by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Among the many ways in which greater Los Angeles transformed during the mid to late 19th century was in the field of education. The first public schools debuted in the Angel City in 1854-1855 and slowly others opened in outlying areas of the county over the course of the next couple of decades. After the ravages of flood, drought and disease in the first half of the Sixties, the region underwent its first boom, albeit a very modest one compared to those that came after, and the influx of population also meant a push for newer and better schools.
Great improvements in education were taking place in America broadly, not just with the instruction given to the students, but the training imparted to teachers. The California State Normal School, a college for teacher education, opened in San Jose in 1862 (a branch was established in Los Angeles two decades later) and this eventually morphed into San Jose State University.
While the quality of classroom teaching and in the preparedness and performance of instructors improved markedly, there was still very much the problem of properly paying educators for their labors. For example, an excerpt from an Illinois newspaper published in the Los Angeles Herald of 21 June 1874 observed that:
School teachers salaries are so low now, that men and women who have sense enough to teach school, only remain in the school room until an opportunity for something better offers. School teaching is a profession, and there are comparatively few who excel in it . . . a good school teacher is invaluable to the community receiving his or her services, and deserves a better salary than is usually paid.
Adding that student and school performance would improve if the pay was better, the piece noted that if teachers were seen as benefactors and not as wards of “public charities,” then there would be no need to talk “about reducing their salaries to the maximum of the farm laborer.”
In its 10 December edition, the Herald quoted from a speech given in St. Louis in which Senator Carl Schurz (a remarkable figure in that he was a teenage revolutionary in his native Germany during the tumult of 1848 and fled, settling quickly in the United States, where he was also Secretary of the Interior in the Rutherford B. Hayes administration) stated that “one of the great obstacles in the way of educational progress . . . was the miserable pay which teachers received,” not just in the U.S. but everywhere else of which Schurz was aware.
Only decent pay could allow for “first-class teachers” and the paper added that the average salary for male teachers was a mere $84 per month and average employment just six months—though why women, who were paid even less, were omitted appears to be because the emphasis in making this statement was that it was further noted that “a man is hardly excusable who attempts to rear a family with such a meagre and uncertain means of support.” Almost all female teachers were unmarried young women who left the profession once they were wedded and, in turn, became housewives and mothers.
It is interesting to observe the statistical report for the city of Los Angeles with regards to the education system when it was presented for the 1873-1874 fiscal year. There were almost 2,500 school-age (that is, aged 5-17) children, but nearly half, about 46%, did not attend school at all during that period. About three-quarters of those in school went to the city public schools and the remainder were presumably mainly in religious, especially Catholic, institutions. Notably, it was stated that there were 11 “Mongolian” children under 17, but how many were being educated was not stipulated and there was no separate reference to Latino and Black children.
The number of children in elementary schools comprised all but three dozen of the total and the distribution by grade was: 1st—62; 2nd—73; 3rd—93; 4th—177; 5th—137; 6th—196; 7th—239; 8th—264. At Los Angeles High School, which just completed its first year of operation, there were the 36 pupils, but a great many of those 8th graders who could have matriculated up to high school would not do so for whatever reasons. There were 15 schools in the city and salary expenditures were $15,057, so, allowing for the likelihood that at least a good many of these school had just one teacher, but some certainly had two, if not more, the pay was clearly quite low.
This provides some context for the featured artifacts from the Homestead’s collection for this post, being the issues of the Herald from 10-14 November 1874 with focus specifically on coverage of the county teachers’ institute, a key way for instructors to meet professionally and socially and commiserate about their profession. For the week of the 9th through the 13th, students were given instruction through mid-day on Monday and then got the rest of the week off, while it was stated that all the schools closed except for the high school, which was “kept in session to receive visitors during the day, though what this meant was not explained.
The first day’s meeting convened at 2 p.m., but the location was not mentioned, and county superintendent of schools George H. Peck formally opened the institute. Peck, for whom a major thoroughfare is named in El Monte in the San Gabriel Valley, was born in Vermont and a graduate of law school at the state university. He practiced in the state capital of Burlington, until his health was so poor that he had to give up his practice and travel to restore his shattered physical condition.
He sailed to Europe, the West Indies and South America before returning to the Granite State and returning to his business until the news of the discovery of gold in California led him to come out west in 1849. He tried mining, but then went into farming, selling vegetables and hay, the law, and serving as a principal at schools in Sacramento and San Francisco. In 1869, he migrated south and settled in a ranch northeast of El Monte, where he farmed and operated a dairy for some two decades. In 1874, he was named superintendent of county schools.
The vice-presidents of the institute were James M. Guinn and William T. Lucky, the former in charge of the schools of Anaheim and the latter being the Los Angeles school superintendent. Guinn, whose last name was Ginn, hailed from Ohio and was a graduate of Oberlin College before he enlisted in the Union Army at the outset of the Civil War and in three years participated in many major battles including Second Bull Run, Antietam and Gettysburg, and endured many privations before being mustered out as a corporal in January 1863 (he was subsequently offered a commission as a captain for a volunteer regiment in Ohio but declined.)
In 1864, Guinn came to California via the isthmus at Panama, which he walked between taking steamships on either side, but then sought his fortune in gold mining in Idaho. After three years of middling success, his health again failed and he went to a sanitarium in New York—during which time he changed the spelling of his name. After treatment, he returned, in 1869, to California, where, that October, he was appointed principal of Anaheim schools, a position he held for a dozen years. He was also on the county board of education and helped set up the first teachers institute in October 1870.
Lucky was born in Kentucky and moved as a teen to nearby southern Illinois not far east of St. Louis. He graduated from McKendrie College and simultaneously was made a professor of mathematics (at age 21; hence his title of doctor), teaching there for a couple of years. He moved to Fayette, Missouri, just a few miles north of Franklin, where William Workman briefly resided in the 1820s, and opened a high school, which then became a campus with male and female colleges. Ordained a Methodist minister, but deciding to continue with education as his vocation, Lucky left Missouri with the outbreak of the Civil War and the resulting disruption of his schools and was hired to run Pacific Methodist College in Vacaville, west of Sacramento.
He was there give years and then to San Francisco where he was principal of Lincoln High School for a year before being hired to run the state normal school, operating that at San Francisco and then San Jose from 1868 to 1873. He was also a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison for two years. In 1873, Lucky came to Los Angeles to become principal of the new high school and superintendent of city schools, so was on the job for a little more than a year or so when the 1874 institute was held.
The first day was limited to the appointment of members to committees on arrangements, entertainments, music and resolutions and, with those tasks accomplished, the session was adjourned to Tuesday with “the real work in hand.” That morning began at 10 a.m. with a prayer conducted by Lucky and the minutes of the previous meeting read, corrected and approved. A resolution was then read that the spouses of teachers, private school instructors, ministers and newspaper editors in the county were designated as honorary members of the Institute.
Peck then delivered an address concerning “the progress and promising condition of the public schools throughout the county” and that “there has been a noted increase of attendance of the Spanish [Latino] element.” Referring to the La Puente School District, which was actually situated south of Peck’s town of El Monte in the Misión Vieja or Old Mission community (now in and around South El Monte) and where the elementary school there was on land donated by F.P.F. Temple, a founding trustee of the district, Peck told the assemblage there were 40 pupils, all but a half dozen being Spanish speakers. The third grade, after four months of instruction, began with the alphabet and was already into the second reading book and he continued,
The school house, but recently an overgrown building, is too small. This favorable revolution has been occasioned by an active teacher, supported and assisted by stirring and intelligent trustees. It is a mistake to suppose that there is any class in this county, that cannot be reached and elevated by the schools.
Peck went on to report that there were more than 1,000 new students in county schools over the past year and “it is believed that our population is growing faster than that of any other agricultural county.” This was because, the superintendent averred, “a large number of the most desirable elements in the various parts of the East are looking to Southern California, and especially to Los Angeles county, with a view to emigration.”
It wasn’t just good land “but the quality of our schools” that lured such migrants and choice property, “a perfect climate” and other aspects were “of inferior value if the moral and intellectual culture of their children is to be neglected.” This was also recognized by local capitalists who were making efforts to reach prospective residents.
Mrs. E.S. Onstott of the San Pedro School presented on using words to teach young students rather than to start with the alphabet and the “word-method” was also cited by Michael Whaling, the “active teacher” cited by Peck at the La Puente School. He added that those 40 mostly Spanish-speaking pupils knew little, if any, English, when the term began but were, as the superintendent stated, were already on the second reader. This led another teacher to call this success “something extraordinary” while adding that his class did not just learn reading, but also studied arithmetic, geography and grammar. A vote among the Institute members found the “word-method” was highly favored.
Whaling, a native of Ireland who lived much of his youth in upstate New York near Syracuse and the Canadian border, came to Los Angeles in 1872 to open a law practice, but must have found the competition challenging as he went into teaching and was at La Puente for at least a couple of years. After some time away from the area, he returned to the Angel City and the practice of the law, but was also a member of the Los Angeles Board of Education, though with some considerable controversy and conflict, and, when he died in 1905, he was said to be alone and penniless.
In the afternoon, Lucky orated on the management or government of schools and called for “friendly relations between teachers and pupils and condemning the artificial, strict form of discipline often employed.” The superintendent opined that “give the pupils plenty to do, arouse their enthusiasm and interest them in their studies and your school will govern itself.” The use of corporal punishment was to be only as a final resort, though he did not want to be part of any school in which it was banned.
The third day’s report was in the form of brief summaries of such aspects as “What is the Object of Teaching?” though the answers were not given in the Herald‘s coverage; spelling instruction; group singing and musical numbers performed; views on how to teach geography, including the estimation of distances between places and understanding topography where students lived; “the employment of numbers instead of names in school work,” which led to some heated and sarcastic disputation among members; and exercises by high school students in elocution.
Given more attention was a multi-part talk on teaching chemistry by “Professor Carr,” this being Ezra S. Carr of the University of California, who went on to be state superintendent of education from 1875-1879 and owner of the Carmelita estate at Pasadena where the Norton Simon Museum is today. The second part was said to include “a number of pleasing experiments and exciting considerable enthusiasm” among attendees.
That night, the Institute gathered at the Congregational Church where Peck gave a brief presentation which included a statement that he was “in favor of a high standard for teachers, and a more complete devotion to the profession by all who enter it.” He also opined that intellectual abilities were incomplete without the inculcation of morals and then noted that there were three ways to use the Christian bible in public schools—for sectarian teaching, as a common textbook, or as a way to instruct morality. Peck offered that the first be dismissed, that the second was of doubtful utility, but that the third “received his warmest support.”
Day four included an essay on progress that was delivered “in a chaste, skillful manner” and which received warm applause though nothing was said about its content. C.C. Cummings argued for an emphasis on public schools and against private ones, with church schools deemed objectionable because “the work could be done better in public institutions.” There was brief mention of a rebuttal, presumably by a private school teacher, but there was no summation of this argument.
Carr returned to continue his remarks and “advocated the practice of teaching children principles from illustration derived from occurrences and objects familiar to them.” His statements were basic, but considered “very suggestive” and “repeated applause . . . attested the interest felt.” By showing experiments related to the lighting of matches and burning of candles, along with showing the effects of the properties of acids and other chemicals, Carr drew such attention that the Herald recommended he be invited to remain in the Angel City to lecture to “advanced classes of our city schools” as “it would be of great value to the pupils.”
Afternoon sessions included discussion of teaching arithmetic, grammar and penmanship, while Dr. Lucky talked eloquently on “Professional Improvement” and on “the dignity of teaching as a profession.” A minister’s address on “American Education” was praised and “received with attentive interest by the large audience.” With this, the program ended and the fifth and final day included a poem called “A Dream of America in 1900,” though it is too bad this wasn’t published because, though it was labeled “somewhat trite,” the fact that the author, S.D. Smith, was said to be “an advocate of woman suffrage” and was suggested to “our strong-minded sisters,” would make the work of some interest.
Presentations were made on using globes to teach geography and Carr’s discussion of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, who recently concluded a six-year term as president of Argentina, and whose efforts to promote education led Carr to refer to Sarmiento as a “schoolmaster President.” There was also an interesting report that, despite an agreement from the previous year’s Institute that teachers would submit items for a weekly column in the Herald on educational matters, there was a lack of compliance.
A series of resolutions were then passed including ones relating to the formation of a committee for the planning of the 1875 Institute; that the Southern District Agricultural Association be contacted concerning a donation to public schools; that a publisher of a geography textbook be requested to send maps in Pacific Coast editions; and that monthly reports be generated for students “in the higher classes” so that they “will excite and continue the interest of parents and bring them nearer to the teachers.” The Institute then adjourned.
A letter from “A Citizen” was published in the 14 November edition of the Herald and said that, with respect to the reports of the proceeding, “we have been both edified, and mortified.” This was because, while the whole of the county’s teachers “are respectable for talent and general deportment, and are progressive,” there was a generation gap. Namely, the older instructors “were most modest and retiring,” but, when it came to religion in schools:
We were mortified, however, to hear some of the young teachers take such a decided stand against the Bible. We do not profess to be over pious in Los Angeles county, but the teachers make a mistake if they suppose we hate the old book. Although we may not be governed by its precepts we love it because our mothers and fathers loved it.
Another few brief notes in the paper included one that there were rumors that well-to-do Angel City bachelors “have surrendered unconditionally to visiting ‘school marms’ despite their fidelity and love to their profession” and that Peck would have to “hunt up some new misses to ‘handle the birch,” this last reference being to using corporal punishment in the classroom.
Still, the Herald briefly summarized the Institute’s proceedings as demonstrating that it “is beyond dispute that the teachers of Los Angeles county, male and female, are as intelligent and devoted to their profession as any that can be found in the State.” Lastly, Carr, who spoke on horticulture at the Congregational Church on the 12t, remained in the Angel City to give a talk the following Tuesday for the public library (established in 1872 by Thomas W. Temple and others) at a place yet to be determined on “Woman’s Prerogative.”
Superintendent Lucky continued his work in Los Angeles for two more school years and, in May 1876, resigned to attend the nation’s centennial exposition at Philadelphia (also attended by another Temple, Thomas’ brother John, who’d just completed his education in Massachusetts.) Though he intimated he might return if he was wanted, Lucky, after going to San Francisco following the events back east, died suddenly in August.
As for Peck, he also ended his tenure as school superintendent in 1876, but continued his farming enterprises at El Monte until the end of the century, when he moved to Los Angeles, where he died a half-dozen years later. Guinn, in 1875, pursued candidacy for state superintendent of instruction, but withdrew in favor of Carr while remaining a Republican Party mainstay in the county. In 1883, he was a founder of the Historical Society of Southern California, which remains active 140 years later, and became widely known for his many writings on regional history, while also a member of the American Historical Association and California Historical Commission
He also served on the Los Angeles Board of Education, including as president, for over ten years in the first decades of the 20th century; was a founder of the Society of Pioneers of Los Angeles County and the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art (now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and the independent Los Angeles County Museum of Art). He died in 1918 and an elementary school named for him is next to Katella High School in Anaheim.