PRESERVING CHICAGO’S HISTORIC VOCATIONAL SCHOOLS
The Chicago Board of Education constructed a dozen vocational high schools between 1903 and 1959 that instructed students in specific trades mostly for the manufacturing sector. Vocational coursework for boys included carpentry, foundry, engineering, and machine shop. Vocational programs designed for girls included dressmaking, millinery, beauty culture, stenography, nursing, and domestic service. Girls’ vocational programs often included education for unpaid work in the home like childcare and cooking.
I successfully nominated Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017 and, in 2022, co-authored the National Register nomination for the Chicago Vocational School. I plan to submit a Multi Property Listing for all ten of Chicago’s remaining public vocational schools established during the first half of the twentieth century.
Click here to read about the Chicago Vocational School preservation project in the Chicago Sun Times.
Why preserve Chicago’s vocational high schools?
Chicago’s historic vocational high schools reflect an important chapter in the history of American public education. These schools are products of a national “vocational education movement” that occurred near the turn of the twentieth century and continued through World War I. School officials and education reformers introduced the first vocational programs in American public schools during this period. Many argued that doing so would better prepare students for the workforce and teach social values like hard work and industriousness. Yet vocational programs reinforced existing workplace inequalities by teaching mostly immigrant and Black students narrow skill sets for the manufacturing sector. The vocational education movement also segregated public education by gender in ways that are still visible in many schoolhouses. Male students studied trades like welding and mechanics in classrooms outfitted like factories while their female counterparts learned to cook and sew in classrooms that resembled domestic spaces. As historic sites, Chicago’s remaining vocational public schools demonstrate how cultural ideas about work, gender, class, and race shaped public education in American cities.
Preserving Chicago’s vocational schools can help historians highlight more inclusive social histories in our built environment. Historians often struggle to find historic sites associated with working-class families and immigrants. Unlike historic mansions and skyscrapers, buildings associated with everyday people are often torn down due to poor maintenance or lack of architectural distinction. Chicago’s historic vocational schools fill an important gap in this regard. These buildings are well preserved and architecturally significant; they therefore meet national standards for landmark protection. But they are also monuments of social history that can be interpreted to highlight diverse experiences of students, teachers, and local families. Landmarking these buildings enhances Chicago’s historic landscape by providing scholars and community members with more opportunities to share the history of everyday life in twentieth-century Chicago.
MAPPING GIRLS’ VOCATIONAL EDUCATION
My digital project (under construction) “Mapping Vocational Education for Girls, 1879-1930,” uncovers an educational landscape that no longer exists in Chicago dedicated to preparing girls for work in the home, factory, and office. This interactive map plots institutions founded and run by women where girls between the ages of 10 and 20 received vocational education in Chicagoland. These include former Catholic industrial schools for homeless girls; settlement houses for immigrant daughters; and labor schools run by trade union women. In mapping girls’ vocational education, this project demonstrates how competing efforts to educate girls for work impacted Chicago’s urban landscape between 1879 and 1930. When completed I hope this project will be useful research tool for local historians and a potential teaching aid for Chicago students.
Information on my past public history work can be found on my CV