These Old Photos Show What the First Day of School Looked Like in the Past Century

In the ever-changing world of education, where traditions shift with the passage of time, the first day of school remains a cherished moment.

From the early 1900s to the dawn of the new millennium, each generation has experienced the mix of excitement, nerves, and anticipation that comes with this milestone.

Now, thanks to a fascinating collection of photographs, we have the chance to step back in time and witness how the first day of school unfolded over the course of the last century.
As we look at these old snapshots, a wave of nostalgia sweeps over us, whisking us away to another time.

Imagine the scene: young hearts brimming with a mix of excitement and nervousness, clutching their backpacks tightly, their eyes sparkling with dreams yet to unfold.

These photos act as windows to the past, offering us a peek into the classrooms, hallways, and playgrounds that once teemed with youthful energy and aspirations.

You may notice that many of the kids are holding cones in these pictures. These are called Schultüte, or “school cones.” It’s a lovely tradition in Germany, where children are given decorated cardboard cones filled with goodies on their first day of 1st grade. The tradition dates back to the early 19th century in Saxony and has since spread across the country. The cones are filled with treats and school supplies like pencils and sharpeners, adding an extra touch of excitement to the big day.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the experiences of the first day of school varied significantly between rural and urban areas in the United States.

Exactly! In rural communities, where agriculture was central to life, the school year often revolved around the agricultural cycle. As a result, the start of the school year tended to coincide with the completion of summer harvests. This meant that schools in rural areas often opened later in the year compared to urban schools.

On the other hand, in urban areas, schools typically followed a more standardized academic calendar. Students would typically return to classrooms in late summer or early fall, regardless of agricultural considerations. This standardized schedule allowed for consistency across urban schools and facilitated planning for educators and families alike.

Throughout much of the 20th century, it was indeed common for schools in the United States to start shortly after Labor Day in September. This tradition persists in many areas today.

However, there has been a trend toward earlier start dates in recent years. Many schools now begin in August, and in some cases, even late July. For instance, in the San Diego Unified School District, classes start on the last Monday of August, while the New York City Department of Education typically begins the school year the week after Labor Day.

The timing of the first day of school is influenced by various factors and pressures. Teachers often prefer to have one semester end before the winter holidays in December and start the second semester when classes resume in January. This often necessitates starting the school year in mid-August.

On the other hand, employers who rely on teenagers for summer jobs may prefer for the school year to start in the first or second week of September, after the main tourist season has ended. These conflicting pressures can lead to variations in the timing of the first day of school across different regions and school districts.

Over time, the first day of school has become synonymous with rituals and traditions. Students eagerly anticipate shopping trips for new school supplies, selecting the perfect backpack, and preparing their minds for the challenges ahead.

Back-to-school sales have become annual events, offering families the opportunity to gather everything needed for the new academic year.

A young boy and girl on the way to school for the start of a new term in the 1920s
A girl’s first day of school in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, circa 1921
Japanese children in traditional garb start school in California in 1927
A 5-year-old girl shows off her books after her first day of kindergarten, circa 1929
A mother takes her daughter by the hand as they head to school in the late 1920s or early 1930s
A young Australian boy stares into a classroom already full of students, circa 1930
Children on their way home from school, with book bags strapped on their backs, after the first day of classes in Germany, circa 1930
Parents and their children are seen outside a school in Tokyo in the early 20th century
Students in France greet a photographer at the start of a new term by shaking their schoolbags in 1932
During World War II, Parisian students line up a courtyard on the first day of classes
A little boy in Paris says goodbye to his mother outside a school in September 1945
As their instruction begins in 1948, students at the Lucy D. Anthony school examine a small turtle
In 1948, a young girl shares a moment with her mother outside the Lucy D. Anthony school in Madison, New Jersey
Joyce Payne and Vincent Baker have fun depicting their teacher at a school in New York’s Harlem community on Sep. 13, 1948
Nap-time on the first day in 1949
Wide-eyed children listening to fairy-tales on their first school day in 1949
Children getting to know their new teacher, circa 1950
Students eagerly vie to be called on at a New York school, circa 1950
Teacher Agnes Bolton stands in the schoolhouse door on the first day of classes for her only pupil, Jimmy MacLellan, in Scotland, circa 1950
Five-year-old Howard Crafter has a tough time adjusting at the St. Nicholas County school, circa 1952
Richard Sharp on his first day at the St. Nicholas County Primary School in Loughton, England, circa 1952
Children hard at work on Sept. 15, 1959
Delores York heads off for her first day at a previously all-white school in September 1960 in Arkansas
Two brothers about to start the new school year, circa 1964
Mary Lynch, an assistant principal at a school in Boston’s Roxbury community, leads first graders to a school in the city’s North End on Sept. 6, 1967. Operation Exodus, a voluntary busing program organized by Roxbury parents, transported students from overcrowded schools in predominantly black neighborhoods to schools in predominantly white neighborhoods that had vacant seats
Children walk up a flight of stairs to attend a newly desegregated school in Berkeley, California, 1968
Jim Hard (left) of Framingham, Massachusetts, gets acquainted with Joseph Reis of the Roxbury neighborhood at the Trotter School in Boston on Sept. 3, 1969
Canadian kindergarten teacher Trisha Langley teaching her first lessons on Sept. 7, 1971
Students at the Mary E. Curley School in Boston on Sept. 8, 1975

(Photo credit: / Pinterest / Flickr).

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