hall

Rogers Street,today, is one of Lowell‘s main gateways into the city, providing access from Tewksbury, the city’s southern neighbor.  Known by many outside Lowell simply as Route 38, the road has a long past that is deeply connected to Lowell’s history, and to the history of its Belvidere neighborhood especially.

Rogers Street gets its name from the Rogers family, who were early landowners in the area during Lowell’s first years.  Members of the Rogers family later went on to found the Rogers Hall School for Girls, a prestigious school that remained in operation for over 80 years before it closed in 1973.  Though its white-columned facade is its most familiar characteristic to Lowell residents, the school actually consisted of four buildings:  Rogers Hall, Rogers House, Rogers Cottage, and the Gymnasium.   The gymnasium was famous in its own right for its pool.  Built in 1922 in the basement of the gym, it was the first of its kind for a private girls’ secondary school in the country. 

Rogers Hall, circa 1919 – (Credit: History of Lowell and its People: Vol 2, Page 460: Frederick William Coburn, 1920)

The private girls’ high school accepted both day and boarding students, with the day students sharing in all of the privileges of boarders.  Boarders lived in the “Hall”, the original school building, or “the house”, a nearby Victorian mansion.  Girls participated in activities like hockey, basketball, swimming, glee club, and drama.  And they attended dances and proms at other schools and then invited the male students of other schools back to similar events at Rogers Hall.  An account linked below recalls a 1950 prom, told from the perspective of a visiting male student . . . who tells a rather truthful account that reminds us that alcohol use among prom-goers didn’t really emerge with ‘today’s kids’.

As the 1970s progressed, it became clear that Rogers Hall was fading from the scene.  Even though the administration was tight-lipped about the conditions leading to the school’s imminent closure, it was obvious that its financial health had suffered for several years before its closure was announced.  Enrollment had fallen to 47 girls by 1973, less than half of its 100+ peak enrollment reached just 18 years before.

At the time of the 1860 US Census, the Rogers Family had lost its patriarch, Zadock Rogers, Sr. Emily and Elizabeth were among the youngest siblings.

The history of the school’s majestic buildings stretched back beyond the school’s 1892 founding.  Its main building, the Zadock Rogers House, dated to the 1830s when it began as part of a vast farm of almost 250 acres.   By 1880, Zadock Rogers and all but two of his children had died, leaving his considerable holdings to his two surviving daughters, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers.  Emily, who had attended the famous Miss Grant’s Girls’ School in Ipswich for two years during her youth, conceived of the idea to convert the Rogers home into a school after both sisters had died.  She died of pneumonia in 1884.  Carrying on the plans she had discussed with her sister, Elizabeth lived to realize their plan.  In 1892, just a few years before she died, Elizabeth donated her own home to the future school.

The sisters’ original plan had called for the donation of their estate to charity after both had died, but Elizabeth had a change of heart after meeting Mrs. Underhill, who had opened a girls’ school in Belvidere in 1891.  That school, lacking appropriate facilities to board students, was failing when Elizabeth began to look into founding Rogers Hall, while she was still alive.  She approached Mrs. Underhill, asking her to run the new school if Rogers were to provide the appropriate grounds.  Mrs. Underhill agreed, and remained the school’s first principal for its first 18 years.

By the time of the 1880 US Census, Emily and Elizabeth Rogers were the sole remaining members of the Rogers family. They began to discuss the future of their estate once they were gone.

The school was situated on about five acres of the original Rogers property.  In her last years, Elizabeth donated another 30 acres of land across the street from their farmhouse to the City in 1886; this later became Rogers Fort Hill Park.  The rest, over 200 acres, was sold for development and today forms the neighborhood surrounding the park and former school.  Elizabeth died in 1898 of pneumonia, just five months shy of her 80th birthday.

Rev. John M. Greene, pastor at the Eliot Church in Lowell, helped Elizabeth Rogers found the school.  He had also helped found Smith College.  In 1892, the school opened with 11 faculty and 50 students.  All but nine were day students.  The Rogers sisters lived a strict, austere life governed by Christian ideals, which they incorporated into the education provided to the students attending Rogers Hall.  Students lived by a rigid schedule, which left ample time for studying as well as rest.  Lights had to be put out by 9:30 each night.  Appearances were considered very important too.  Nightly, before formal dinners, staff would check the seams of students’ stockings for straightness.  Once dinner began, table manners were carefully monitored and evaluated.

In its earlier years, Rogers Hall was known for enforcing a strict, orderly lifestyle. Prior to admission into formal dinner each night, girls were inspected to ensure that they exhibited proper posture as well as straight seams on their stockings.

English: Collection of U.S. House of Represent...

Edith Nourse Rogers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Rogers Hall produced many distinguished alumnae.  Among them, Anne Harvey Sexton, a 1947 graduate, was later awarded the Pulitzer price for poetry.  Dr. Mona Meehan went on to become the first female chief of staff appointed to a US hospital at St. John’s Hospital, now part of Saints Medical Center.  And, Edith Nourse Rogers, no relation to the founding Rogers family, served the Massachusetts Fifth District as a congresswoman for 35 years after her husband died in office in 1925.

At its peak enrollment in 1955, Rogers Hall had more than 100 students.  In its waning years, the percentage of day students soared, from 10% in 1968 to 50% in 1970, and 75% by 1973, when it closed.  Rising tuition prices and the advent of co-educational schools were both blamed for the school’s declining enrollment.  Today, Rogers Hall still sits on Lowell’s Rogers Street and serves as elderly housing.


Lowell High’s Entrance Exam in 1865 – Difficult Questions and High Expectations

High school entrance exams during the Civil War era were hard, really.  For arithmetic, 14-year-olds in Lowell, Massachusetts were asked to calculate the diameter of a cannon ball weighing 250 pounds, if the diameter of a 128-pound ball was 8 inches.  In grammar, they were asked for the plurals of Mr. Smith, Miss Smith, and Dr. Brown.  In the area of geography, they were asked to draw the Merrimack River and its branches, and locate the important towns on its banks.    And in history, students were asked which European nation had been the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, and to name the year in which it occurred.

The man behind the questions was Abner J. Phipps, a Superintendent of Schools in Lowell.  At a time when the very worth of his position was being questioned, Phipps was a firm believer in a good education for Lowell’s children.  Phipps had been known to say that ‘a parent who sends his son into the world uneducated, does as great injury to mankind as to his own family; he defrauds the community of a useful citizen, and bequeaths to us a nuisance.’  He apparently extended this responsibility to the Lowell school system.

The 1864-65 school year was Phipp’s second in the office.  Abner Phipps was something of a superstar in the Massachusetts school superintendent circuit of the mid-1860′s.  He had been superintendent of schools in New Bedford, Massachusetts for the four years prior to the same position coming open in Lowell.  When that happened, very late in 1862, a committee including Lowell’s mayor and other local dignitaries short-listed Phipps and decided, unanimously, that he would be the best (and could really be the only) man to lead the city’s schools.

But, would he accept?  His contract in New Bedford had just been renewed, and, worse, when the committee approached him regarding Lowell’s superintendent post, he declined, saying the salary was too low.  Lowell’s leaders were not deterred.  Showing an ingenuity not possible today, Lowell’s Mayor Hocum Hosford proposed paying Phipps whatever salary he required, and Hosford himself would pay the difference from his own pocket.  Phipps accepted and took up his post during the 1863-64 school year.

A successful teacher with a solid track record in Massachusetts and a member of the State Board of Education, Phipps took a personal interest in the quality of instruction at Lowell’s High School.  He personally prepared the questions delivered to eighth graders hoping for admission into Lowell High School and oversaw the grading of their answers.

Thanks to the recent digitization of Lowell’s municipal documents at the Internet Archive, we can now see the questions that Abner Phipps developed for Lowell’s eighth graders.  A sample of these questions have been reproduced below.  During 1864, 140 children were given the examination; 122 passed.  Of the 18 who failed, 14 were girls, 4 were boys.  The average age of the students was slightly older than today’s children entering eighth grade:  14.1 years.  Girls scored much better at spelling and grammar.  Boys excelled at the remaining topics:  reading, writing, arithmetic, history, and geography.

Abner Phipps included the results of his most recent Lowell High School entrance examinations with his 1865 Superintendent’s Report.

Phipps’ questions were difficult.  A sample of the questions from his Lowell High School admission exam have been included below:

Series of Questions Proposed for the Examination of Applicants to Enter the High School – July 1865

General Directions “No book or helps of any kind will be allowed on the desks, and none are to be used during the Examination.  All communication to be avoided.  Each answer should be numbered to correspond with the number of the question.  Attend carefully to the writing, and to the use of capitals and marks of punctuation.”

Arithmetic

1.  What is the difference between 15 ÷ .15 and .15 ÷ 15?

2.  If I should sell a wagon which cost me $85 for $95, on a credit of six months, what would be gained by the bargain, and how much per cent?

3.  Divide $1800 among A, B, and C, so that A shall receive $150 more than B, and B $75 more than C.

8.  What is the difference between half a cubic yard, and a cube whose edge is half a yard?

19.  If the City of Lowell tax rate were 1.5 per cent, and the State and County tax were .18 of one per cent, for what sum would John Smith be taxed, who pays $143.46, including a $2.00 poll tax?

20.  What will be the edge of a cubical box that will contain 216 times as much a box measuring 1 foot each way?

Grammar

1.  Write out correctly the following sentences:  He could not learn me to write good.  I never studied no grammar, but I can talk just as good as them that talk grammatical.  Many a youth have ruined their prospects for life with one imprudent step.

2.  Define a verb, and state the distinction between a transitive and an intransitive verb.

3.  State the different ways of distinguishing between the sexes, and give an illustration of each.

8.  What is a root?  A prefix?  A suffix?  Illustrate by an example.

19.  Fill up the blank with the third person plural, pluperfect tense, potential mood, passive voice, of the verb to steal.  These books

20.  Write one sentence that shall contain all the different parts of speech, or as many of them as you can.

Geography

1.  Through what waters must a vessel pass in sailing from New Orleans to Quebec?

2.  Bound British America.

3.  What city is on the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario?

8.  Which of the Southern States extends the furthest east?

19.  Name the chief curiosities in Kentucky, Virginia, and California.

20.  Name three gulfs on the north of Asia, and three on the south.

History

1.  Describe the civil war in the colony of Virginia in 1676.

2.  Who became King of England in 1685, and how was he regarded in England, and in the American colonies?  Who succeeded him in 1689?

3.  In what years were settlements commenced in the following places:  Albany, Plymouth, Salem, Boston, Providence and New Haven?

8. What acts of parliament were passed in 1767, and how were these regarded by the colonists?

19.  When and where did John Quincy Adams die?  How many years had he been employed in the service of our country?

20.  What remarkable events took place on the 4th of July, 1826?

Abner J. Phipps’ questions were difficult, and must have been difficult for graduating eighth-graders hoping for admission into Lowell’s high school during the wake of the US Civil War.  Students, in 1865, scored worst in the areas of arithmetic (24% correct), geography (46% correct), and grammar (62% correct).  Their strongest areas were reading (92% correct), writing (91% correct) and spelling (83% correct).  Some differences emerged across Lowell’s different schools, and others between the genders (as shown in the above graph).

Abner J. Phipps didn’t stay long as Lowell’s school superintendent, leaving before the completion of his third year when he was named Agent of the Massachusetts Board of Education.  In the School Committee’s report for 1867, his short tenure in Lowell was memorialized.

“In closing their report, the Committee with profound regret, announce the withdrawal from office and the contemplated removal from the city, of Abner J. Phipps, Esq.  They feel that the education department of the city has met with a great loss.  The scholarship and culture of Mr. Phipps have been invaluable to our schools, while his uniform courtesy and geniality, his scrupulous faithfulness, fairness, and impartiality, his untiring industry, his zeal in educational matters and his intelligent interest in the city at large and its general welfare, have earned alike our confidence, our gratitude and our esteem.”

The digitization of Lowell’s City documents allows some great insights into many aspects of Lowell’s historical past, and into larger society as a whole.  Published in a series of volumes, each includes the annual reports from the various superintendents of the different departments included within Lowell’s city government.  Reports from the school committee, the directors of the city library, the superintendent of the alms-house, the superintendent of burials, and the superintendent of streets are all included, among others.  To see the directories, please follow the link:

http://archive.org/search.php?query=lowell%20city%20documents