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As the start of the K-12 school year looms, and college students gear up for their fall semester, the Library of Virginia peers back at how the back-to-school frenzy used to look in America’s historical newspapers.  Make sure to check next week on Chronicling America’s #ChronAmParty twitter page to see how newspapers from around the country announced back to school time.

First thing’s first, kids: you have to have the right outfit.  As Burk & Co. said, going back to school isn’t easy after summer vacation, but “It’s easier on the boys if they go back wearing stylish new clothes.”  Buy Burk & Co. for “quality that saves money.”  Oh, and don’t forget to buy some new dresses “That’ll truly please [even] the most critical young school miss of six to fourteen years.”[1]

And don’t forget the importance of a nutritious breakfast!  Mrs. M. A. Wilson of the Richmond Times-Dispatch reminded parents, “Chilly mornings and evenings mean that from now on the body will require additional heat and energy foods,” and she provides her own recipes for preparing calorie-packed breakfast cereals.  Kettle not included.[2]

Students needed just as many supplies for the classroom during the 1910s as they do now in the 2010s, but how did their parents get them in the era before Amazon…or any online shopping?  They shopped at the Cohen Company, of course!  Don’t forget your writing ink and gum for art class![3]

I can testify from personal experience about the importance of being able to see well in the classroom.  Students with poor vision need prescription glasses, so that they can see the board and complete their homework assignments without struggling to read the questions.  Luckily, famous optician Charles Lincoln Smith is here to help.  The Times-Dispatch reported that “Hundreds of the Capital City’s Citizens from All Walks of Life Testify to [His] Wonderful Accomplishments.”  In particular, well-known contractor C. T. Sims praised Smith’s spectacles for helping his daughter, Aillene, who had “suffered for years with headaches and pains in her eyes.”[4]

In 2018, we take for granted that attending school is mandatory for every child in the United States until at least the 12th grade, and with college enrollment at nearly 70% among high school graduates, post-secondary education is becoming an assumption as well.  But compulsory education was not always a given.  Throughout America’s history, children have been needed on family farms and economy has sometimes forced education to take a back seat during planting and harvesting seasons.  Some religious families may have also had (and still have) cultural reasons for not wanting to enroll their children in the public school system.  Still, “The Progressive Farmer” of Clinch Valley was committed to compulsory education as a means of affording every child “an opportunity to grow into the best and most useful citizen.”[5]

This 1919 article from the Richmond Times-Dispatch reminds us that although education is seen as a universal human right in America, one’s financial circumstances can still circumscribe one’s access to it.  Luckily, this struggling single mother was able to receive aid from the RTD’s poor-relief fund, which enabled her to send her four children back to school, so that “they may have an equal chance with more fortunate youngsters.”[6]

On a more cheerful note, the Times-Dispatch reported in 1909 that soccer, that “Great English Game Has Been Successfully Introduced” at Randolph-Macon College in my home town of Ashland.  In the early 20th century, soccer was “not very well known in this country, and particularly in the South.”  True, Americans tend to prefer the other kind of football; yet, the Times-Dispatch reports that Randolph Macon’s Coach Rice Warner was able to get some students interested by taking them to a match up north in Baltimore.

I’m actually surprised that the Virginia athletes didn’t dismiss the idea of soccer out of hand as a “Yankee” sport.  So, don’t forget that team sports and recreation are an important part of the educational experience in public school and at college, especially around finals week when we need any kind of stress-relief that we can get.[7]

Don’t worry if sports aren’t your cup of tea; there are plenty of other clubs that you can join instead.  According to the Times-Dispatch, canning clubs can be an esteem-building activity for young girls: “canning tomatoes is not the end for which we are striving.  The girl finds herself; is taught to have confidence… She starts out with people making fun of her, saying she can’t do this; by the end of the summer she has accomplished the thing which to other people seems impossible.  Her self-respect grows, and she is ready to go back to school to undertake greater things.  Or, if she is at home, to take more of the detail work of managing the home from her mother.”  Is that feminist? … I can’t tell.[8]

And then, of course, there are always the Boy Scouts.  In 1921, The Presbyterian Banner implored schoolboys to join scouting and take “A Cheerful Hike Back to the School,” pledging that scouting and schooling together make students “Prepared for anything!”  “The purpose of the school,” the article argues, “is to give you the education, training, recreation, and opportunity for association…to prepare you for the…duties of maturity and citizenship,” and that joining a scouting group can make a great difference in a boy’s future.[9]

The Times-Dispatch reported, “Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg of Philadelphia…has decided to go back to school.  The Mayor and at least two members of his Cabinet will go to Madison, Wis., next month to attend a course of lectures on political economy at the University of Wisconsin. They hope when they return to be able to devise a scheme to end the hold-up of city finances by the City Council.”  Wow, politicians’ trying to make informed, educated policy decisions—what a nifty idea![10]

One of the most important characteristics of a modern education system is flexibility.  “Student” is a broad term that encompasses every kind of scholar from children in primary school to a single, working parent trying to complete a degree in order to start a better career while taking care of his or her children.  That’s why it’s important for schools to offer day- and night-time classes that can accommodate students with a wide variety of schedules and responsibilities.  In 1915, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published an article entitled, “Vocational Night Schools to Be Opened – Advanced Steps in Public Education Are Outlined for Richmond,” in which it detailed increasing enrollment in the city’s vocational training courses.  John Marshall High School, for instance, was offering a “Domestic Science Class,” “Where Richmond Girls Learn Homemaking.”  That was…progressive, I guess.[11]


  • 1. “‘Back to School’ Means New Clothes for the Boys,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, 1920-09-10
  • 2. “Chilly Days Require Heat Making Foods,” R.T.D., 1919-09-28
  • 3. “The Cohen Co. – Back to School Needs!”, R.T.D., 1919-09-10
  • 4. “Charles Lincoln Smith’s Third Visit,” Times-Dispatch, 1904-02-17
  • 5. “Compulsory Education,” Clinch Valley News, 1912-08-09
  • 6. “Need $35 to Complete Fund for Poor Family,” R.T.D., 1919-11-02
  • 7. “Play Soccer at Randolph-Macon,” Times-Dispatch, 1909-01-24
  • 8. “The Canning Clubs of Virginia’s Girls,” T.D., 1913-08-17
  • 9. “A Cheerful Hike Back to the School,” Presbyterian of the South, 1920-07-21
  • 10. “Mayor Will Go Back to School,” T.D., 1913-05-04
  • 11. “Vocational Night Schools to Be Opened,” R.T.D., 1915-09-12
Kyle Rogers

Former Virginia Newspaper Project Intern

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