Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/April 1886/The Hand-Work of School-Children

950843Popular Science Monthly Volume 28 April 1886 — The Hand-Work of School-Children1886Rebecca D. Rickoff



AN exhibition of children's hand-work was held last spring in one of the public schools of Yonkers. The large assembly-room of the school-house was filled with lines of tables, upon which were displayed the various articles to be exhibited. The room was handsomely decorated, and the tables were daintily covered and adorned with bunches of flowers. For each class-room in the house there was set apart one or more tables upon which was placed, under the direction of the class-teacher, the work of that class, the whole presenting the appearance of a very successful and pretty fair.[2]

While this exhibition was given in the school-house, and under the direction of the school superintendent and teachers, with the sanction and encouragement of the school board, and though the work was done by pupils of the school only, none of the things were made in the school, excepting the colored paper busy-work of the youngest children and, of course, the drawing. All the other things were made at home, and expressly for this exhibition. Too much credit can not be given to the teachers who undertook and carried forward this enterprise, it being entirely outside of the regular school-work. There were many difficulties to overcome. Numbers of the children were sure they could not make anything; but, by conversations with them about what they had done or seen done, and what they would like to do, by constant encouragement to at least attempt something, and advice as to ways and means, and especially by enlisting the pride of the pupils in this, which was to be peculiarly their exhibition, independent of school instruction, most of the children were induced to undertake something.

The next difficulty was to prevail upon them to persevere and complete the thing commenced, many of them beginning a half-dozen things before completing one. This failing, so common to all, was well dealt with by this exhibition, in that the necessity to have an article ready by a given day forced the child to exercise his own will-power in deciding upon and completing some one thing, and thus became a good moral lesson. The greatest care was taken by the teachers to impress upon the children the credit of honest work. They were advised to consult with relatives and friends as to what to make and how to make it, but were honor-bound to refrain from accepting any help in the work itself; and it is believed by all interested in the exhibition that the exceptions to strict honesty and truthfulness in regard to the making of the articles were very rare.

The exhibition was open during the day and evening, and the patrons and friends of the schools came in hundreds to see it. Your committee were among the visitors, and were so deeply impressed with the importance of this exhibition in relation to the work of our Association that we determined to make a list of the different kinds of things exhibited, and the ages of the children who made them, with a view of forming from this list some estimate of what children can make and like to make at different stages of growth and development. It is one of the aims of this Association to form a graded system of manual training, and such data as can be obtained from exhibitions of this kind would be invaluable for that purpose. Superintendent Gorton having promised us ample facilities for making the list at another visit when the rooms would not be so crowded, we gave ourselves up to listening to the comments of the visitors; and their lively interest and intelligent appreciation of the exhibit convinced us that it needs only such exhibitions to create a public sentiment in favor of a movement in this direction. Many parents, desiring to give help and sympathy to their children in their school-work, find themselves at a disadvantage. It is seldom that even a well-educated and intelligent parent is conversant with the last new methods of the schools, and his suggestions and help, not being in accord with them, are looked upon by the children as incorrect or old-fashioned. Thus many fathers and mothers are made to feel at times that they are cut off from taking part in their children's education. But here, in this exhibition, is something that bridges the gap between home and school, something the parent knows all about—how that bread was mixed, that garment fashioned, that ladder whittled out, that little wagon painted. Not only can they understand, but they themselves were the teachers. This can become a great power for good to the community through the avenues both of the school and the home.

We subjoin a list in which arc noted down only those articles most characteristic of the grade in which they were found, and in each grade the age of the children is given. There were some remarkable and elaborate toys and fancy-work showing skill, ability, even genius for invention and great application and perseverance; but these were the efforts of children having special capacities or unusual opportunities. It is, of course, a great gain to the community that those having particular aptitudes for industrial pursuits should be encouraged and cultivated; but this Association has, besides this practical aim, another which is broader and more far-reaching, and that is, to find principles by which manual training may be adapted to large classes of ordinary children. The wonderful things that remarkable children can do show us where great successes lie, but what we most need at present are the common things showing us how and where the multitudes of children walk, or rather stumble, along. And we would here respectfully suggest the advisability of securing such lists from exhibitions of this kind that may be held in different sections of the country, to be kept among the records of this Association for reference, until we shall have obtained data sufficient to guide us in our work. In such a collection there will doubtless be much worthless material and many duplicates, but will not the suggestive facts be worth the trouble of gathering them? That a thing is many times duplicated by children of the same age will indicate it as something suited to that age; that at certain other ages the work is below the average as to number of articles, or unsuited to the growth of the children, will indicate a want of proper occupation or true development of children of that age.

Among the specimens of the work of the first year in school, by children five or six years old, we observed, in the girls' department, a doll's muff of white fur; dolls' aprons, one of silk trimmed with lace; dressed dolls; a doll's bonnet, creditably made up of scraps of fur, lace, and ribbon, and a tiny feather; a doll's apron, with high neck, long sleeves, and a yoke; a cushion and a lamp-mat in colors; coarse lace-work of different kinds; a child's apron, and a child's petticoat.

Among the most noteworthy articles in the boys' department were a boat hollowed out, with rudder and seats; a bob-sled, made by connecting two tiny sleds by a strip of board, which was fastened with two screws and nuts; a cube of wood, with a number of squares engraved on each face; bow and arrow; a ladder of thirteen steps evenly adjusted; a rake, made of two pieces of other toys, with bits of iron wire for teeth—the wood had split in the making, and was mended with screws; a screen window; a chair and table, apparently made from kindling-wood with a penknife; a wagon, made of a rough box, with ends of spools for wheels; a toy pump, quite equal to those of its kind that are sold in the shops, with spout and handle correctly inserted.

In the second school year, the children of which were six or seven years old, the boys exhibited a rake, more laboriously made, but showing less ingenuity than the rake previously mentioned; several ladders, of different patterns, but with steps of uniform length and spacing correct in all; an invention—a gun made from two triangular pieces of unplaned board, a piece of old bucket-hoop, and the top of an old pepper-box, with a little stick for a projectile; a tip-cart—a box with two old furniture-rollers for wheels, two screws, two small strips of wood to hold the tongue, and two bits of twine serving as hinges to the tail-board; a shapely keel-boat, of sharp model, with mast, sail, and pennant, standing in two supporting blocks, and the whole easily held in a lady's hand; a handsome bracket, made by a colored boy too old for his class, who was supposed to be simpleminded. A boy who was sure he could not make anything brought a wire hanging-basket filled with wood-moss and ferns and a blossoming anemone.

The girls' work of this grade begins to show the effect of training at home, and is more conventional than that of the boys. The specimens included white undergarments, neatly made and trimmed; aprons of various styles; knitted dolls' hoods, lace and crochet work; baby's clothes, crazy-work mats, dressed dolls, bean-bags, pen-wipers, and pin-cushions.

Of the third school year, the children being seven and eight years old, the girls' work did not differ materially from that last described. In the boys' department, wheelbarrows appeared to be a specialty, but we found also saw-bucks, bedsteads, boot-jacks, a gunboat, a cross of wood mounted for wax-work, a fort, and mounted drawings; many houses, made of common pasteboard, with doors, bay-windows, dormer-windows, and porticoes; a boat, noticeable for its neat oars, and its row-locks made of black dress-eyes.

In the products of the next two years, by children from eight to ten years old, while the boys' work was still mainly confined to toys, that of the girls appeared to be growing more practical. Pride in execution was shown in both.

Boys' work: A velocipede, small but complete, with hubs, spokes, felloes, and tires represented by lines of black; a substantial and neatly finished wagon; clothes-horses, step-ladders, saw-bucks, easels, ocean-steamers, and catamarans, seemed to be favorites; several forts were exhibited; a curious vase was ingeniously made from a tomato can, with a large black spool serving as pedestal, the whole decorated with gilt paper and bright-colored pictures.

Girls' work: Sofa-cushions, pillow-shams, aprons; a white Mother Hubbard dress; machine-work, tucking, lace, darned socks, splashers, a quilt, crazy-work, albums of stamps, and pictures.

In the sixth and seventh years, representing children from ten to fourteen years old, all the work was elaborate and well done, but was participated in by a smaller proportion of the pupils. The work of the boys was less prominent than that of the girls, but was more practical than in previous years.

The boys' work comprised chiefly cabinet-work (book-cases, easels, checker-boards, a table), a door-mat of coffee-sacking tufted with rope ends.

The girls' work included excellent plain sewing, exemplified in children's dresses, fine aprons, and underwear; fancy-work (painted cards, embroidered banner-screens, lace, a crib-quilt, an embroidered table-scarf); bread, cakes, pickles, etc. There were many hundreds of other articles in the exhibition, a large majority of them creditable productions, and all representing earnest effort.

One of the noticeable features of the exhibition was an apparent decline in originality of invention and spontaneity of thought after the first year or two at school. Pride in the execution of good work seems to have been exhibited most prominently in the middle period. As the girls grew. older and were trained in household and needle and fancy work at home, their products exhibited more variety, but not more novelty, and they continued to contribute specimens till their highest age at school. But, while some work was furnished by girls of over fourteen, very little was exhibited by boys of corresponding age. They found themselves too unskilled to make good specimens, and were too proud to exhibit poor ones. Another fact deserving notice is that, in the work of the boys during the first years of school, there were apparent a love for color and a skill in using it for decoration and design, equal to that displayed by the girls; while in the later years the use of color becomes exceptional with the boys, but still continues to prevail, with evidences of increased skill, in the work of the girls.

When a few days ago we were requested to prepare this report, Superintendent Gorton was consulted, and from him it was learned that this Yonkers experiment was of two years' growth, and that the idea originated in Mount Vernon. The first exhibition of the kind was held in the public-school house of that village nine years ago, and with the exception of two years the exhibitions have since been regularly continued. The parents and citizens have always taken great interest in them, the children have enjoyed and felt pride in them, and the teachers have cheerfully done the extra work. The present principal of the school, Mr. Charles Nichols, heartily approves them as a source of good moral influence.

As results of an investigation of this subject, your committee would sum up as advantages accruing from the exhibition of the home-work of children through the medium of the schools: A bringing together of the home and the school, thus conducing to a better acquaintance between the parents and the teachers; giving to the teacher a better knowledge of the child's home influences and surroundings, thus enabling him to exercise a more intelligent care over the development of the child's moral character; giving to the parents a better insight and new interest in the schools and their management, with an overflowing of the moral influence of school training into homes where intelligent discipline is unknown; a greatly increased respect in all quarters for handicrafts; the diffusion of the principle that in the liberal education of the individual a development of manual skill, as well as a harmonious unfolding of the mental faculties, should be looked after, and that these react favorably on each other in various ways.

The facts were made clear that some children are especially endowed with native capacity for mechanical contrivances, which needs excitation, encouragement, and opportunity for development, in the lack of which their usefulness will be impaired for life; that some children are endowed with great capacity in this direction, while they have but little in any other; that the happiness of every family may be promoted by the disposition and ability on the part of its various members to adapt the material resources within their control to the convenience and comfort of all; that by the cultivation in early childhood of a taste for manual employment there would be found in almost every individual aptitudes for hand-work of one kind or another, which would afford pleasurable pursuits in hours not occupied with the serious affairs of life, and which would contribute to his happiness as well as promote his pecuniary welfare; that such occupations, aside from the main pursuits of life, would aid in forming good habits and good morals; that the children of the poor especially need something to occupy their time and attention out of school-hours, whereby they may be withdrawn from the demoralizing influences of the streets; that it will be wise for this Association to promote the home industries of children by all means in their power, one of the most effective being public exhibitions, where a comparison of the results of the industries of the children may be made; that by such exhibitions we shall not only educate the child-contributors, but that they will also educate us and the community.

  1. A report upon the Yonkers Industrial Exhibition of Children's Work, read before the Committee of Industries of the Industrial Educational Association of New York.
  2. The exhibition here described was given in school No. 2, of which Miss Dresser is principal, to whom and to her assistant teachers great credit is due. Similar exhibitions were given the previous year, in this school and also in school No. 6, of which Miss Spencer is principal, and equal credit is due to her and her assistants.