On This Day: Peace Day in California Schools, 18 May 1915

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Though the Homestead has been commemorating the centennial of the First World War, the anniversary has been largely overlooked as the war has been throughout much of the last century. We had a series of lectures and exhibits on the conflict last year and will be having another exhibit later this year closer to Armistice Day, which was 11 November 1918 and that date is now known as Veterans Day.


Meanwhile, I’ve been reading Margaret McMillan’s excellent book Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, which chronicles in great detail the peace treaty at Paris that followed the cessation of hostilities.  McMillan, a descendant of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was one of the three dominant personalities, along with French Premier Georges Clemenceau and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, wrote an excellent summary of the process that Wilson thought would lead to a League of Nations that would effectively preempt future world wars.  The result was the formation of the body, but without the participation of the United States, and it was a shell of what was envisioned by Wilson, whose strokes left him largely incapacitated for the rest of his term, which ended in 1921.


Today’s entry highlights a particularly interesting artifact from the Homestead’s collection, in the form of a pamphlet issued by the California Department of Education and titled “Peace Day in California Schools.”  Edward Hyatt, the superintendent of public instruction, declared 18 May 1915 as “School Peace Day” for all of the state’s public schools and the circular was sent to all of them as part of the commemoration.  That date had, for a decade, been largely observed by American schools as “Peace Day.”

Hyatt’s statement includes a remarkable introduction:

This is a particularly fitting time to emphasize and celebrate the idea of Peace.  Our country is living in the midst of its manifold blessings, surrounded by the barbarities and sufferings that grim visaged War is inflicting upon the rest of the world.  When Europe becomes exhausted with blood letting, it will be the duty and the privilege of our nation to lead in binding up the ragged wounds of war and in helping to restore the balance the war has upset.  To serve that end it is highly desirable for us to preserve our own equilibrium now and to religiously avoid being drawn into the conflict or involved in its fierce heat in any way.

Hyatt’s call to all school was to establish, by the end of the present term, a day of peace “for the purpose of intelligently considering, emphasizing, celebrating, the idea of Peace among the nations; for scattering broadcast among the people a desire, a sentiment for Peace as opposed to War.”  18 May was considered the best day, but it was up to schools to determine what worked for their schedules.

The superintendent also reminded his charges that state law required the display of the American flag at every school for “patriotic regard for the national ensign,” but noted that this was not being observed at all locations.  He wrote, “now is the time to overcome inertia, to follow the state law loyally, to take a new start.”


The Peace Society of Riverside, with founders including noted journalist of America’s urban poor, Jacob Riis, prominent Redlands resident Albert K. Smiley, and founding president of Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, provided the means for each campus to receive a silk banner with the flag prominently displayed on it “at a price which barely meets the cost of manufacture.”  The organization arranged for a large flag, smaller ones, a Peace Flag post card, and a certificate of membership in the society to be made available.  The cost to school districts was $10.50 for flags and postage.

The publication also suggested that schools utilize some resources in the document, including the recitation or singing of poems printed in it and makeing use of qoutations from famous literary and political figures.  Teachers were encouraged to employ whatever of the selections that best worked for the classroom with the obvious suggestion of having students memorize and recite or sing examples.   The idea was that these examples would “linger long in the hearts of your children as something worth while.”


Another group, the American School Peace League, founded in Boston and including former president and Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft as president, provided a call for observance, stating

the present world crisis does not change the philosophy of life nor the trend of human progress.  It is indeed a tragic interruption.  When the delirium of war is over, an iron law will compel those now engaged in mutual destruction to seek one another again . . . the spectacle of human suffering and devastation should fire every boy and girl with a permanent revulsion against War, and the thought should be ingrained  that War can be eliminated by the will of the people.

Moreover, the group claimed that Peace Day “should point out the particular bearing of American democracy on the world situation.”

Other contents included Jordan’s description of the ravages of war in Macedonia and the general effects of war on farming; quotes from “famous men,” including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Napoleon (after his final defeat) about the need for peace and the futility of armed conflict.  A particularly notable section was titled “The Waste of War,” which observed:

The expensiveness of war is appalling in its toll of human life and its fearful waste of money and property.  Indeed the cost of war is such that if we once grasp its colossal enormity we should be converted to peace advocates even if pity and reason did not move us.

The statement claimed that some 15 billion lives had been lost in wars throughout human history, ten times the current population of 1.5 billion (consider our current population of 7.6 billion a little more than a century later!)  It went on to state that “another appalling fact is that war causes deterioration, mental , moral and physical” and “absorbed the flower of the race,” presumably the human one.  Because of this, it argued, “the sick, the weak, the deformed have been left at home to propagate the race” and the evidence cited was a claim that the French were an inch shorter in 1915 than in 1815!  Given the power of eugenics at the time, this statement is not surprising for the era, but is a strange one to most of us now.


In another section, “War As It Is Today,” several excerpts from eyewitness accounts by a journalist from Irving Cobb of the Saturday Evening Post of the conflagration in Europe were reprinted.  These often graphic descriptions focus on the human toll of the dead and wounded, as well as ruined farms and destroyed or heavily damaged cities and towns.  A particularly vivid example was the reporter’s observations of what he saw after a battle, especially the wounded, in which he described with numbing detail the horrific injuries suffered.  A series of four cartoons by John T. McCutcheon for the Chicago Tribune showed the transformation of “Fields in Peace” to scenes of carnage and then to rows of white tombstones.

Well-known author Mary Roberts Rinehart contributed an essay about her visit to a Red Cross field hospital in Belgium the prior January, where she saw “the most frightful injuries” amid “a scene of unreality” as well as “the injustice, the wanton waste and cost.”  She concluded by asking, “all these wrecks of boys and men—where are they to go?  What are they to do?”


Yet, though Wilson campaigned vigorously on keeping America out of the war during his 1916 reelection campaign, the result of which returned him for a second term, it was just three months in that he asked Congress to declare war on Germany because of attacks on American ships at sea leading to America’s entry into the conflict.  A massive and quick mobilization of Americans, chaotic and unorganized as it often was, made the difference in turning the tide of war to the allies and leading to the surrender of Germany and its partners in fall 1918.

The failures of the Paris peace conference, with an understanding of the unrealistic expectations and the complicated demands made on many sides, eventually paved much of the way for an even bloodier and destructive conflict in the form of the Second World War.  While the concept of a School Peace Day faded, there is now an International Day of Peace, initiated by the successor to the League of Nations, the United Nations, in 1982 and it is observed on 21 September.


This pamphlet is an interesting artifact about the First World War, the notion of commemorations of peace efforts, and the role of California’s school system in Progressive-era social and political ideas, among others.


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