4. School Desk

Patrick Cox, H-NET President-Elect and Editor's picture

Contributor: P.J. Carlino

PhD Student, American and New England Studies

Boston University


Picked at and eroded veneers, squiggles drawn with a finger using wayward drops of ink, hurriedly stashed chewing gum - the surface of school desks bespeak of generations of children subjected to the boredom and toil of school life. At a deeper level, the violently gouged initials scribed day-after-day, the elaborately penciled “RALPH” or “MICHELLE” secreted on inside corners cry out “I am someone, I am here, I am unique.” Graffiti on school desks are evidence of small resistance to an overwhelming cultural pressure to standardize American children in concert with the standardization in areas such as mechanized production, in measurement units, and in occupational and management structures.

In the first half of the nineteenth century Boston founded the first public high-school, the first fully graded elementary school, and in 1852 Massachusetts passed the first compulsory school attendance law. Pioneering public education expanded outward throughout New England and the rest of the country. The large number of students grouped by age was an enticing market for furniture makers because industrial furniture production was at its most profitable when a large number of identical forms could be sold to a single client. The familiar standardized form of this desk from the late nineteenth century is an example of what was known as the Boston High School desk, a form that not surprisingly originated among industrial school-furniture makers in Boston in the 1840s.

Schools across the educational landscape of America installed desks similar to this one. A more modern version with tubular steel frames and composite board tops can still be found in American schools today. Through age-graded schooling generations of American children spent ten months of the year, eight hours-a-day, inhabiting a school desk like this. Isolated from family for the first time, subjected to a common schooling experience, American children constructed a revolutionary, public peer culture. By the end of the nineteenth century, adolescents had such close ties to their peers that they resisted Victorian pressures to marry and relinquish their freedom, public identity and friendships. In the 1890s the average marriage age crept up to one of the highest ages in American history. 

The culture that resulted was built upon values inculcated through the shared school experience. Arranged in rigid rows under the scrutiny of the teacher, life in a school desk inscribed the importance of routine, of a shared rubric for achieving success, and of a submission to hierarchy. Standardized schooling molded children from widely disparate backgrounds into standardized forms. A girl was taught how to be a proper home maker. A boy (and later a girl) was prepared for the routine of a future occupation in the rapidly industrializing American economy, whether in clerical work, in management or in a factory.  The production of school desks supported the cultural work of a standardized public education that was itself part of the larger shift to standardization  - in manufacturing, in occupational work, in the home, and most significantly, in American identity.


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