Wednesday, October 28, 2009


The Good Samaritan by Rembrant van Rijn, 1644

There seems to be a new view going around that neighbors--that is, those who live within close proximity to one's house--should be left alone: You leave them alone, and they leave you alone. This idea empties the word "neighbor" of all of its meaning in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Both the Old and the New Testament call upon us to "love thy neighbor" and indeed, when a young man asks Christ "Who is my neighbor?" as related in Luke 10:30-37, Christ replies, "A certain man went down from Jericho" and tells the parable of the Good Samaritan. Then he poses the question to the young man, "Now which of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among thieves?"

Time and again in reading all kinds of books about women and their everyday lives, often in the past, I am struck by the stories of "neighborliness" of people. Here is such a story told by Laura Ingalls Wilder in the column she wrote for a local newspaper in March 1922:

I often thought that we are a little old-fashioned here in the Ozark hills; now I know we are, because we had a "working" in our neighborhood this winter. That is a blessed, old-fashioned way of helping out a neighbor.

...This neighbor, badly crippled with rheumatism, was not able to get up his winter's wood. With what little wood he could manage to chop, the family scarcely kept comfortable.

So the men of the neighborhood gathered together one morning and dropped in on him. With cross-cut saws and axes, they took possession of the wood lot... By night, there was enough wood ready for the stove to last the rest of the winter.

The women did their part, too. All morning they kept arriving with well-filled baskets, and at noon a long table was filled with a country neighborhood dinner [note that dinner is at mid-day]. ... Then when the dishes were washed, they sewed, knit, crocheted, and talked for the rest of the afternoon.... We all went home with the feeling expressed by a newcomer when he said, "Don't you know I'm proud to live in a neighborhood like this where they turn out and help one another when it is needed."

"Sweet are the uses of adversity" when it shows us the kindness in our neighbors' hearts.

I am thinking that this winter will be a cold one for many -- not a time for the new idea of neighbors to shove out the old.

Samaritan Bringing the Man to the Inn by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1649

Sunday, October 25, 2009

School Time -- Teachers of the Past 3

School Time, Winslow Homer, 1874

I love this painting, which shows how much these girls love their teacher. I feel unfortunate not to have had a young teacher in elementary school that I could idolize. But there were certainly young women, older than myself, that I looked up to with adoration. The children gathered around the teacher in Homer's painting look as if they can hardly wait for her to show up; her head is bent as she listens to their chattering. Perhaps they are pleading for a privilege or an outing or maybe they are regaling her about an exciting happening at their home or farm.

The teacher's role was not only to convey knowledge. The building of a school and the collection of funds among families to bring a teacher signified a commitment to a permanent stay on the frontier, a commitment to bring culture west. For the teacher, this was a great responsibility, and not in abstract, but in helping her children every day. As prairie teacher Anna Johnson described it, as quoted in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies by Mary Hurlbut Cordier:
I not only taught, but was also an administrator, mother, doctor, nurse, judge and jury, arist, cook, librarian, custodian, or janitor, carpenter or fixer, advisor, psychologist, disciplinarian, and humanitarian. I might say that I was a "jack of all trades and a master of none." In this rural community I was very close to the children and all of the parents and many others in the area. Their problems often became my problems, which sometimes made my task even harder.

Their role in extending culture westward was well understood throughout the 19th century. As early as the 1840s, the National Board of Popular Education recruited 600 teachers from the northeast to be trained and then sent on their way to teach frontier communities across the country, as far as Oregon.

Teachers, especially women teachers, tended to be leaders in their community, not only the pillar of the local school but also of the church. Their commitment and spirit of charity were exemplary, as shown in the compassionate downward turn of the head of the teacher in Homer's painting.

We see this in the writings of the young teacher, Miss Bessie Tucker, whose diaries are featured in Schoolwomen of the Plains and Prairies:
It seems a bit presumptuous to hope and pray that one's life might better a community in any way, but don't think me conceited, little book [diary], when I say that one of my greatest desires and constant prayers is that some word or act of mine may brighten some life, may help someone in a spiritual way and may leave happy memories of the nine months [school term] I have spent in their midst.

And after her first year of teaching as she prepared to move to a new school, Miss Tucker wrote:
a little white school house with the beautiful bell .... little parsonage which I called home for six months ... I shall take the memories of the lives of many people whom I have met and and who have made me feel one of them.... how I would like to leave something behind me. A memory of a life that might be helpful to someone. I am realizing more and more, little book, the non-importance of things that seem to take up so much of our time. Only as they may be a help to others are they important and I am learning to make that one of the guiding rules of my life.

The Red Schoolhouse -- Teachers of the Past 2

Red Schoolhouse by Winslow Homer, 1873

Before the second half of the 19th century, most teachers in the one-room schoolhouses were men. But in the 1850s, women began to become involved in teaching, and then women teachers in the schoolhouses became the norm. The reasons were that in a period in which there could not have been a surfeit of men, given the casualties of the Civil War, there was a surge in population growth. As Nancy Hoffman reports in Woman's True Profession: Voices from the History of Teaching, "The population of [Catherine] Beecher's Connecticut increased 31% in the ten years between 1840 and 1850, then an astonishing 42% between 1850 and 1860." Between 1870 and 1900, the number of teachers in the country tripled. The ratio of teachers to total number of school-age children decreased nationally during this same time period from 1 to 37 in 1870 to 1 to 32 in 1895, according to Mary Hurlbut Cordier in Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains.

Out west, the population continued to grow and families got together to build a schoolhouse and finance a teacher for their young. By this time, the teaching of children up through high school was considered a part of women's realm. Teaching offered women the same flexibility it does today: You could teach in your younger years before marriage and also teach even if you were married, although Horace Mann, the crusader for state-run public schools, argued that women teachers should not marry. It was a job that it was easy to leave and then come back to.

Teaching also offered a woman a path for more education, education being something that children had to fight for, since an educational infrastructure was lacking and child labor was often needed at the family homestead. A teacher brought in some income but was also then able to go to "normal schools," where in the summer they could learn new subjects or deepen their knowledge. In the beginning, teachers only had to know one grade above ones in their school--generally teachers had an eighth grade level of education. They then worked to augment their education with summer courses in the teachers' institutes, attempts at self-instruction and correspondence courses, and for some, attendance at the normal schools, the forerunner of the public high school.

Some teachers, reports Cordier joined teachers' reading circles to read books with other teachers and eventually examinations for certification. A reading circle book list in Nebraska in 1902 was as follows:

Hedge's Nature Study and Life
White's Art of Teaching
Murphy's Turning Points in Teaching
Sherman's What is Shakespeare?
Shaw's School Hygiene

As teacher education improved, its purpose of education also shifted. Earlier, as we see with Abe Lincoln's education, for instance, in the log schoolhouse, the emphasis was on drilling ideas,concepts, poetry, and text into the head of the student. Later, according to Cordier, "In place of the demand that the teacher should know only the three R's, there has grown up the more rational one that he should know the three M's--Matter, Method, and Mind."

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Blackboard -- Teachers of the Past 1

Blackboard by Winslow Homer, 1877

This is the other picture my friend wanted me to write about it. I have never found anyone who didn't love this painting.

According to the National Gallery of Art, where this watercolor resides, scholars were long perplexed about the shapes on the blackboard, whose corner holds Homer's signature in "chalk." Art historians have since discovered that the shapes signify that the young woman is teaching "drawing," which was considered a necessity for children, since it enabled industrial design and construction of buildings and presumbably also furniture.

The composition echoes the shapes on the blackboard in the angularity of the teacher's apron and the checks of the gingham, the stacked rectangles of the background, the symmetrical placement of the blackboard and teacher, and the slate monochrome of the entire painting. The one contrast is the teacher's fresh and very young face. In fact, so young does her expression seem that if she were not holding the pointer, we would think she was a student.

In Schoolwomen of the Prairies and Plains by Mary Hurlbut Cordier, I have found documented confirmation of the reality of Homer's painting and feel as though I have found this teacher herself. Cordier tells us of one E. Mary Lacy of Iowa:
At age fourteen, E. Mary Lacy attended a four-week teachers' institute in Emmetsburg, Iowa: "New subjects were being introduced, one of which was drawing. It was here that I received my first lessons and though I never became proficient, it was encouraging to know that I had a certain amount of ability." The following spring, 1877, when she was just past fifteen, she started teaching school eight miles from home.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Call to Family Dinner

The Dinner Horn by Winslow Homer, 1870.

A very kind friend gave me a postcard portfolio of paintings by Winslow Homer with a request for discussion of this painting and one other on my blog, and so...

Here we see in The Dinner Horn a young woman calling to her father, brothers, husband, or sons to the family dinner table. In rural America in the 19th century, dinner was the largest meal of the day and usually featured meat, but it was eaten in the middle of the day, between 1 and 2 p.m. That's why there is no hint of dusk in the painting but only full sun. The sound of the horn is most welcome to her men folk, since it means that it is time to lay aside the plough, the scythe, or the hoe and come to back to the house for a good full meal, before trekking out again to the fields to finish the day's work at sundown.

The Veteran in a New Field, 1865.

But there is more to this story, I think. The Dinner Horn, painted in 1870, could be a partner to The Veteran in a New Field, painted in 1865. Here in the field is the veteran, his back turned to us, his identity undetermined--he is the unknown soldier. He wields the scythe to bring in his harvest of wheat. The grim reaper is transformed by the war's end into the Cincinnatus back in his fields, reaping his own harvest of hard-earned wheat, the soldier turned farmer, the killer turned man of peace, the sword turn to ploughshares.

The erect posture of the lady in The Dinner Horn also recalls the military posture of the reveille bugle blower. This is no lackadaisical toot, but a strong blowing of the horn; with her bearing erect, her left arm on her hip, she issues a no-nonsense summons. A different version of this painting even has a tripod bearing an iron kettle over a fire to the lady's right, as if she were in an Army camp. But she calls her men not to arms but to dinner--to eat of the bounty that they have sown. And by giving her this heroic pose, despite the prosaic message of her blowing, Homer celebrates the call to dinner--the family board of good cooked food, nourishment, refeshment, and conviviality--and the relief that the grim, family-bereft days of war are over.