Part 2: Defining City and Suburban Lines

A Golden Age for City Schools

On a spring day in 1890, Mabel Florence White looked straight into the camera. As she posed for a class photograph on the steps of Hartford Public High School, she stood with her principal and many of the sixty-four other graduating students, and wore a flowered hat to mark this special occasion. Mabel and her classmates proudly earned their diplomas from the most prestigious public high school in Connecticut, and the second-oldest institution of its kind in the nation, long before this credential became common. The following year, city school officials invited Mabel to train as a teacher of kindergarten, another pedagogical innovation where Hartford led all other districts across the state. For the next decade, Mabel joined well-educated women who entered the highly respected (though grossly underpaid) profession as educators, in the most prominent school system of any city or town in Connecticut. Her story takes us back to a golden age of urban school districts, when flagship institutions such as Hartford Public High School attracted families to send their children into the city for a higher quality education than what was available in their small outlying towns. By stepping into the shoes of Mabel White, we can begin to wrap our heads around a very different time when the roles of the city and its suburbs were reversed.

View Photos: Mabel Florence White in Hartford Public Schools, 1890s

Mabel Florence White


In this online photo collection, click arrows to advance slideshow, or click images for full view. In this first image, Mabel Florence White stands at the center of this close-up of the Class of 1890 photograph at Hartford Public High School. Learn more in “Weaving the 1890s Biography of Mabel White,” in this volume. Source: Donation by family to Hartford Public Schools.[1]

Although the modern “high school” as we currently know it did not not arise until the mid-nineteenth century, Hartford Public High School traces its roots back far earlier and claims the title as the second oldest secondary school in the nation (after Boston Latin School in 1635). Thomas Hooker, the Puritan minister who founded Hartford, established a Latin School in 1638, which relied on a mix of private and public funding from student tuition, philanthropic donations, and town government appropriations. During the colonial years, the school provided the only secondary education in Connecticut, and offered a classical curriculum of Latin and Greek, primarily to prepare young men to study theology at Harvard and Yale and to become ordained ministers. After changing its name to Hartford Grammar School in 1798, the institution expanded from one to four teachers, and from 30 to 100 students by 1828. While Classics and mathematics remained the central focus, the school added a so-called English curriculum of penmanship and bookkeeping to prepare students for a “life of active employment” and to compete with private academies. But the school also began to charge a significant tuition of $8 per quarter, and enrolled mostly privileged “up-town families” from the north side of the city, with few families of modest means from the south side.[2]

A “school battle” soon erupted over the question of a free high school for Hartford. Henry Barnard, Connecticut’s leading school reformer and the first secretary of the state board of education in 1838, called for a tuition-free, tax-funded secondary school to be created in the capital city, in tandem with a stronger system of elementary-level common schools. Barnard’s supporters included a growing number of Hartford residents who valued the education of both girls and boys of this age, and wished for more stable town funding, rather than tuition payments, to retain desirable teachers. But opponents of the city high school objected to “taxation for other people’s children,” and in 1842, a Democratic majority in Connecticut government pushed out Barnard, from the Whig Party, and abolished his state board of education. Years later, Barnard’s supporters rallied behind a reinvigorated public campaign for a free high school, and persuaded Hartford’s First School Society to vote in favor of a property tax in 1847 to educate “all of the male and female children of suitable age and acquirements in this Society, who may wish to avail themselves of its advantages.” Barnard officially dedicated Hartford’s new Public High School, the first tax-funded tuition-free secondary school in the state, which absorbed the staff and curriculum of the old Grammar School. Although Hartford Public High School graduated its first class in 1848, it claims the title as the oldest publicly-funded secondary school in the nation, because its continuous lineage and town financing can be traced back to Hartford’s original Latin School in 1638.[3]

Scroll the Storymap: Hartford Public High School locations over time


In the interactive version of this storymap, view images of Hartford Public High School across its different locations over time.[4]

Mabel Florence White, at fifteen years of age in 1886, entered the majestic world of Hartford Public High School. Now more firmly established, the high school had grown both in size and stature. Mabel and about 600 students walked through the doors of the school’s newly-enlarged Neo-Gothic building on Hopkins Street, located near the State Capitol rotunda and the train station, about one mile from her home in the city’s downtown neighborhood. “The Hartford High School has a wide reputation, as being one of the best of its kind in New England, or indeed in the Nation,” wrote the head of Baltimore’s public library in 1893, as did other observers both near and far.[5] To publicize its academic standards, Hartford High published a Catalogue of its curriculum, faculty, and alumni, similar to publications by leading colleges of today.[6]

Mabel and her classmates were challenged by their highly educated faculty—who they addressed as “professors”—and by their coursework. She had completed her studies at South Street School, one of Hartford’s fifteen public grade schools, located around the corner from her family home. Students who placed in the top three-quarters of their grade school, and received a letter of recommendation, automatically earned a seat at the city’s secondary school. At the high school, Mabel and about half of her cohort entered the Classical Department, the college-preparatory curriculum that focused primarily on Latin and Greek, with additional work in mathematics and a modern language. The other half enrolled in the English Department, geared more toward white-collar employment with courses in grammar and literature, math and science, history and modern languages, and business electives such as bookkeeping, stenography, and typewriting. Although men dominated the decision-making positions, the school faculty was about half female, and boys and girls were about evenly represented in the Classical and English Departments.[7]

Although Mabel attended Hartford Public High School for free, only a fraction of those in her age-cohort enrolled with her, and only some of those actually graduated. Most youth worked rather than attend high school. When Mabel entered Hartford High in 1886, her cohort included about 250 city residents, or roughly 25 percent of the approximately 1,000 city youth who shared her birth year. Four years later, Mabel’s graduating class numbered 65, meaning that only about 25 percent of her entering classmates graduated. As a result, only about 12 percent of Mabel’s age cohort in the city earned a diploma from Hartford High. By the early 1900s, the entering class at Hartford High swelled to about 330 city residents, or roughly 34 percent of the age cohort, and the graduation rate climbed to 40 percent. The majority of these students and graduates were now female. Furthermore, Hartford outpaced the 1900 national average, when only 10 percent of youth from ages 14 to 17 enrolled in a secondary school, and only half of these graduated (or 5 percent of the total).[8]


Amid this success, Hartford High supporters were sensitive to criticism that their public school served elite families. To dispute this charge, leaders argued that their high school was an egalitarian institution, and published data on the entering class in 1884 to support their case. Authors of this report categorized students by parental occupation, as they viewed rankings at this point in time, to highlight what they perceived as a wide social class distribution across the school. At the top of the list, the most elite professions (such as clergymen, lawyers, physicians, and bankers) represented only 12 percent of student families. The middle group (manufacturers and merchants) consisted of 20 percent. At the bottom of their list, other occupations (farmers, mechanics, clerks, teachers) and the unemployed made up the remaining 67 percent. Based on this data, supporters underscored their democratic roots:

It would be neither right nor proper to [claim] that the school is a school for poor people, but the assertion that is sometimes made that it is a school for the rich, is equally wide of the mark. In other words, it [is] what it aims to be, an institution of high grade where all [people] find instruction for their children.[9]

But this data hid more than it revealed about the social reality of Hartford. When Mabel White enrolled in 1886, school records listed her father’s occupation as a paper dealer, which would have labeled her family as a merchant, near the middle of the groupings above. But Mabel’s family stood far above thousands of working-class families in the city, such as the day laborers and laundresses, whose occupations never appeared on the list above. The difference was that Mabel’s father earned a sufficient salary to send his teenage daughter to high school, rather than a job. The family’s investment in their daughter’s education symbolized how high school became an increasingly popular middle-class strategy to transfer one’s social standing to future generations.

Hartford Public High School became so attractive to families that it acted as a magnet, drawing significant numbers of students from outlying towns into the city boundaries to receive their education. In 1882, the earliest available year for school registration data, 20 percent of the entering class came from outside of Hartford. Mabel White’s classmates in 1886 included students who resided in adjacent towns (including Wethersfield, West Hartford, and Windsor) as well as distant cities such as Boston. Local commuter students arrived by trolley or the nearby train station, while more distant students probably stayed with relatives or boarded at homes in the city. The 1904 school Catalogue clearly welcomed “candidates residing out of Hartford,” as long as they passed a written entrance examination and paid tuition of $3.25 per week. Given that only a handful of Connecticut cities with sizable populations supported public secondary schools at the turn of the twentieth century, Hartford Public High School effectively served as a regional institution with a highly regarded reputation. But the percentage of non-Hartford students fell off by 1920, as sharply rising enrollments limited the capacity of the city’s premier high school to receive non-resident students, and outlying towns began to build institutions of their own.[10]


Surrounded by the prestige of Hartford Public High School, Mabel struggled to hold her place. Individual student grades and rankings were public, not private. During her third year, she ranked near the middle of about 60 students in the Classical Department. But in the fall of her final year, Mabel fell nearly to the bottom of the 40 students who still remained in the Classical cohort. In the last few months, she switched to the English Department, the less-demanding academic track, and graduated in the upper half of this new cohort of 20 students. Perhaps the change was prompted by a realization about her future prospects. Although both genders were about evenly represented in both the Classical and English Departments, the former had vastly more opportunities to continue their academic careers. Among the Class of 1890, most male graduates (17 out of 29, or 59 percent) continued their schooling and earned college degrees, typically at all-male institutions such as Yale and Trinity. By contrast, very few female graduates (2 out of 36, or 6 percent) received a bachelor’s degree. Those who did were limited to women’s schools such as Mt. Holyoke and Smith, or a small number of co-educational institutions, and faced highly constrained employment opportunities for college-educated women.[11]

But Mabel’s story took a different turn, and her status continued to be linked to the rising fortunes of the city school system. After graduating as a student from Hartford High in 1890, she was invited to work as a teacher in one of the city’s newest innovations: kindergarten. This model taught younger children through playful hands-on learning, rather than traditional book reading and recitation. Hartford reformer Virginia Thrall Smith and other women established Connecticut’s first free kindergarten program at the City Missionary Society in 1881. Soon they successfully lobbied the legislature to authorize school districts to create kindergartens, and state’s first public school kindergarten opened at West Middle School in Hartford in 1886. Although kindergarten was initially created for Hartford’s poorer children, the program soon spread to the fifteen elementary schools across the city, which typically organized themselves into four grade departments: kindergarten, primary, intermediate, and grammar. At the highest grade levels, some elementary schools employed teachers (often male) in specialized subject areas, such as music, drawing, penmanship, science, and German. Some of Hartford’s elementary schools employed 35 teachers in 1890, in contrast to the one-room schoolhouses that dotted rural Connecticut.[12]

After graduating from high school, Mabel’s family was contacted by the head of the city’s South School District, near their home, who suggested that Mabel begin training as a kindergarten teacher while apprenticing as a classroom assistant. As part of this in-service training, she also studied the works of Friedrich Froebel, the German educator who founded the kindergarten movement. In 1891, Mabel worked alongside three other kindergarten teachers at the South School. Later, she moved to the Charter Oak Avenue School in Hartford, where she and her colleague Suzanne Thompson taught a total of at least 44 kindergarteners between them, judging from the classroom photographs.[13]

Mabel Florence White stands in the back center of this kindergarten classroom photo, probably at Charter Oak Avenue School in Hartford during the mid-1890s. Learn more in “Weaving the 1890s Biography of Mabel White,” in this volume. Source: Donation by family to Hartford Public Schools.[14]

After teaching kindergarten for nearly a decade, Mabel left her position in 1899. Although she experienced a golden age for urban education, this was not reflected in her wages. As was customary at this time, Mabel and other female teachers at her school earned an average of $57 per month, while two male teachers received $240 per month, more than four times the women’s rate. The accepted argument was that male teachers were expected to provide for their families, while it was not respectable for women teachers in this era to take on the role of the breadwinner. Instead, Mabel left the teaching profession and her family’s home when she married a physician and moved with him to Michigan to start their family. Yet this fifteen-year span of her story—as a student in the city’s prestigious high school and as a teacher in its innovative kindergarten program—captures how public education became such a powerful force in shaping the lives of families pursuing upward mobility for their  children.[15]

While this golden age for Hartford public education lasted for several decades into the twentieth century, it symbolized the system at large, not each individual neighborhood schools. At the top, Hartford Public High School continued to expand its curriculum as enrollments grew. During the early 1900s, the school added a scientific course of study in preparation for technical schools, manual training in preparation for skilled industrial work, a commercial program for business and secretarial work, and an evening program for students who held daytime jobs.[16] In the 1920s, Hartford built two more public high schools: Weaver on the north side and Bulkeley on the south side. Connecticut observers described Weaver as “the finest high school building in New England, so far as construction, arrangement, and equipment are concerned,” and noted that Bulkeley’s first principal held bachelor and doctoral degrees from Trinity College and Harvard University.[17] In 1937, Professor George Strayer and his research team from Teachers College at Columbia University conducted a detailed survey of Hartford schools, as they had done in several other cities. Strayer declared that “the reputation of the secondary schools of Hartford is widely and favorably known through eastern collegiate circles,” and that the city “is to be commended for maintaining the ‘gold standard’ of its college preparatory students.”[18]

By contrast, Strayer’s survey was most critical of the varying quality of facilities across Hartford’s twenty elementary schools and four junior high schools in 1937. Over half of these buildings were unsatisfactory, according to survey ratings, due to the lack of fire escapes on upper-story auditoriums, kindergarten classrooms located in basements, and toilet rooms lacking modern fixtures. But these facility ratings varied across the city, with no clear pattern based on geography or neighborhood income.[19] Furthermore, to draw a broader comparison, Hartford’s city system stood far above the rural schools of many nearby towns, which lacked auditoriums, kindergartens, and in some cases, indoor plumbing. *To come: evidence for facilities claim above and concluding paragraph*

  1. Mabel Florence White 1890s photos, Flickr, 2016,
  2. Henry Barnard, ed., "Connecticut - Civil Polity and Schools," in American Journal of Education, vol. 28 (Hartford Conn., 1878), 163–256,, especially pp. 208-10; C. Duncan Yetman, "The Hartford Public High School, 1639-1865" (Yale University thesis, 1956),, pp. 271, 307; "History of the School," Quadrennial Catalogue of the Hartford Public High School, 1904. (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Press, 1905),, pp. 9-23;  Luke R. J. Williams, "About Hartford Public High School: A Historic School," Hartford Public High School Museum & Archive, 2002,
  3. For Barnard's view of the "School Battle," see "Connecticut - Civil Polity and Schools," pp. 204, 240-46. See also Orwin Bradford Griffin, The Evolution of the Connecticut State School System, with Special Reference to the Emergence of the High School, (New York City: Teachers College, Columbia University, 1928), chapter 5, https:///; Edith Nye MacMullen, In the Cause of True Education: Henry Barnard & Nineteenth-Century School Reform (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991),; and Yetman, "Hartford Public High School," chapter 6. The title of Connecticut's oldest public high school is debatable. During Barnard's political battle in Hartford, the smaller community of Middletown created Connecticut's first publicly-funded high school system in 1840, and opened a new building in 1846. But Middletown High School initially charged tuition, while Hartford Public High School did not, according to Griffin, Evolution, p. 109. Both Hartford High and Middletown High School graduated their first class of seniors in 1848.
  4. Hartford Public High School storymap, 2016,
  5. Bernard C. Steiner, The History of Education in Connecticut (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1893),, p. 52.
  6. Quadrennial Catalogue of the Hartford Public High School, 1904. (Hartford, Conn.: Hartford Press, 1905),
  7. Annual Report of the Board of School Visitors of the Town of Hartford, 1890-91 (Hartford, Conn., 1891),, high school enrollment by curriculum and gender, p. 11, hours per class, p. 16, course of study grid, p. 38. On female teachers during the early years of Hartford Public High School, see Melissa Ladd Teed, “‘If I Only Wore a Coat and Pants’: Gender and Power in the Making of an American Public High School, 1847-1851,” Gender and History 16, no. 1 (2004): 123–45,; Melissa Ladd Teed, “Crafting Community: Hartford Public High School in the Nineteenth Century,” in Schools as Imagined Communities: The Creation of Identity, Meaning, and Conflict in U.S. History, ed. Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Sherman Dorn, and Barbara J. Shircliffe (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 51–78,
  8. On Mabel's age cohort, *CITE my 1890 census estimates (based on 1900 records)*, HPHS Register, and HPHS Catalogue 1904, p. 100. On early 1900s, see HPHS Catalogue 1904, pp. 45-46, 134 and *CITE* my 1900-School-Age-Attendance-Hartford.xlsx data. On national trends, see Thomas D. Snyder, ed., 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait (Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, US Department of Education, 1993),, figure 7, p. 27; figure 11, pp, 30-31. Note that US Census data on 15-19 year olds is not directly comparable to NCES data on 14-17 year olds. The Hartford rate for the latter group may be even higher.
  9. Annual Report of the Board of School Visitors of the Town of Hartford (Hartford, Conn.: Wiley, Waterman & Eaton, 1884), at HPHS Museum and Archives, pp. 18-19. Brackets indicate illegible words in the margin of the scanned page. *CHECK later and fix*
  10. *CITE* my table of HPHS Register student residency data from 1882-1920; HPHS Catalogue 1904, p. 24. On the growth of other CT high schools, see Griffin, Evolution, chapter 7.
  11. HPHS Catalogue, 1904, p. 100.
  12. Linda Smith Cohen, “Virginia Thrall Smith: Hartford City Missionary and Social Reformer” (Master’s thesis, Trinity College, 1990),; Cynthia Wolfe Boynton, “Chapter 3: Virginia Thrall Smith: Pioneering Children’s Rights Activist, 1836-1903,” in Remarkable Women of Hartford (The History Press, 2014),; Charles A. Ames, “History of Education in Connecticut from 1818 to 1925,” in History of Connecticut: In Monographic Form, Volume 5, ed. Norris G Osborn (New York: States History Co., 1925), 177–230,; Annual Report of the Board of School Visitors of the Town of Hartford, 1890-91 (Hartford, Conn., 1891),
  13. Phyllis Holbrook to Steve Keeney, Letter about Mabel Florence White Photographs, March 30, 1976, Hartford Public Schools, central office basement archives; Annual Report of the Board of School Visitors, 1890-91, p. 27.
  14. Mabel Florence White 1890s photos, Flickr, 2016,
  15. Annual Report of the Board of School Visitors, 1890-91, p. 27; “Yesterday’s Weddings: Marriage of Miss Mabel F. White and Dr. Holbrook,” Hartford Courant, September 7, 1899,
  16. Catalogue of the Hartford Public High School: Doce, Disce, Aut Discede, Tercentenary edition, 1638-1938 (Hartford: Hartford Press, 1941),
  17. ADD CITE Ames p205 on Weaver; check wording of degrees for Bulkeley principal Gustave Feingold in Burpee p838
  18. George D. Strayer and N. L. Engelhardt, The Hartford Public Schools in 1936-37: A Comprehensive Report of the Survey of the Public Schools of Hartford, Connecticut: Survey Pamphlet (New York: Division of Field Studies, Institute of Educational Research, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1937),, pamphlet XI, p. 13.
  19. ADD CITE correct part of Strayer report

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