Current Public History Projects

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Tour of the former Carter Harrison Technical High School, Chicago, January 2019 (Photo: Brad Hunt)

PRESERVING CHICAGO’S TECHNICAL HIGH SCHOOLS

In 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 plan to nominate Chicago’s five remaining historic technical high schools to the National Register of Historic Places as a Multiple Property Listing.

Between 1908 and 1919, Chicago’s Board of Education constructed six “technical high schools” that instructed students in specific trades mostly for the skilled manufacturing sector. Technical coursework for boys included carpentry, foundry, engineering, and machine shop. At the Lucy Flower Technical High School (est. 1911), girls were prepared for entry-level positions as dressmakers, department store clerks, milliners, beauticians, and domestic servants. Above all, girls’ technical education centered on training for motherhood through childcare, cooking, and home management classes.

Why preserve Chicago’s historic technical high schools?

Chicago’s technical high schools are an important chapter in the history of American public education. These schools was founded during a national “vocational education movement,” during which progressive educators redirected schoolwork towards practical training for industrialized labor in their attempt to make schools more relevant to the lives of immigrant and working-class students. In northern American cities, public high schools were considered elite academic institutions that prepared students for college or professional careers during the nineteenth century. After 1900, new vocationally-oriented high schools were filled with the children of Polish, German, Italian, and Russian Jewish immigrants and African American migrants from the rural south. Unfortunately, technical high schools focused on preparing a diverse student body for narrow industrial careers and reinforced existing inequalities of race, class, and gender in urban economies. These schools gendered public education in new and profound ways by schooling male and female students separately for their social roles as self-sufficient breadwinners and dependent homemakers in classrooms designed to resemble factories and kitchens. In sum, technical high schools altered the form and function of public education in American cities like Chicago.

Preservationists often lament that the history of working people, women, African Americans, and immigrants are erased in the built environment because structures associated with marginalized groups are not often considered “architecturally significant.” But historic public high schools are architecturally significant. These schools are some of the most monumental buildings in city neighborhoods. Preserving and interpreting these structures helps ensure that diverse social histories are remembered in the local historic landscape of 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, 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