*** schools: United States American schools

American Schools

American schools
Figure 1.--This looks like a scene in an affluent American family sensing the children off to school in the morning, probably about 1905. The boy wears a sailor cap, reefer jacket, and a sailor tunic. We are not sure who the artist is.

American school children, with some exceptions, have not worn school uniforms. America's parochial school children have worn uniforms--although I'm not sure when uniforms were introduced. Private school children--especially America's elite private schools modeled on British preparatory and public schools--also had uniforms. Quite a substantial number of children were involved in the parochial schools, but the number of private school children until recently has been much more limited. American public (state) school children have not worn uniforms, although quite a number of public schools have begun to study the issue. Many in the 1990s have begun instituting non-compulsory uniform policies.


Most American boys did not wear uniforms to school. There were some exceptions. The parochial schools has simple uniforms. Many private schools had uniforms. The m\vasr\t majority of American children, however, went to schools with out any uniforms. The clothes worn to school were thus a reflection of popular styles of the day. There were dress codes in many schools. As a result, some popular stykles were not worn to school. Few high schools, for example, let children wear jeans to high school in the 1960s. Uniform were generally consdered elitist and discouraging individuality. These ideas began to change in the 1980s as some elementary schools began experimenting with voluntary uniforms.


Laws have played an important role in building the American education system. This has included both Federal and state legislation. Early American education in colonial was primarily private or religious and pursued without a legal framework. The ephasis on education primarily occurred in the Niortm especiall New England. This reflected tghe Protestnt concern that everyone should read and study the Bible. This was mostly doe at the local level. The first actual legal action affecting education was a decesion of the Massachusetts General Court which required parents and guardians of children to �make certain that their charges could read and understand the principles of religion and the laws of the Commonwealth� (1642). The Southern colonies were less concerned with education, reflecting in part the dominance of the Anglican Church. The Second Continental Congress passed the Land Ordinance of 1785. This dividided the land into townships. And each townships were divided into 36 sections. This proivided the foundation of public land policy in the Northwest Territory which was establihged by the Northwest Ordinance (1787). These two laws were arguably the most important pieces of legislation in American history. It created the first American Territory and banned slavery there. The two laws accelerating America's westward expansion and provided the system by which settlers obrained possession of family farm plots at low cost. It meant that the foundation of the new northern states would be the family farm. It also designated one section of each land area for a school. This provide both land for the school and land that could be sold to finance the construction of the school. The Federal Constitution fid not deal with education, but a the powers not specifically assigned to the Federal Government fell upon the states. Thus education became a state responsibility (1789). The Federal Government did take actions to provide for the funding of public education. The Northwest Ordinance provided the economic foundation for public edcation in America. The Homestead Act (1862) continued the same system established Northwest ordinance to the area west of the Mississipp River. These laws brought mass schooling and literacy to the the United States giving it a public school system mtched only by a few European countries (Germany and Switzerland). The public school system prioved vital in eduvating Americans. It is fascinating in reading Civil War letters the number of soldiers with only a limited education that understood the issues for which they were fighting. The public school system played arole in the outpouring of innovations an inventions that fed into America's industrial expansion after the Civil War (1861-65). The public school system also played a central role in Americanizing the flood of immigrants which began with the Irish (1840s) and contined from a host of different countries after the Civil War. Thiswas vital in establish social order and the adopting of American values ad cultural norms. School officialswre concerned about the parents, especially immiogrant parents. And the parents, often Catholic, were concerned about te motly Protestant school offiials. The led to the rise of parochial schools. America did not have, however, a national education system. but many diffrent state systems. The legal development of American public education thus proceeded at state level. The Soutghern states and some other states like Kansas created racial seggegrated public schools. The basic issue was compulsory attendance. Slowly these laws were passed an the age level raised. This proceeded slowly in the South where legislators were more concerned with costs and had little desire to educate Black children. While Congress was unable to act, the Supreme Court struck down public school segregation.


Early American schools basically replicated schools in England. They were mostly established by church congregations and not the civil authorities, although often there was nodiiferenuation between the two. Early schools focused strongly on the Bible which is understanable as the principal reason for schooling at the time was literacy so that people could read the Bible. Protesrantism put much more emphasis on the Bible than Catholcism. Early schools did not have curriculum. It was basically up to the teacher how to teach reading. And there were few books available to anyone. If a family had a book in the home, it was the Bible. Few families had much more in the way of books. Almost all universities in colonial America had religious foundation. America was a leader in public education and a major shift with the Regulation was from religious foundation to civil foundation. The basis for this would be Northwest Ordinance which provided funding for public education as the frontier moved West (1787). Schools as they developed focused on the Three Rs (reading, Wrighting, and arithmatic). In reality there as the four Rs as religion was a powerful part of early education. There were no text books until the 19th century. The only exceptiomn we know of was the Dilwoirth Spelling book, just before the turn of the 19th century (1796). Early text books were heavy on spelling and religion. In the process of teaching reading and spelling, early text books contained numerous scriptures verses along with God, Jesus, sin, and salvation. For some there was no state imposed curriculum. Th greatest influence stanbdardizing to an extent was the McCuffy Readers, the first two volumes appearing (1835-36). Only gradually did schools begin to adopt curiculum guidelines for techers. The McGuffy readers were reissud (1879). The new versions, without McGuffy who died in 1873 were designed to meet the needs of national unity after the Civil War and with immigrants beginning to arrive in greater numbers. The Reders were seculrized and were fovused on the idea of an American melting pot for the Europe's oppressed masses. The Calvinist values of salvation, righteousness, and piety so prominent in McGuffy's origina version were excluded from the news revised version. What remainess was middle-class civil religion, morality, and values. Only McGuffey's name was retained because of the reverence for the original versions. By this time you begin to see a wide variety of school books meeting the needs of curuculam establishged by state and local school boards. State and local school boards select curriculum guides and textbooks that reflect a state's learning standards and benchmarks for a given grade level. Curricula in the United States can vary widely from district to district. Educators wanted distinct grade levels and less religious content. We also begin to see consumable workbooks. Early schools were basically academic. Gradually this began to change in America American primary education tends to focus on basic academic learning and socialization skills, introducing children to the broad range of knowledge, skill and behavioral adjustment they need to succeed in life. Secondary schools teach basic arithmetic and beginning with algebra advancd mathemaths. English proficiency is a focus although grammar has been deemphasized in recent years. The curriculum now includes social studies, science, physical development, and the fine arts. Many of these subjects are electives. American stydents generally have mire choics than Eyropean children. A major chang in America has been the decline of both physical educatinn and even more ugnificantly shop classes. All students ionce took at least on year of hop. This is no longer the caseas more student are being chanelled intio liberal arts programs and vocational education declines. And as public scgools developed in Europe, they remained highly academic and even today remain more academiclly focused than American schools.

School Types

America has a very decentaralized school system. As a result there atre many different types of schools. American state schools are called public schools. There is no national system or required national standards. Eaxch state has its own separate school system. The national or Federal Government does maintain some schools, schools on Indian reservations and military bases, both in America and overseas. There is also a wide variety of private schools of many different characters. The largest private system is the parochial or catholic system. There are many other private schools. Some of the most prestigious are based on the English system. There are also many military schools. In recent years, Christiannacademies have become increasingly important.


American boys wore a variety of outfits to school which were affected by their age. As most schools did not have uniforms, this was essentially the same as the children's ordinary clothes. This varied simewhat as children in the cities tended to dress up for school until after the 1920s-30s. Dress tended to be somewaht different in elementary (primary) and secondary schools. And there were substantial changes over time concerning dress conventions. Schools tended to allow the parents determine how to dress the children, although socail conventions were imporant in the 19th and early-20 century. Although uniforms were not common, many schools in the 20th century adopted dress codes. We begin to see the younger children dessing informally while boys in high schools continued to wear suits (1930). Gradually clothing became more casual in high schools as well (1950s). Boys mostly wire long pants to school in the 19th century. This began to change in the late-19th century as knee pants became more common. At the turn-of-the 20th century we even see boys in highschools wearing knee pants. Knickers became standard (1910s). Gradually teenagers even younger teens wearing ling pants. Knickers were still common in elmentary schools through the 1930s. Younger boys might wear short oants. Long pants became standard throughout the schools (1950s). We begin to see boys in lementary schools beginning to wear short pants again (1970s). This varied regionally. We see more uiforms at the same time, in both parochial and inner city elementary schools. Long baggy shorts appear in high school (1990s). Following school trends is helpful in identufying fashion trends as we have class portraits, manning a close age group, showing a ange of fashoon which can often be dated.


American boys have worn a wide range of garments to schools. These garments have varied over time and there have also been regional differenes. The type of school was also of some importance. American boys for the most part did not wear uniforms. There are a few exceoptions such as military and preparatory schools and a few private schools. American boys simply wore their regular clothes, often somewhat more formal than play clothes. This however changed over time. We see garments like sailor suits and kneepants suits in the early 20th century. Many boys wore corduroy knickers to school. Most boys wore long pants to school in the 1950s, but shorts were also worn by some areas. This varied regionally and chronolgically. Primary boys by the mis 20th century were wearing more casual clothes such as "T"-shirts and jeans. To our knowledge American boys diud not wear smocks, but they were worn at some schools for art classes. Cold weather garments were important during the Winter, especially in the northern states. Most boys had raincoats for inclemet weather.


We have not yet developed much information on girls' schoolwear in America. Unlike Europe, American schools were coeducational at both the primary and secondary level. We have an extensive American school section, but it does not focus on the girls. Because of the coeducational approach, America became a leader in girls' education. We begin to see girls outnumbering boys in secondary schools years while boys dominated secondary education in Europe. There were no quotas. Te girls who showed up could attend. We have a vast archive of American school images so unlike many countries, we have a lot of material to work with. We see school images from an eraly point in Americ, especially beginning with the 1870s. The school portrait was a well established tradition by the 1890s. Girls always wore dreses to school, often with pinafores into the 20th century. We have an American girls gym page. Girls continued to wear dresses during the first half of the 20th century. Some images how a few giels wearing overalls or other pants, but it was rare. The first major shift was wearing jeans. Secondary schools had resisted jeans for boys in the 1950s. This did not begin to chamge to any extent until the 1960s and especially the 70s when we begin to see girls wearing pants in addition to dresses. The primary schools seem to have left it up to the parents. The secondarry chools resisted jeans in the 1960s, but had henrrally given up on fashion policing by the 70s.

Activities and Events

We note a wide range of activities and events at American school. Many are similar to other schools around the world. Other activities are quite destinctive to the United States. American children until recently for the most part did not wear school uniforms. Images of children goung and coming to school and in classes for the most part reflect popular styles and fashion conventions of the era. There were, however, some destinctive clothing for certain activities, especially gym in secondary schools.

Current Trends

Many American public schools are now reevaluating their dress codes and uniform policies. President Clinton even raised the subject in his 1998 State of the Union Address. It has engendered a heated debate in the United States. Many are firmly opposed thinking it would lead to regimentation and stifle creativity. Others are concerned about conflicts and attacks over clothes as wellmas the distraction of children competinhg over dress. America has no national education system, bur rather 50 (one for each state) whuch are brokeb down into many separate school districts where the actual decisions on uniforms will be made. Many inner city schools have alreay decided on uniforms. The styles being selected are similar to those worn at Catholic schools.


In some schools, children of a certain age-cohort (say, 4th graders) go to a "pioneer school" for a week or so, in order to "see what it was like for kids to go to school back then." I personally never had the opportunity to go (having moved to the school district as a 5th grader), but in Rochester, Michigan, students of the public schools were sent to the one-room schoolhouse at Van Hoosen Farm (previously of Bertha Van Hoosen Jones and family), where they spent a week in mock 19th-century clothing (bonnets and pinafores for girls, straw hats and suspenders for the boys.

Foreign Experiences

There are a variety of foreign experiences involved with American schools. The most significant was the experiences of immigrant children. The United states is a nation of immigrants. Often parents of new immigrants would send their children to school in the clothes the boys wore to their schools in the countries they had immigrated from--usually European countries. Usually the boy quickly convinced their parents to buy more approprite clothes, but some parents did not like American clothing styles and insisted on the European styles. Some information is available on these experiences. Other American children have been involved with foreign exchanges are lived abrod as part of their families overseas postings.

American schoolwear
Figure 2.--American boys did not wear school uniforms, but they were sent to school in much more formal clothes than is common today. This little boy wears a large formal white collar, presumably being dressed in his best suit to have his photograph taken. This probably was not how he was normally dressed for school.

Individual Schools

A good idea of fashion trends in America, as children at public schools did not wear uniforms, can be assessed by looking at what the children were wearing to school. One section in HBC-SU where you can do this is by looking at individual schools. Unfortunately many of the available images are not identified or are not dated, despite this, the images are very valuable views of children's fashion trends. But there are so many school images that we have been to find identified schools and either images that atr dated or we have been able to date. Here we will archive information about schools by school name, chronology and school types. Thisection is very useful in following dashion trends, especially as buying new schools clothes with up-to-date styles becamne an annual ritual for American children. We encourage readers to comment on the styles they recognize from their schooldays.

Educational Leaders

One of the great minds behind American education is John Dewey. Perhaps his most famous book is Schools of Tomorrow (1915) written with his wife Evelyn Dewey. It was still being reprinted in the 1960s. A French reader writes, " When I was in Chicago, I visited the Francis Parker School. All my life in education was devoted to integrating Dewey's pragmatism with Freinet's active learning and Piaget's constructivism." Other important leaders include Horave Mann and P.P. Claxton.

Academic Standards

The central questiion about schools should be academic standards. Unfortunately this is not always the case. Some superintendents see their role as keeping kids off the streets and out of trouble. Some politicans see the teachers as an imporant source of support and thus are often more concerned about teacher salaries than academic achievement. As a result, the education system which was once one of the crownuing jewels of american democracy is today failing many students with a disgracefulm number leaving school with scandrously low reading and math skills. Thuis is alson a civil rights issue as we are often talking about minority children. Yt civil rights grouos rarely raise this prefering to takk about largely imasgined or inconsequential issues like voter supression or profiling. Internatioanl assessments show that American children rank at mediocre level of student achievement. Hewe want to review both what students were learning over time as well as some of the coarative achievement levels. One factor to consider is just who is being taught. A school system which does not reach the entire population may report better achievement rates than a country that attemps to educate everyone. This is not a question of education the most capable, but rather children whose parents are willing to devote the time and energy to make sure the children apply themselves and get the help they need. Japan is Notably the Catholic scholls in America, including those in low-income areas, achieve better results than he opublic schools with fewer resources. a good example of a school system that educates everyone to a high standard. That said, the Japanese system does seem to fail at promoting creative thinking. Here the American schools seem more effective.

School Buildings

Americans refer to the "little red school house". Typically illustrators will color schools red. Here we are talking about wood buildings. There are also many red brick schools. A reader writes, "As a teacher, I noted your remark about the little "red schoolhouse"! Seems like my old schools were all made of brick, come to think of it. I did come across one reference to red schoolhouses years ago in a book entitled, "The Good Old Days: They Were Terrible!" (1974), by Otto Bettmann. Mr. Bettmann was curator of the archives, a treasury of lithographs and photos, which bears his family name. Early schoolhouses, of the one room sort perhaps, tended to be red because red ochre paint was the cheapest available. This statement speaks volumes about state officials' attitudes, then and now, towards school houses!! In Texas some teachers have joked(??) that our governor and legislators' proposed school budget may reflect some unfortunate memories of their days in public schools." I think our reader is correct about the use of red ochre paint. This after all is why barns were always painted red. The only problem here is that in our archive of old schools, the wooden ones we have found are almost always painted white. This may be because our archive of photographs dates mostly from the 1890s. Perhaps these red schools were more common earlier in the 19th century.

Celebrations and Special Events

There are a variety of celebrations and special days associated with American schools. This begins with the first day of school. This is especially important for the younger children beginning with 1st grade. As the children get older we see less and less attention bring given to first day. School picture day is an imortant event and can happen anytime during the school year. There are a range of special social events like proms, especially in America. Primary schools hold parties for sopecial days like Hallpween and Christmas. We also see school trips toward the end of the school year, mostly at the secondary level. There are are award ceremonies ar the end of the school year, although this varies a great deal. Then of course there is graduation. In the 19th century and early-20th century this meant primary school or the 8th grade. For the rest of the 20th century, it became high school or 12th grade. American schools make a great deal aboutb of graduation, nuch more than other counties.

Individual Experiences

Many personal experiences archived on the main U.S. country page include school expeiences. We will archive personal accounts here that touch specifically on schoolwear. For the most part American personal experiences will not touch on uniforms as so few American boys have worn school uniforms.

Careful, clicking on these will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site, but several are highly recommended

  • Apertures Press New Zealand e-Books: Appertures Press has published three different EBooks about New Zealnd schools.
  • British Preparatory Schools: A photographic book depicting life at British preparatory schools during the 1980s. Most of the schools are English or Scottish, but schools in Italy, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ulster are also included. The pictures show the uniforms worn at many different schools.
  • British Prep School eBooks: Apperture Press has published six eBooks about different vaspects of British public schools. Volume I is a general assessnent. The other volumes deal with more specific aspects of the schools ahd school life.


    Related Chronolgy Pages in the Boys' Historical Web Site
    [Main Chronology Page]
    [The 1900s] [The 1910s] [The 1920s] [The 1930s] [The 1940s] [The 1950s] [The 1960s] [The 1970s] [The 1980s] [The 1990s] [The 2000s]

    Navigate the Relate Boys Historical Clothing Style Pages
    [Main country page]
    [Long pants suits] [Short pants suits] [Lederhosen] [Knee socks] [Eton suits]
    [Jacket and trousers] [Blazer [School sandals]

    Navigate the HBC School Country Pages
    [Main National School Page]
    [Main School Uniform Page]
    [Australia] [England] [France] [Germany]
    [Ireland] [Italy] [Japan] [New Zealand] [Poland] [Singapore] [Scotland]
    [Singapore] [United States]

    Navigate the HBC School Section
    [About Us]
    [Activities] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Debate] [Economics] [Garment] [Gender] [Hair] [History] [Home trends] [Literary characters]
    [School types] [Significance] [Transport and travel [Uniform regulations] [Year level] [Other topics]
    [Images] [Links] [Registration] [Search] [Tools]
    [Return to the Historic Boys' School Home]

    Created: June 5, 1999
    Last updated: 8:07 AM 3/12/2023