PRESERVING CHICAGO’S HISTORIC VOCATIONAL SCHOOLS
In the Spring 2017 I successfully nominated the former Lucy Flower Technical High School for Girls to the National Register of Historic Places. (You can access my full nomination on nps.gov here). I am currently working towards National Register nominations for two other historic vocational schools: Chicago Vocational School (c. 1939) and Carter Harrison Technical High School (c. 1912). By the end of 2020, 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.
The Chicago Board of Education constructed a dozen vocational high schools between 1903 and 1959 that instructed students in specific trades mostly for the skilled manufacturing sector. Vocational coursework for boys included carpentry, foundry, engineering, and machine shop. Vocational programs open to girls (including Flower Tech and Harrison Tech), offered programs for future dressmakers, department store clerks, milliners, beauticians, stenographers, nurses, and domestic servants. Girls’ vocational programs often included education for unpaid work in the home like childcare and cooking.
Why preserve Chicago’s historic technical high schools?
First, Chicago’s historic technical high schools reflect an important chapter in the history of American public education. These schools emerged during a national “vocational movement” in public education that occurred near the turn of the twentieth century and continued through World War I. During this period, school officials and reformers introduced the first vocational programs in public high schools in cities like Chicago. Many argued that doing so would better prepare students for the workforce and teach young people social values like hard work and productivity. Yet early vocational programs reinforced existing workplace inequalities by teaching mostly immigrant and African American students narrow sets of skills for the manufacturing sector. The vocational movement also segregated the education of male and female students in ways that are still visible in Chicago schoolhouses. For example, 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. In sum, Chicago’s technical high schools are historic sites that commemorate how vocational education shaped public schools in American cities.
Second, preserving Chicago’s technical high 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, immigrants, African Americans, and women. Unlike historic mansions and skyscrapers, buildings associated with marginalized groups 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 are also monuments to the public that highlight the experiences of students, teachers, and local families. Landmarking these schools will enhance 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