Monthly Archives: May 2014

The evolution of one small town’s Memorial Day observances mirrors the nation

We’re about to celebrate another Memorial Day, wherein we commemorate the nation’s war dead. And, unfortunately, we seem to have more and more war dead to commemorate every year.

Memorial Day got its start as Decoration Day, the name by which my family still called it when I was a child. When we lived on the farm, we’d visit the graves of family members who served. After moving to town, I participated in Oswego’s annual Memorial Day parade–a tradition that continues to this day–after which we’d drive to cemeteries throughout the area to visit and decorate the graves of deceased relatives. In fact, I credit those Memorial Day cemetery visitations and the stories my folks told about the people whose graves we visited as a big part of what got me interested in history in the first place.

1890 abt Decoration Day Parade

Civil War veteran and Grand Army of the Republic member George White leads Oswego’s Decoration Day parade south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery in this undated photo, probably taken about 1890. (Little White School Museum collection)

Decorating the graves of soldiers who died during the Civil War started soon after the conflict ended. Decorating soldiers’ graves actually seems to have started in the South, with one of the first such commemorations being held on May 1, 1866 in Charleston, S.C.. The impromptu event was organized by the city’s black veterans to honor white Union soldiers who died in a local prisoner-of-war camp.

Another, more organized decoration event was organized in Columbus, Ga. that same year, this one by the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of Confederate veterans.

Then former Gen. John A. Logan, head of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, issued a proclamation on May 5, 1866 calling for an annual Decoration Day to honor the war’s dead. The first one was set for May 30, 1866. Reportedly, Logan chose the date because it was not the date of any of the war’s battles and was late enough in the spring that plenty of flowers would be blooming.

Here in Oswego and the rest of Kendall County, Decoration Day was organized by the members of the Women’s Relief Corps, the homefront organization that had provided so much support for local soldiers serving so far away from home.

The first local mention of decorating soldiers’ graves I’ve been able to track down was in the June 2, 1870 Kendall County Record’s “Oswego” column by correspondent Lorenzo Rank:

“The decoration of the soldiers’ graves yesterday was of a private nature.”

It’s possible decoration of Civil War soldiers’ graves may have begun earlier, but there’s really no record of it. From 1870 on, however, decoration of the graves seems to have become a regular commemoration by the community’s women and young girls. On June 7, 1877, Rank reported that:

“The demonstration on here on Decoration day was not of a general character, yet enough ladies had come together to perform the sacred work and observe the day.”

The next year, Rank explained a little more fully:

“The decoration ceremonies Thursday were of a private nature. A number of ladies met and went to the cemetery with plenty of flowers to copiously decorate all the soldiers’ graves. The speeches made were short but many of them; all spoke that were there.”

So the earliest ceremonies were small, private gatherings, organized to quietly commemorate the service of and to mourn those who gave their lives during the war and after. Here in Kendall County, more than 230 soldiers died during the Civil War. If the same percentage were to die in war today, it would equal more than 2,000 Kendall County residents. As a result, there were few families in the county who were not affected.

But gradually, the emphasis changed, as G.A.R. members across the nation decided to take more control over the annual commemoration of their comrades’ deaths. By 1881, the ceremony here in Oswego had gone well beyond the ladies of the community organizing young girls to go to the cemetery each year to decorate soldiers’ graves. Here’s how Rank reported the day’s events:

Decoration programme at the cemetery:

1. Music by the band;

2. Prayer by Rev. Colgrove;

3. Vocal music;

4. Select reading by Mrs. I.F. Reed;

5. Address by Prof. Duffy;

6. Vocal music;

7. Select reading by D.M. Haight;

8. Vocal music;

9. Decoration of the graves. Capt. Mann at the same time will give a short army sketch of each of the buried soldiers;

10. Music by the band.

The exercises to commence at two o’clock, and it is desirable and the committee so request that business men may close their doors from 2 to 4 p.m. on that day.

On June 30 of that year, the community decided decoration services needed to be more organized. Or more to the point, the G.A.R.’s former soldiers decided it was time to take over. As Rank put it:

“A meeting will be held next Saturday evening at the ex-Red Ribbon hall to which everybody is invited, but more especially the soldiers; the object being to form a permanent organization, which might be called the “Soldiers’ Memorial Society,” and whose duty it shall be to collect and preserve the war records of the boys that went from here and to take charge of the annual decoration of the Soldiers’ graves.”

By 1885, with increased participation by the G.A.R., Decoration Day activities became far more militarized than they had been when they were begun by women mourning the war’s dead. In May 1893, Rank described the Decoration Day observance:

“The soldiers in full dress at 10 Sunday morning rendezvoused at Dr. Lester’s office and, in a body marched to the Congregational church, which for a memorial service was most elaborately and profusely decorated with flags, buntings and flowers.”

The next year, Rank reported the ceremony had gotten even more elaborate:

“Decoration Day in Oswego was made a greater event than ever before. By the middle of forenoon the business houses were almost concealed from view by the bunting with which they were bedecked; every where flags were seen fluttering in the breeze. The procession was led by the Yorkville brass band from the Congregational church to the cemetery where graves were decorated.”

By the time Decoration Day 1898 rolled around, the nation was engaged in what Theodore Roosevelt described as the “Splendid Little War” with Spain. And, believe it or not, there was a lot of second guessing about patriotism and the proper way to honor the nation’s war dead, especially Civil War dead. In a letter to the editor in the June 8, 1898 Kendall County Record, an Oswego writer signing himself as “Gnarl,” wrote a very contemporary-sounding essay, which I’m including in its entirety here:

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego's Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery.

By May 1957 when Everett Hafenrichter snapped this photo of Oswego’s Memorial Day Parade, the change from private, sorrowful commemoration to patriotic ceremony was complete, as the Oswego High School Band under the direction of Reeve R. Thompson marches south on Main Street on the way to the Oswego Cemetery. (Little White School Museum collection)


Some Reflections on Patriotism, War, etc.

For several years following the rebellion, the decoration of the soldiers’ graves was not thought of, and, if I mistake not, the practice was first begun in the South. Here in Oswego it was commenced by a few ladies–and such seemed to be the case more or less all over the country–who, on a nice day, would quietly go to the cemetery and place flowers on the graves of the soldiers of the late war. The spirit that then moved the decorators was that of pity; a pity that these young lives should have been sacrificed; that kind of practice would have tended towards aversion to war.

But a regular day was appointed for it; the affair was taken out of the hands of the women by the soldiers, especially by the organized G.A.R. To secure a band was the first move towards decoration; the procession in military order was made the great imposing feature; the oration the more bombastic the better; in short, the spirit of pity was changed to that of glory, and the affair made to stimulate militarism. Under this spirit and practice, it was no wonder that the sporting class improved the day for races, base ball games, etc.

The question now is: Which disposition for a people is the best, the civil or military? A temperance lecture here one evening, of course portrayed the liquor business as the great danger with which the country is threatened; it fully endorsed the war with Spain; closing with a peroration of the most popular sentiments in regard to it such as the holy cause of securing liberty to the oppressed.

To illustrate a point, the opinions of two great men as to the destiny of the United States were quoted: one by President McKinley to the effect “that the institutions handed down by the father are safe in the hands of the people;” the other by the historian Macaulay, in substance “that the government within itself will furnish its destruction by the leading up to a military dictator.”

Considering the military spirit and hero worship to which we are running, the Macaulay opinion is the more in line. The expression “We want to lick Spain like h–l” may not sound very patriotic, but there is such a thing that the greater the victory the worse for the victory. By fighting for liberty for others, you may thereby lose your own. The more fighting, the greater the prestige of the army. Militarism and nobility are going hand in hand. The rule now that when other things being equal preference shall be given to the soldiers for federal offices can be easily enlarged. The islands to be conquered are to be governed by the army, of course, and Hawaii to be annexed by a small fraction of the inhabitants who, though not called nobility, constitute one all the same.

What makes millionaires and the sons of great men so readily enlist in the war but the fame to be realized from it?

Starting in 1868, Decoration Day was observed on May 30 each year. The name wasn’t officially changed to “Memorial Day” until 1967. And with the passage of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1968, Memorial Day was officially moved to the last Monday in May.

Today, we’ve entirely given Memorial Day’s observances over to the patriotism of which Gnarl seemed so suspicious in his letter to the editor back in 1898, at the expense of the sorrow for the sacrifices made by so many the members of the Women’s Relief Corps expressed as they began decorating soldiers’ graves nearly 150 years ago. But we do seem to have seen one major change in how we view war and rumors of war. These days “millionaires and the sons of great men” no longer feel the need to gain fame by risking service in their country’s military. And, in fact, in this day and age it seems to be the exact opposite.



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Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, Military History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History

Phoning it in…part 2

During that first decade of the 20th century, lives and times changed forever due to the extension of telephone service within Kendall’s towns and even to rural areas. I briefly covered the extension of phone service into the county, as well as the excitement that the arrival of this new communications technology in my last post. This time, let’s take a look at the effect of introducing telephone systems in small towns and on farms.

While folks were initially excited to participate in the telephone communications revolution—because that’s exactly what it was—more than a few residents were uneasy about what both the seen and unforeseen effects would be.

Downtown Oswego about 1878, two decades before utility poles and wires would mar the downtown streetscape. (Little White School Museum collection)

The east side of Main Street in downtown Oswego about 1878, two decades before utility poles and wires would mar the downtown streetscape. (Little White School Museum collection)

Telephone service arrived in Oswego and Yorkville in 1897, followed by another technological marvel in 1900, the interurban trolley line. The line linked downtown Aurora with downtown Yorkville, running through downtown Oswego. Hourly interurban service allowed local folks to commute to jobs and schools in Aurora and to easily and quickly make business trips. The electric line’s first run every morning was the freight and baggage car’s trip that dropped off fresh baked bread and other items on its way south and then picked up milk from area dairy farmers and other such things on it’s return trip north. But in late 1900, it was just getting a good start, and the electric wires that provided the cars’ motive power were still being strung, right beside the existing web of telephone wires.

By 1903, about when this photo was taken on Main Street looking north, wires for two telephone companies and electrical lines for the interurban trolley were strung on poles all over the downtown area. Not all residents were happy with the change. (Little White School Museum photo)

By 1903, about when this photo was taken on Main Street looking north, wires for two telephone companies and electrical lines for the interurban trolley were strung on poles all over the downtown area. Not all residents were happy with the change. (Little White School Museum photo)

A couple years before, crews for both the Bell System’s Chicago Telephone Company and the competing Northern Illinois Telephone Company had finished stringing their respective firms’ lines. The result was an unsightly tangle of wires where just a few months before, none had existed.

As Kendall County Record correspondent Lorenzo Rank observed in his “Oswego” news column on Dec. 26, 1900: “The telephone people were busy here in putting up more wires and the electric road people in stringing additional feeders. This village is getting strung over with so many wires in all directions that our sparrows in navigating the air will have to keep their eyes open.”

Besides being an eyesore, stringing the wires also upset property owners along the lines’ routes. Rank noted on Jan. 23, 1910 that: “The misunderstanding between one of the telephone companies and a certain farmer has two sides to it, as most cases have. It is told that the farmer will not let the line have the right-of-way along his farm. The farmer says he only insists on having a half-dozen poles raised to a sufficient height to allow them to be strung without mutilating shade trees.”

Oswego Druggist Scott Cutter's innovative telephone wire insulator was designed to be attached to trees in areas where utility poles were difficult to install. The invention helped the rapid spread of telephone lines.

Oswego Druggist Scott Cutter’s innovative telephone wire insulator was designed to be attached to trees in areas where utility poles were difficult to install. The invention helped the rapid spread of telephone lines.

That common problem prompted an Oswego businessman to invent a solution to save trees, not to mention saving money for the telephone companies—at least temporarily. Scott Cutter, a June 1893 graduate of the University of Illinois’ School of Pharmacy, purchased Oswego’s drug store in 1894. When the Chicago Telephone Company’s wires reached Oswego, Cutter rented switchboard space at the back of his store to the company. Which, by the way, created some familial discord. Cutter’s father-in-law, John Gaylord, was the manager of the rival Northern Illinois Telephone Company. “Now they do not speak when they meet at the post office,” Rank reported in August 1900. Bad feelings lasted for some time.

Cutter’s interest in telephone technology didn’t stop with managing one firm’s operations and playing host to the company’s central operators. Noted Rank on Jan. 13, 1903: “Scott Cutter has invented and had patented a tree insulator for telephone wires, which promises to be a great money getter.”

Two years later, Cutter’s invention was working out for him very well. According to Rank writing in the Nov. 15, 1905 Record: “Few people have realized the value of the little invention recently put on the market by Scott C. Cutter of Oswego, the ingenious manager of the Oswego exchange of the Chicago Telephone Company. The only reason people have not realized its value is because they never knew that under the familiar cap that Scott wears all seasons of the year there was such an inventive combination of human brains. The invention is an insulator, made of glass, in such a way that it may be conveniently wired to trees and the telephone wires strung through two holes made of that purpose. The model was duly patented some months ago and since, it has been on the market it has met with widespread popularity among telephone men and now there are over 87,000 of them in use and the orders are coming in so fast that they cannot be filled. Scott promises to astonish the pole climbers and wire pullers again in a short time with a new invention on which he is now working, entirely different from his first one–a sort of wire clamp which he claims will be a great improvement over anything of the kind now in use.”

Telephone users, on the other hand, took a while to figure out how to make use of this new technology. In December 1897, just as Oswego was connected to the national phone network, Rank commented: “The telephone is much appreciated by some of our people and quite a few distant colloquies were had by them through it on Monday. It was suggested to me that I might more readily phone my report to The Record than the doing it by writing.”

Explained Kendall County Record editor John R. Marshall a couple months later, concerning the effects telephones were having in Yorkville: “About a dozen phones have been put in business places and private houses and the number will be enlarged as their usefulness becomes apparent to our people. The company will put a long distance telephone in the court-house, which will be of great utility. Mr. Drew of the Chicago office was in town Monday and promises good service.”

In June 1900, Rank predicted the new communications technology would have an interesting impact on area farmers: “Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

That same year, telephone service reached Judd and Maria Bushnell’s farm near Sandwich, just across the Kendall County line in DeKalb County.

The Bushnells were enthusiastic diarists, with Judd, Maria, and their son, Frank, all jotted their thoughts down on a near-daily basis around the turn of the 20th Century. Reading the diaries, copies of which are in the collections of the Little White School Museum, it is striking how much face-to-face socializing went on in rural areas of that time. The stereotype of isolated farms and their lonely residents simply doesn’t stand up to an encounter with the Bushnell diaries. The diaries recount a continual series of overnight guests, of the Bushnells visiting other families and staying overnight, and numerous trips to town.

But all that personalized socializing came to a halt with the arrival of the Bushnells’ telephone. After their phone was installed, the swirl of visits sharply declined, eventually trickling off to almost zero. Instead, the Bushnells note talking on the phone with friends and relatives.

So like all new technology, the impact of telephone technology had a host of unforeseen effects on area residents. Business owners had no trouble adjusting to the phone system’s advent. It took regular folks a little longer to figure out how they’d benefit from it, some, like Scott Cutter, turning their inventive genius towards improving aspects of the business. Others, like the Bushnells, experienced lifestyle changes they likely didn’t even notice until long after they’d occurred. It would take until the invention and adoption of the Internet for such a major information technology-driven change in people’s lives to occur again.

Looking for more local history? Check out “Reflections” in the Ledger-Sentinel.


Filed under Illinois History, Kendall County, Local History, People in History, Science stuff, Technology

Phoning it in, part 1…

We’ve got a fishing cabin we’ve owned with a high school friend up in Wisconsin for nearly 35 years now. When we started out, and for more than a decade and a half later, we had no phone in the place. And we still have no television.

But some time ago we decided, since we weren’t getting any younger and since the cabin is in a cellular dead spot, we’d get a phone in the place. And then with the advent of the Internet, we decided broadband and WiFi were necessities, too. So nowadays, we can make landline calls or use Skype on our smart phones to communicate with the wider world and jump on the Internet for the latest weather and fishing reports.

The lack of cellular service really doesn’t have much of an impact on us, but it seems to be a definite hardship for youngsters of a certain age whose parents and grandparents rent cottages at the resort just down the road. In order to make a cell phone call, it’s necessary to hike south on Lakeshore Drive, up the hill, and to the corner where the road makes a right-angle turn to the east. At the top of the hill, cell service is suddenly available. And of a summer evening, it’s not uncommon to see a gaggle of a half dozen teens absently strolling in circles, their iPhones and Androids clutched to their ears, engaging in serious conversations with who knows who.

Time was, of course, there wasn’t any landline service anywhere. Then telephone technology started getting off the ground and became something more than a curiosity of hobbyists.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology at the University of Illinois. He was also instrumental in the discovery and naming of Oswego's very own fossil, Tentaculies oswegoensis.

An Oswego native, Charles Wesley Rolfe started out teaching school locally, was a member of the first graduating class at the University of Illinois, went on to become superintendent of Kankakee schools, and finally taught biology, geology, and other subjects at his alma mater, the U of I.

Here in the Oswego area, the earliest mention of a telephone I’ve been able to find was in the “Oswego” column of the Kendall County Record on Aug. 8, 1878. Correspondent Lorenzo Rank reported that:

“Prof. Rolfe, who at present is sojourning at Mr. Farley’s, has established a telephone; those who have seen it say that it works to perfection.”

Charles Wesley Rolfe, an Oswego native then the superintendent of the Kankakee School District, and later a professor of biology at the University of Illinois, had married Farley’s daughter. Rank didn’t say who was connected via Rolfe’s telephone; it was probably an in-house experiment, something Farley, an inventor himself, would have delighted in.

During the next few years, some Yorkville first-adopters were busy with local telephone installations. Then in 1881, Oswego druggist, banker, and entrepreneur Levi Hall had his residence connected to his drug store by telephone. As Rank reported in the Aug. 11, 1881 Kendall County Record:

“L.N. Hall is always foremost of this community keeping up with the times; he has now his store and residence–which are six blocks apart–connected with telephone, not yet however in talking order.”

Installations during the next several years were business-only, like the ones in Yorkville. For instance, the Esch Brothers & Rabe Ice Company ice houses three-quarters of a mile north of the Oswego depot were connected with the depot by telephone in 1882 to coordinate the delivery and pick-up of box cars to the company’s siding.

An effort to establish a phone line with subscribers from Aurora to Oswego in 1885 was unsuccessful, even as short-line phone service continued to expand in area towns. As the Somonauk Reveille (which, by the way, is one of my favorite newspaper names, right up there with the Stewart, Iowa, Locomotive): described one such situation in April 1886:

“Yorkville has an undertaker’s establishment connected by telephone with a hardware store and a correspondent remarks that farmers can now order their agricultural implements, hardware, and furniture with one call. If the first named was connected with a doctor’s office, they could call their physician and order their burial outfit with the same call.”

It wasn’t until October 1897 that the Record reported could report serious efforts were underway to add Kendall County residents to the nation’s phone system. Reported Record Editor John R. Marshall:

“We may have telephone connection with the surrounding towns before long, and Yorkville placed in hearing of the big city of Chicago. Mr. E.G. Drew, special agent of the Chicago Telephone Company, and Mrs. O.J. Holbrook, right-of-way agent for the same, were in Yorkville Friday last in the interest of the company, looking up the opportunities for a line here and to Plano, Lisbon, Plattville, and way stations. The gentlemen were traveling on wheels [high-wheeled bicycles] and looked as though they had passed through the great desert of Sahara and acquired all the dust there was in the locality. It is hoped they will fix us up with their talking machines.”

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

Bronze medallions like this denoted Chicago Telephone Company equipment. The CTC was part of the fast-growing Bell Telephone system.

And, in fact, it wasn’t long before not just one but two telephone companies were vying for Kendall County residents’ business.

By November, Marshall could report:

“The poles for the new telephone line from Yorkville to Aurora connecting with Chicago have been set through these villages and well along the road towards Aurora. The tall white poles may have a business-like look, but they are certainly ornamental to the streets.”

And on Dec. 15, Rank finally reported from Oswego:

“The hello racket on the telephone was ushered in last Saturday. The poles have been set all around town.”

It was remarkable enough that folks in town could ask Central to connect them to their aunts and uncles in the next town. It was downright awe inspiring that a growing number of country folks could do the same.

The Record’s Specie Grove correspondent was looking forward to this new ability to connect his farm with far-flung places, remarking on Dec. 13, 1899:

“With a telephone line through the Grove we will all be putting in city airs, but will probably not have a ‘central’ or a ‘hello’ girl for a while yet.”

In June 1900, the Northern Illinois Telephone Company extended its lines into Kendall County in direct competition with the Chicago Telephone Company, which was part of the growing Bell Telephone system. Rank, reporting from Oswego, noted:

“Oswego is bristling with telephone poles and the lines being run from it in all directions. The farmers have been struck with the phone craze and it would seem as though they mean to raise corn and pigs by telephone from now on.”

On Oct. 24, 1900, the Record’s Specie Grove correspondent ruefully noted from his farmhouse:

“Blessings, like misfortunes, never seem to come singly. Two telephone lines are now coming to serve us at the same time. The Chicago line runs along the river road from J.C. Raleigh’s to the corner south of Yorkville where it connects with the line running south from town with a stub to the Shepard farm, while the Northern Illinois line runs from Yorkville on the Plainfield road to the Plattville road, running south past the Kendall schoolhouse. Side lines will be put in to accommodate farmers not on this road. Both companies have had gangs of men at work the past week and there is much to do yet. The latter line intends to continue on to Plattville.”

But by January 1901, he was marveling at what technology had wrought:

“We talked to the ancient city of Plattville over the ‘phone Friday. What a triumph! Certainly it would be such if the roads were as bad as they sometimes are. At the end of the century we expect to be able to talk to planets Saturn and Neptune, and to hear the songs of the stars as they sing together. Why not? It would be no greater achievement than those accomplished in the past century.”

It was a major technological change that, in turn, had a major sociological impact on small town and rural life the likes of which had been seldom seen.

In the next post, I’ll take a look at what some of those sociological effects were.

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The handwriting’s no longer on the wall…

So I was chatting with some friends recently, and the subject of handwriting in school came up. It turns out that many school districts across the county are now eliminating teaching cursive handwriting as an essential skill.

I’m not sure what the real reasons for this are, but I can think of a few right off the top of my head.

First, in today’s computer-driven society, where even our watches are becoming machines that put Dick Tracy’s wrist radio to shame, keyboarding skills have become paramount. Back in the stone age, we used to call it typing, but that was when there were machines called typewriters in which the typist rolled in a sheet of paper, held their hands at just the right angle, and then typed. At 40 words per minute if he or she wanted to pass Typing I.

By that time, “typewriter” referred to the machine, an not the person who was using it. As Lorenzo Rank but it in his “Oswego” column in the March 11, 1898 Kendall County Record: “Bessie Armstrong, now one of the stenographers and typewriters, came home from Chicago to spend Sunday.”

When I took high school typing, handwriting was still an essential skill that elementary kids spent a lot of time learning. Most elementary classrooms had depictions of correct upper and lower case cursive letters on cardboard strips up above the blackboard so there would be no excuse for failing to create a proper capital letter Q.

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

I learned cursive in second grade out in our one-room country school, first with pencil, and then graduating to (just like the big kids!) pen and ink. The ink pens we learned on were plastic dip pens with steel nibs that had to be dipped in an ink bottle every few letters. The wet ink then had to be blotted so you didn’t accidentally drag your shirt cuff through it and smudge your masterpiece. Ink blotters, in fact, were a major advertising medium during that era, with all sorts of businesses giving them out for free.

In the middle of my third grade year, when we moved into town, I was mildly shocked, and somewhat insulted, that my classmates were all still a) printing and b) writing in pencil.

The kids in country and town schools through the last of the 19th Century and start of the 20th, learned using the Spencerian Method invented and popularized by Platt Rogers Spencer. That was replaced by the Palmer Method developed by A.N. Palmer and spread nationwide in Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing, in which, by the way, my mother was an expert. She learned it in grade and high school and perfected it in a business college course.

Our school handwriting was very similar to Palmer’s, and was practiced daily.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

For reasons lost to the mists of time, we weren’t allowed to use ballpoint pens for some years. Fountain pens were fine, but the things leaked. So it was a lifesaver when the Shaeffer company came out with their cartridge ink pens. No filling from ink bottles any more, just buy a small box of plastic cartridges at the drug store and you were good to go. But eventually, the value of ballpoints penetrated the educational system. Our handwriting was a lot less messy, the blotter makers went the way of buggy whip manufacturers, and all was good and right with the world.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, from my senior year of high school, tells me so.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, that dates to my senior year of high school, tells me so.

Then, as I noted above, some of us learned typing in high school, which proved a very valuable skill. It was also challenging. We learned on standard QWERTY typewriters, but with the exciting modification of blank keys. The keyboard layout was printed on a poster above the blackboard at the front of the room. And no, I don’t remember why our typing room had blackboards.

For some of us, typing was, literally, a life-saver. A friend of mine, drafted into the U.S. Army during Vietnam, was appointed to clerical duties in his engineering company because he could type. It didn’t stop him from hunkering in a bunker and shooting up the bad guys with an M-79 grenade launcher during the Tet Offensive, but to a great extent, it kept him out of lots of other potentially fatal situations.

Typing was also a money maker during college, since the skill wasn’t universal and by that time, term papers were required to be typed in many classes.

Typing didn’t become keyboarding until the computer age dawned. In another interesting tern of events, “computer” had also once been the name of a person’s job, just like “typewriter.” But starting in the late 1970s, computers began requiring keyboards to input data. By the 1980s school boards all over the country were coming to the conclusion that all this computer stuff was something more than a technological flash in the pan. And by the 1990s, “keyboarding” was starting to be considered a basic skill, right along with handwriting.

And then came laptops, smart phones, tablets, and all the rest of the revolution we’ve been living through the past few decades.

Now, it appears, keyboarding has overtaken handwriting, as have more esoteric skills such as texting using nimble thumbs, which all the cool kids know is the rage these days.

Which brings us to the second reason handwriting is disappearing as a skill taught in school—which really has nothing to do with technology, and, when you stop to think about it, not much to do with improving education, either. Handwriting is simply not conducive to modern testing. And the modern mania for “high stakes” testing has pretty much left skills like handwriting in the dust. If it’s not on standardized tests, it is not, for the most part, taught.

So gone is handwriting, and so are lots of other things, like local history because giant testing companies owned by conglomerates overseen by distant financiers understand they can’t be shoehorned into a nationally-normed test. Education, of course, is not the goal here; making money is. For years, the folks who’ve been vacuuming up everyone’s tax dollars have been trying to figure out how to get at that huge pool of property taxes that support local government. With the ‘education reform’ movement, charter schools, and the Common Core, they figure they’re good to go.


Filed under Frustration, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology