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Jack Smith

The 'Chimney' That Flue Over His Head

June 30, 1988|Jack Smith

In writing recently about the hardships of schoolteachers in the 19th Century, I quoted from a list of rules, purportedly published in 1872, stating that "teachers each day will fill lamps, clean chimneys."

My mind obviously being in the wrong century, I assumed that chimneys meant fireplace chimneys, and said I suspected that in 1872 "more schools were heated by coal-burning stoves than by fireplaces, with chimneys to clean."

So far I have received 116 letters informing me that chimneys in that context could mean only the glass chimneys of oil-burning lamps. This obvious truth has been brought home to me in 116 different ways--some supercilious, some forgiving, some funny, some nostalgic, some illustrated. Some thought I was spoofing, or merely trying to provoke a response.

"Jack, you were having us on, weren't you?" wrote Nancy Baumann, a fellow Belmont alumnus. (I couldn't say fellow alumna , could I?)

Paula Kruse did a neat drawing of a kerosene lamp with a flame burning inside the glass globe. She explained that the globe needed to be cleaned inside of soot from the burning wick.

"As a teen-ager on a Nebraska farm," wrote Evelyn Holsclaw of Long Beach, "I was often assigned the messy task of cleaning the chimneys. The soot stuck to your fingers as you wiped the chimneys with crumpled pages from Sears or Montgomery Ward catalogues."

Carol Troupe's mother taught in a rural one-room school in the Texan Panhandle in the 1920s. "She was also responsible for bringing in coal and stoking the pot-bellied stove during the winter, but she was clever enough to let the older 'tough' boys do this for her, praising them lavishly, of course, and they loved it."

Several readers not only confirmed that teachers had to fill the lamps, clean the chimneys and trim the wicks: they were also, even as late as the 1960s, bound to a strict code of morals, dress and conduct.

"Way back in the 1920s," wrote Lee Radecki of Newbury Park, "my fifth-grade teacher in our small town was let go because she was bold enough to have her hair bobbed!"

Alice Gunderson of Palm Springs taught school in a rural district. "Even in the 1950s," she recalled, "some small-town school boards would dismiss a female teacher who had the temerity to marry. . . . I was not permitted to wear trousers to school as late as the middle '60s. . . ."

"As for the female teacher being dismissed if she married," wrote Graham Gilmer Jr. of Orange, "that law was rescinded in Virginia in 1938, and not until then. I know for my wife and I were married the day (the change) became effective."

Big boys could help with the heavy chores, but they could also be a menace. Josephine Wadsworth of Long Beach had four aunts who began teaching about the turn of the century. "The job could be dangerous as well as physically exhausting. In the winter, after the harvest, a lot of older boys enrolled in the eighth grade, not so much to learn as to be entertained and to harass the teacher. . . ."

Dolores McGinty recalled that her mother taught in a country school in about 1915 in North Dakota. "She was a cute little redhead. . . . Her problem wasn't filling and cleaning lamps, as the big boys were only too willing to do this, bring in the wood and coal and so on. Her problem was fighting off their amorous tendencies. One year was enough for her. She went to business college and learned to type and take shorthand. . . ."

"I taught school in Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee," wrote Betty Roper. "Makeup on female teachers was discouraged, and when pant suits came into vogue (they were) forbidden."

At least I was right in suspecting that the list of rules for teachers was not authentic. Burt Chalfin wrote that he first saw the list reprinted about 50 years ago as having applied to sales clerks in W. T. Stewart's New York department store. Laurel Kristick of Redondo Beach sent an almost identical list that was published several years ago in the Boston Globe and purportedly applied to the employees of a New England carriage works in 1872.

Chimneys or not, a teacher's lot is not an easy one.

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