Today, the Ethical Culture Fieldston School is a prestigious K-12 school serving more than 1,600 students on campuses in Manhattan and Riverdale. But like many long-running New York institutions—including the New-York Historical Society—the school has seen multiple iterations and locations before settling into its current form.
The school’s story begins with the Free Kindergarten, which opened in 1878 with six students. It was incorporated as the Workingman’s School the following year, began to enroll some paying students soon after, and officially became the Ethical Culture School in 1895.
Workingman’s School progress reports mention some subjects familiar to today’s students (arithmetic, history, physics) and some that are much less likely to be found in 21st century curriculum (elocution, mineralogy, needle work).
Practical skills, referred to as “manual training,” were emphasized from the beginning, with classes in mechanical drawing, shop, and dress-making. However, the school was not founded simply as a trade school, but as a place to enrich the moral and cultural life of students. Elaborate festivals and performances were held for school assemblies and graduations, to mark the spring and fall seasons, and at holidays such Christmas and Washington’s Birthday.
Not only did these festivals give students a chance to display their new skills through the construction of sets and costumes or the recitation of poetry, but the events fit into the Ethical Culture School’s loftier goals as well. As Principal Percival Chubb wrote in 1904, “it is important to keep alive in the child those feelings of joy and gratitude, of admiration and awe, of which the festival has at all times been the expression.”
The New York World covered the school’s annual Autumn Festival in a 1901 article: “The last scene was a grand tableau representing the homage of the nations to the ideal humanity. A young woman representing Ideal Humanity was seated above the platform nearly covered with flowers and the Nations were represented by little girls who recited appropriate verses in the various European languages.”
The rest of the article focused on the school’s remarkable, if unconventional, teaching staff, including gymnast Caroline T. Haven, called a “radical dress reformer” for shunning corsets, and naturalist Henry A. Kelly, noted for his beetle collection and his devotion to “the great world of bugs, lizards, and hoptoads.” (Kelly turned out to be very devoted to the Ethical Culture Schools as well—he continued to teach there until his death in 1941.)
School administrators saw the festival as integral to the school’s mission, and even offered a course in “festival methods” in the school’s teacher training division. Festivals were seen as a way to impart valuable lessons to students without being didactic—as Principal Chubb put it, to reach “unsuspecting hearts.” Chubb and others even saw the festival as way to combat larger societal ills: “It is thus that we can develop—unconsciously of course—that underlying consciousness of kind, of human solidarity, or co-operative unity, which may offset the crude and narrow individualism that everywhere menaces us.”
This post is by Project Archivist Alexanne Levengood, who is processing the recently donated archives of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. The collection is not yet accessible to researchers.