Needham History Center & Museum

Back to School Short Takes

Tough cookies. The first graders at the Kimball School stare down the photographer in 1898. Don't worry - longtime teacher Mary Tisdale was more than a match for them.
Tough cookies. The first graders at the Kimball School stare down the photographer in 1898. Don’t worry – longtime teacher Mary Tisdale was more than a match for them.


An adventurous Pin meets it tragic demise, and a determined group of children navigate the terrors of the playground. Back to School – and Good Luck (you may need it)!


Back to School!  School is again in session, and the History Center also starts its new year – re-energized after the lazy summer with the new Program schedule, and preparations for our 1850 Schoolhouse Days.  We work hard to make the Schoolhouse experience as authentic as possible for the third graders, so I spend a lot of time each fall looking into the experiences of Needham school children in the past. We have an excellent collection of old schoolbooks, school maps, copybooks, and other school-related items.


The Adventures of a Pin

A few years ago, I came across a little paper in the archives, which is surely one of our more charming and quirky discoveries.  It is a small school essay entitled “The Adventures of a Pin.”  Yes – of the pointy variety.

Our “Adventures of a Pin” falls into a genre popular in Europe and America in the 18th and 19th centuries, known as “It-Narratives” or “Object Narratives.”  The general form was a story told by an inanimate object of the type that was likely to change hands – most often a pin or a coin. The tale provided an opportunity (though the observations of its presumably objective – pardon the pun – narrator) to comment on and/or satirize contemporary events or attitudes.  Similar narratives were written from the point of view of pets, viewing (and, I’m sorry to say, revealing) the foibles of their human owners.  Remember that, next time you see your cat staring at you – s/he’s probably taking notes. 

There are many examples of this type of essay; Mark Blackwell’s book, The Secret Life of Things (2007) discusses this genre in detail, and even has an extensive list of known examples.  One of my favorites is in the Houghton Rare Books Library at Harvard.  Houghton’s pin is rather literate (being a Harvard pin), and the essay is in the form of a letter to the Editor of a literary magazine, which The Pin had a chance to read while killing time around the ol’ pincushion.

It-Narratives were often assigned as school essays, since the form offered broad scope for imagination, and some (modest) freedom from convention.  Our own Pin tells a tragic tale.  This is clearly a school essay, though neither the author nor teacher are identified.  It was written in a painstakingly-neat hand, and corrected by a more confident hand – presumably the teacher’s. I left in the corrections and original spelling so you can see how it was originally written.  We all had to produce “creative” essays like this during our own school days; here is a glimpse of Needham schoolwork, circa 1820:

“The first thing that I remember was being thrust through and through a thin substance, next I was packed up which made it total[l]y dark, and I knew not where I was, till I was suddenly unpacked and to my great astonishment I found myself in a very different situation I found myself in a very large store amidst a profusion of glittering things: among the rest were many of my own people.

In a short time a lady came into the store and examined the paper on which I was; she took it up and turned it over and slammed it about until I finally thought I should have [had] my head knocked off, at last she said something that I did not understand.  At last she [, and then they] rolled us up [with a number of my companions] and shut us in a thing that she shut up which made it so dark, that I could not see any better than I could before I was unpacked. up in her work bag, where we were again deprived of the light of day.  After swinging abo[u]t half an hour I was unpacked and stuck [put] on a cushion where I staid but a short time, for being taken off I was stuck in a bundle with some of my companions and sent away I know not where.  After this I was taken out by a [little] girl who put me on her side where I did not stay a great while [long] I can ashure you, fir I was taken off by her brother who stuck [put] me on [in the edge of] his coat and [I] of course I went to school [with him], where I learnt a great many [–?] things.  One day as he was taking me off of [I dropt slily from] his coat, he dropped me:  a little boy passing[?] to see us [and] picked me up and took me to his mama but I was so bent that [old and crooked] she flung me away where I grew rusty and died.”


Back to School – If You Dare!

I was looking through the old School Superintendent’s reports to see what things were like a century or so ago.  The turn of the (last) century was a pivotal time for public education in Needham.  The school population was rising precipitously as formal education became more important.  For the first time, it could be anticipated that a child would spend more time in school than at home learning the skills and trades of his parents.  Several debates arose about this time-in-school question:  it was feared that the array of useful manual skills that earlier generations learned at home would be lost; and by sitting quietly in one place for extended periods of time (a state antithetical to childhood), the children did not get enough healthy exercise.  On the municipal level, more children in school (and staying in school longer) meant that classes were becoming too crowded, and that more schoolrooms and teachers were needed.  But for Superintendent Henry M Walradt, all of these concerns paled in comparison to the looming specter that haunted the schoolyard – the evil known as … Recess!

 “The acknowledged moral dangers of the playground led to a partially successful movement, some years ago, for the abolition of recesses.  Recently, however, as the physical needs of children have received greater attention, the possibilities of the playground have become prominent.  Left wholly to themselves at recess, children are in danger of both moral corruption and physical harm.  Nevertheless, the value of properly regulated play in the open air must be recognized and emphasized. … if guarded from vicious accompaniments, it is an excellent prescription for ‘a sound mind in a sound body’.”  (the Needham Town Report for 1902)

Wow! – and that’s only grade school. Just wait til they get to Middle School!

Further proof, kids, that your grandparents did have it tougher in school than you do.  And to even get to this scholarly den of iniquity they had to walk – for over two miles – in the snow – uphill – both ways. 

Detail from "Adventures of a Pin," showing the changes and corrections.
Detail from “Adventures of a Pin,” showing the changes and corrections.


Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum