Curriculum Changes in the Late 1800’s

In the 1880’s, school principals were asked to become Superintendents of their own small districts, largely consisting of small schools located in specific districts.  Catholic Schools were included in this grouping.  The Primary Schools reported to these men, who earned a lofty 1,800.00 per year as compared to the $600.00 earned by the women who were Principals of the smaller schools.  The Director or Principal of the Moody  School had, among other schools, the Pond Street School on High Street.

Some need existed for close scrutiny of the schools.  A new Kindergarten program was instituted in 1892.  That, coupled with the demands of running a school made for difficult coordination of the curriculum.  There was one supervisor for the Kindergarten, and that was the multi-talented Miss Deveraux.  Courses taught in the Kindergarten were listed as those related to Military Instruction and Physical Culture.  Miss Deveraux had her hands full.  She was assisted by various teachers in the Kindergarten program.  She was paid $600.00 per year.  That was the normal female amount if you were a supervisor.

The curriculum was interesting.  So was the pay scale for the high school teachers.  Starting with the latter first, the Principal of the High School received a  $2500.00 salary.  Teachers at the high school level received $800.00.  Keep in mind that the workers in the mills received less than $.25 per hour when they were covered by the FDR Minimum Wage.  This educational system paid well,

Curriculum was always a challenge.  Current curriculum was similiar to the curriculum of the day,  They took English Grammar, History, Physical Activities, Arithmetic, Greek, German, French. and Latin.  They also had books on Astronomy and Physics.  Listed below are the courses taught by the Kindergarten through Eighth Grade.  They included:


Nature Study








These eight courses made up the gist of the curriculum of the 1880’s and 1890’s.  Add Computer, and the curriculum was close to that which we offer today, with the exception of Greek.

For the record, there were in reality six high schools.  They included Lowell High School, the Bartlett, the Butler, the Morey, the Moody, and the Varnum.  Superintendent Hugh J. Molloy had his office at City Hall downtown.  The Business Director was housed in a “school supply room” in City Hall, literally a closet.

The School Committee, consisting of eleven members (all men because women did not have the right to vote) met at 7:30PM once a month.  The forty-seven schools of the 1860’s were dropped down to 12 Grammar Schools, 34 Primary Schools, 20 Kindergarten Programs, and the high schools.  A teacher at this time could be certified with a complete seventh grade education.

As is the case now, there were Specials.  They included, although not in every school,

Drawing, Music, Reading Expression, Sewing, Physical Studies, Penmanship, Elementary English, Dental Clinic with two dentists on staff, and School Hygiene with one Medical Doctor.  The Lowell Vocational School had Boy’s and Girl’s Departments.  Lowell felt that it had to offer a superior curricular experience because it was, after all, the third city established in the State.

By 1930 there were Kindergartens in every school.  St. Joseph’s, which I listed as the largest school in the Catholic Church system, was a College in 1917.

I wrote a note to myself in my Master’s Thesis that we, Lowell, were, between 1832 and 1890, an educational system that was the best in the state, and, if accurate records had been kept, possibly the best in the nation.  I read recently that Massachusetts was going to monitor the MCAS test for the new program in History.  I took a history test as a History teacher.  It was a test designed for the Eighth grade.  I did not score perfectly on it, and I can attest to the fact that it was a  hard test.

At another time, I will write about the schools built in the last century which could last another one hundred years.  Some have been torn down, some exist currently, and some are still in use.  The Moody School was built at a cost of less than fifty thousand dollars.  Interestingly, its strange angle on its site was the result of careful architectural planning.  It sits on a hill, which looked down at the famous Concord River.  It exists on an extremely strong foundation and during the Cold War parts of it were supposed to be able to resist a nuclear blast.  There is cost-saving construction on the third floor, which was designed for Physical Activity and use as an Auditorium.      The original specificationns called for an all-purpose room on the third floor.

It was designed as a large study hall.  One teacher could watch hundreds of students studying in the study hall.  Since the seventh and eighth grade students could be teachers themselves, they were expected to behave, and they did.  Coburn Hall in the 1893 Lowell High School, was designed partially for the same purpose, except it could hold, according to the architect, up to 2,000 students with one regulatory teacher.  It had myriad uses, and was made into offices by my father, Dr. Wayne R. Peters in the 1970’s.

The Moody School’s peculiar angle was the result of there not being electricity in the building.  The huge windows provided light, and the angle meant that the students could work well into the afternoon.  There was a “method to their madness,” as Shakespeare wrote.

Teachers jeopardized the directives of the Superintendent.  They moved the desks around for optimum class control.  When the Superintendent had the desks screwed into the floor, teachers took screwdrivers and moved the desks back for, again, optimum classroom control.

That is my article for today.  We are closing in on the nineteen hundreds.  People were excited about what they were doing, and no one, in 1900, could envision airplanes, or World Wars, or even workable replacements for horses called cars.  We will talk more about that later.  Have a good week.