Au Courant Classrooms

For my annual back-to-school post, I want to focus on two very distinct phases of school reform, both of which focused on the aesthetics of the classroom. This will not be the case everywhere, obviously, but when I look around Salem and its environs, I see a lot of school buildings built in the later 19th century–World War I era, and an equal number built after World War II. Rather than thinking about demographics, my mind immediately wanders to the design elements of these structures. The exteriors are pretty obvious (solid civic Classical Revival for the former era, International-style boxes for the latter), but what about the interiors? It happens that the celebrated Salem artist Ross Turner was very active and influential in a movement dedicated to embellishing classrooms in the 1890s and after, a movement dedicated to “vitalizing the dormant sense of the artistic” among Americans, “which by false and ugly environment, has been so repressed as to be of little actual value to the community”.  Arts education and the decoration of the classroom went hand in hand for Turner, and he believed that students should be exposed to both as early as possible, in the (relatively-new)) kindergartens and primary schools. He had an effective partner in the Prang Educational Company, which published his works and produced artistic products for the classroom.

Stylish Schools Art for the Eye

Prang Educational Company AAS Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society.

Here are Turner’s design recommendations for classrooms: they should be quiet, harmonious in color and arrangement [with] the color of the walls selected according to the light…the use of dull colors–brown or slate colors–should be usually avoided. The color effect should be responsive and light, never dull, heavy or cold. Remember we have under present conditions to struggle against a hideous dulled surface known as the blackboard, too large and ugly…A comprehensive group or series of art subjects…beginning with primitive work, Egyptian and Assyrian, early Greek and Etruscan, and proceeding up through the Renaissance [not after] is essential, in plaster or pictorial forms. He recommends that statues and “solar prints’ be spread liberally around the classroom, as well as architectural fragments, and decorative designs in plaster. And one last thing: every schoolroom should have a bust or portrait of some eminent American citizen or patriot placed immediately above the desk of the teacher; above and around this the colors of our common country. Here should be the shrine of American patriotism. We should display the flag above patriotic busts, or portraits, inside as well as outside the schoolroom. Art for the Eye was first published in 1895: let’s look at some Salem classrooms from about a decade later to see if it had any impact. These photographs are all from the very accessible digital collections of Salem State University Archives and Special Collections.

Stylish Schools SSU Horace Man

Stylish Classroom SSU Horace Mann3

Stylish Schools SSU HOrace Man 2

The photographs are from a series taken by Salem photographer E.G. Merrill of the Salem Normal School’s Training School, later known as Horace Mann, for the School’s 50th anniversary in 1904. It looks like the hideous chalkboard is still in the classroom (though utilized for artistic purposes via the elaborate blackboard sketching that was a speciality at Salem Normal School), but there are certainly a lot of other Turner-approved embellishments! It’s so perfect, I envision this wallpaper frieze from 1910, named after the inventor of kindergarten, in all Turner-approved classrooms!

Stylish Schools WallpaperWallpaper “Froebel” frieze, 1905, E.J. Walenta for Wm. Campbell Wall Paper Company, Machine-printed on paper, Hackensack, New Jersey, USA, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, gift of Paul F. Franco, 1938-50-15.

The second wave of educational aesthetic reform followed World War II, and seems largely focused on clearing out all of the elements that Turner advocated for, as well as letting in, or creating, even more light vis-à-vis the new fluorescent lighting. A model classroom was installed at Salem’s Bowditch School (then on Flint Street) by the Salem-based Sylvania factory, and promoted nationally by a serialized newspaper article in alliance with the National Education Association. I can’t get the photographs any clearer, but the description is helpful: blackboards replaced by tackboards (that won’t last), wooden floors replaced by tile, and “posture-improving desks” installed. In the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art there is a prototype desk designed for the Bowditch School by the architectural/engineering firm Markus & Nocka in 1946–ostensibly for this remodeling–but I can’t tell if these are the desks in the photograph (if they are, I wonder where they all went when the Bowditch was converted into condominiums!)  More likely something more conventional was chosen, like the colorful Brunswick desks in the advertisement below. These are what I grew up with, and I think there’s still more than a few in the old SSU Sullivan Building where I teach today.

Stylish Schools 1946

Stylish Schools MOMA

Stylish schoolchairs BrunswickBrunswick chairs c. 1958 from the VS Schulmuseum site. 

♣ Heads up: exhibition of Ross Turner’s works at the Kensington-Stobart Gallery at the Hawthorne Hotel opens this Friday September 8!


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