Kids today have it easy compared to those who went to school during the Great Depression. Modern amenities such as school buses, cafeterias, and libraries are taken for granted. In the 1930s, children in rural areas sometimes had to walk miles to get an education. Many went hungry. Others dropped out.
Despite the challenging circumstances, photos from the era show that the kids had the drive to learn. Many faced obstacles but didn’t give up. Check out this gallery of incredible photos of American classrooms in the 1930s…
Children In Maryland Looked Forward To Summer Break Just Like Kids Today
This photo shows a group of children attending Mrs. Merrial G. Coston’s first-grade class at Frances Harper Elementary School No. 111 on June 24, 1939, just before the start of the school holidays. Notice the message “It won’t be long now” written on the blackboard.
The school, located in Baltimore, Md., was built in 1889 for African-American children and is one of few schools in the country that was specifically built for black children and featured black teachers. It is named after Francis Ellen Harper, a Baltimore-born African American poet.
Schoolhouses Were Heated With Stoves But Outhouses Were Not
This undated photo shows an empty schoolhouse with a stove in the center. One-room schoolhouses were heated in the winter with either a wood or coal-burning stove. Before the kids arrived at school, the teacher would put fuel in the stove and start a fire to warm up the building.
The teacher also had to pump water into drinking buckets for the students. When the kids left for the day, the teacher was responsible for sweeping and cleaning up the classroom. Meanwhile, kids had to walk outside to use the outhouse, which could be very uncomfortable on cold winter days.
The next daily routine still takes place in classrooms today.
The Pledge Of Allegiance Was A Daily Routine
In this image from 1939, a group of elementary school children recites the Pledge of Allegiance in Los Angeles, California. While some kids left school to work on the farm, others stayed in school longer because employment was hard to find. Subsequently, more students sought an education in schools with limited resources.
In addition, teachers had to cope with some children who were malnourished because their family members were unemployed and struggled to make ends meet. Still, both kids and teachers did the best they could to learn and teach during difficult conditions.
Students Of All Races Strove To Receive An Education
This photo depicts a much more rugged classroom than the one in Maryland. Pictured is a female teacher with a class of children in a school on the Mileston Plantation in Mileston, Mississippi, in November 1939. The Farm Security Administration of the U.S. Department of Agriculture created a resettlement community in the town in hopes of getting rid of poverty.
The goal was to “facilitate upward mobility” for poor sharecroppers and tenants in Mileston. Of about 100 communities nationwide, Mileston was just one of 13 that was made up solely of African-Americans.
Good hygiene was important in the ’30s.
This Oklahoma School Required Daily Teeth & Fingernail Inspections
This undated photo shows a group of students from School 49 in Comanche County, Oklahoma. The older children are inspecting the teeth and fingernails of the younger kids as the teacher writes down the information. This routine was carried out every single day during the school year.
Some farm children would ride horses to grade school and then send them back to the farm after they arrived. After school let out, the kids would walk home, which could be a several-mile journey and take them quite a bit of time.
All Ages Learned Together In One-Room School Houses
Here are students in Wisconsin preparing to do school work in September 1939. Conditions in one-room schoolhouses were sometimes tough to deal with, particularly if it was very hot or cold. It made it difficult for the students to learn and the teachers to give lessons.
It wasn’t uncommon for teenagers to quit school so they could work full time on their family’s farms. In some situations, the teens would leave home in order to find better jobs away from the farm.
Kids Read Dick And Jane Books & Nancy Drew Mysteries
This photo shows children in a schoolroom on the Mileston Plantation in Mississippi in November 1939. Children had many reading options during the 1930s. Many learned their ABCs with the Dick and Jane books, which were first introduced in 1931.
In 1937, Dr. Seuss’ first rhyming book, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was published. Other popular books included the Nancy Drew mysteries, Agatha Christie mysteries, and works by American writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Thornton Wilder, Raymond Chandler, John Dos Passos, Carl Sandburg, Ogden Nash, and Wallace Stevens.
Students Also Learned Arithmetic
This photo shows children in a one-room school house in Grundy County, Iowa, in October 1939. At the blackboard, the teacher gives the only second-grade student an arithmetic lesson while the other pupils read quietly. This was the same year that the Dust Bowl novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck was published.
In 1930, Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature “for his vigorous and graphic art of description and his ability to create, with wit and humor, new types of characters.” His defining work was the novel Babbitt, which satirized the middle-class and society’s pressure toward conformity.
This scary natural phenomenon often sent kids home.
Kids Were Sent Home During Dust Storms & Teachers Worried They’d Get Lost
This photo shows a little boy and little girl painting on an easel in a classroom in West Virginia in 1935. In Oklahoma, Kansas, and northern Texas, it wasn’t uncommon for children to be sent home from school during dust storms (similar to snow days today). Teachers often feared that their students would get lost on the way home.
The dust would get so bad that the sky would turn black in the middle of the day. Sometimes the schools would light lanterns so the students could continue their lessons. There were also times kids stayed at school overnight so they wouldn’t get lost on their way home in a dust storm.
Recess Was Just As Popular 80 Years Ago As It Is Today
This photo shows students playing outside a rural schoolhouse in Wisconsin in September 1939. One is climbing a fence, another is on a swing, two are on a seesaw, and a few others are just hanging out in the sunshine. It’s not unlike a scene you’d see in a schoolyard today.
At the time, one-room school houses were still common in the Great Plains. Kids from several grades all used one room, and the teacher was usually not much older than the students she taught. During the Great Depression, some school districts were unable to pay the teachers.
In One-Room School Houses Students Sat In A Row With Kids In Their Same Grade
This 1930s photo shows five elementary school students lined up in front of a blackboard and reading as their teacher looks on. In one-room schoolhouses, students sat in rows that were arranged by grade. When the teacher taught each class, both the younger and older students also heard the lessons.
Children typically brought their lunches to school in gallon buckets. They were allowed to play in the schoolyard during lunch. As soon as the weather got nice, kids who were strong enough started working in the fields, and some dropped out of school.
Over Time, Improvements Were Made To The US Educational System
This photo shows a group of school children from Arkansas in September 1938. Notice one of the kids isn’t wearing any shoes. While the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the educational system in the United States, things eventually improved. In time, the states allotted more towards school budgets.
Also, smaller schools were combined, and facilities and curriculum were standardized. Teachers pressed for and received higher standards in the field. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) also went to court in the mid-1930s to fight segregation.
Schools Had To Get Creative During The Great Depression
In this image, an African-American woman teaches two young boys to read in a makeshift classroom in a rural part of the south in January 1939. As mentioned previously, educating children during the Great Depression was difficult due to budget cuts. Communities had to find creative ways to keep schools running.
Prior to the 1930s, education was highly valued in the United States. But it became a luxury that not everyone could afford. The Great Depression led to reduced school hours, bigger classes, lower teacher salaries, and many school closings.
Segregated Schools Were Common
This photo from October 22, 1938, shows a class at the Robert Elliott School. Student Vivian Chambers points at the blackboard with teacher Eugene Prettyman looking on. While schools for black and white children were by law to be “separate but equal,” that wasn’t always the case.
Buildings, classroom supplies, and books were often inferior for African-American children. Their schools had less money, and they often received discarded supplies from white schools. Teachers had less training and lower salaries. Also, not many black schools had high school programs.
Native American students didn’t have it easy.
Cherokee Students Were Often Forced To Speak English
This photo from Oct. 28, 1931, shows a class at Dudgeon School in Madison, Wisconsin, studying a unit about Native Americans. Notice the teepee in front of the class. In the 1930s, minority groups such as Native Americans were also segregated. Cherokee children often went to missionary schools that forced them to speak English instead of their native language.
It wasn’t uncommon for teachers to steer their pupils away from traditional Native American beliefs. Many Cherokee families were upset by this practice, which resulted in New Deal legislation that permitted alternative programs to keep native heritage intact.
Kids With Disabilities Were Also Segregated
This photo shows six kindergartners wearing aprons in front of a classroom grocery display at Lapham School in Madison, Wisconsin, on Oct. 29, 1930. Most American children, regardless of their ethnicity, had an opportunity to go to school in the 1930s. However, it was not so easy for kids who had disabilities.
Children with visual, hearing or physical disabilities were segregated similarly to African-American students. However, many were forced to attend boarding schools away from home to get an education. Those with mental disabilities had very few options and often didn’t go to school.
Girls Wore Dresses & Boys Sometimes Wore Overalls
This photo from May 1939 shows a sixth and seventh-grade schoolroom in Flint River Farms, Montezuma, Georgia. Student Selma Hutton is at the blackboard while teacher, Miss Jessie West Greene looks on. During the ’30s, all the girls wore dresses, while the boys often wore overalls.
Books were not provided to the students. The parents had to buy them, and if they couldn’t afford them it wasn’t uncommon for the children to drop out of school. Many schools had team sports and physical education classes. Teachers were in charge of handling disciplinary problems.
Kids were often limited due to where they lived.
Many Rural Communities Did Not Have High Schools
This undated photo shows a group of students reading notes on scraps of paper. During the Great Depression, children knew that money was scarce. Some couldn’t go to school because they had to work to support the family or because they lived in a rural area that didn’t have a high school.
Kids didn’t have access to school buses, and many families did not have cars. Children could walk to school if they lived close enough to one. Schools did not have lunch programs, so kids had to bring their own.
Businesses Stopped Investing In Education
This undated photo shows a group of children sitting at their desks, listening to their teacher. In 1930, the National Economic League listed education as the fourth most important priority in the United States. By 1932, it dropped to number 32 due to the Great Depression.
In the ’20s, businesses invested in public schools by loaning and donating money for new buildings and books. School construction was considered a good business opportunity. Plus, schools trained future clerks, typists and bookkeepers. That all stopped when the Great Depression hit.
Public Schools Didn’t Adequately Prepare Kids For College
This photo shows a group of women who went back to school to get an education. While many Americans went to elementary and middle school, less went to high school and even fewer attended college. In the 1930s, it was theoretically possible for anyone to get a college education.
However, colleges required students had knowledge of Latin or Greek for admission. They also needed to pass algebra tests. Unfortunately, few public schools taught these subjects. As a result, only students who attended private schools had an opportunity to go to college.