Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Edith + Edith Again

The H. W. Wilson Company produced The Debaters
Handbook Series 
between 1910 and about 1950.

In 1907, a Minneapolis publishing executive named Halsey W. Wilson was looking for writers and researchers to work for his growing company.  Spurred by his wife, Justina, he asked a University of Minnesota professor to recommend several alumnae.  A young woman named Edith Phelps left her teaching job and came on board right away. 

In short order, Edith would become a supervisor and editor at the H. W. Wilson Company.  She wrote dozens of guides to such topics as the income tax, immigration, and the League of Nations.  

These became known as “debaters’ handbooks,” and were used by high school and college teams who sparred competitively about the social policies and laws of the rising century. 

But really, the handbooks had a larger significance.  They were particularly useful to people who lived in rural areas, with their reach extending well beyond debaters to men’s and women’s clubs, voting leagues, and adult education programs.  

In fact, making this literature widely available tied into the Progressive ideal of educating as many Americans as possible. 

Halsey W. Wilson
In 1913, when Halsey Wilson decided to move his company to New York City, Edith Phelps went with him.  For the next 40 years, she worked in the vanguard of what became known as information sciences.  In 1922, she became an officer of the company. 

Back to the other Edith.

Within several years of Edith Penney’s arrival in New York, she made her mark on one of the most innovative projects in the history of American education: The Eight-Year Study.  This experiment posed a challenge to the time-honored methods of evaluating college applicants long used by admissions officials. 

The study explored whether students’ performance in the college preparatory curriculum was the best indicator of college readiness and future success.  What would happen if students were to pursue an alternative high school curriculum in the humanities and social sciences?

That question lay at the heart of The Eight-Year Study, launched in 1930 by the Progressive Education Association.  That year, high school teachers and administrators started to collaborate with researchers and college professors to revise the traditional curriculum. 

Between 1933 and 1940, 29 public and private high schools and 200 colleges and universities participated in the experiment.

Along came more classes in the manual and fine arts, a shift from survey-style courses to electives that focused on a few texts or a historical era, and the elimination of material that students had regurgitated since elementary school.  There was a concerted effort to embrace unconventional opinions and interpretations.   

The outcomes were positive.  When it came to college the Eight-Year Study students turned out to be as successful as students who followed an established curriculum.  They also developed a wider range of interests outside the classroom.    

As a high school principal and member of two committees that directed the study, Edith Penney became committed to educational reforms that would have been unheard of during her Minnesota childhood.  

Radical as the work seemed during the 1930s, several of the ideas that emerged from The Eight-Year Study have endured.

 The Eight-Year Study was published
in 1942 in five volumes.
Professional development for teachers, testing methods that would provide more accurate and meaningful measures of students’ knowledge, and greater variety and student choice of courses were among the changes.  

High schools also began to push back against onerous college entrance requirements. 

Unfortunately, the results of The Eight-Year Study received little attention when they were published in 1942.  Some critics thought they were inconclusive while others feared change.  Regardless, by the time the war ended, school administrators were not in the mood to innovate.  Every so often, however, the study draws renewed attention.

Edith May Penney retired in 1948 and died at the age of 96 in 1974.

Edith May Phelps retired in 1948 and died at the age of 98 in 1980.

Continued from post June 5, 2019.


Friday, June 21, 2019

The Little House at Melrose

Wedged between two buildings at the Melrose station
along the Metro North line to North White Plains

I have traveled along this train route thousands of times and never noticed this little pink house.  It reminded me, of course, of the book called The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, published in 1942.  

The Little House is a beloved children's classic.  The story goes that the house was built around 1900 far out in the countryside.  Over the years, however, the city encroached with roads, shops, and skyscrapers. 

By 1940, the house was stuck between two tall buildings and coated with soot.  One day, the great-great-granddaughter of the original owner of the house spotted it and decided to move it back where it came from. 

The house was loaded onto a flatbed and driven far from the city.  It ended up perched happily on a hill in the country.

Now, once more it was surrounded by grass and trees, with no noise except for the birds singing.  Once again, the little house could see the stars shining at night.

Who knows the story of the little house at the Melrose station?

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Edith + Edith

Edith May Penney, passport photo, 1930s

Once there were two women named Edith May, and coincidentally both of their surnames started with a “P.”     

On top of such fortuity, both women were born in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota.  Each launched her career there; each in the field of education.  Both moved to New York and never returned to their native state.  But they did not know each other. 

For a long time I have juxtaposed them in my mind.  It’s not just the coincidences listed above, but also the allure of their American lives.  Neither married.  Both descended from English settlers.  Both were very serious people.  One of the women lived to the age of 98; the other, 96.            

These two could have been Victorians, but they cast off the demon.

Edith Penney was born in 1878, the daughter of Frederick Constant Penney and his wife, May.  The descendants of New England farmers, Frederick and May were swept into the great westward movement during the early 1870s when the Civil War was a fresh memory.  In a wagon they traveled to Minneapolis, whose population would soar from 13,000 in 1870 to 165,000 in 1890.
Soon after they arrived, Frederick zoomed into real estate.  He purchased land that would eventually be incorporated into the new city, and improved it by grading and paving the streets.  He made a lot of money, and then became a builder.

Although Frederick lived to the age of 108, he never again saw Canaan, Maine, nor his father, Uriah, and brothers and sisters Sylvanus, Almira, Arvesta, Isaac and Silas.   

However, Frederick and May would return east in 1925 when Edith, now an English teacher, was hired as high school principal in a village just outside New York City.  The family bought property in the town next door – far more affordable – and Frederick built a stone house that still stands, its back to the woods and a meandering creek. 

Edith Phelps was also an educator, but in a different way from Edith Penney.  

Born in 1881 in Beaver Falls, Minnesota, she too was the daughter of an East Coast transplant.  Her father, Charles Levi Phelps, had been a little boy when he and his family departed from New York before the Civil War.  Charles would meet and marry Alice, a Wisconsin native.  He worked in a sheet metal plant, as a grocer, and as a foreman in a flour mill.  The family moved around the city as his income dictated. 

Edith and Aura Phelps, center and right;
University of Minnesota yearbook (1907)

When the University of Minnesota beckoned to Edith and her younger sister, Aura Idella, the parents encouraged them to go.  Upon graduation in 1907, Edith and Aura became teachers.  Then an unusual opportunity came along.

University of Minnesota
For nearly 10 years, a Minneapolis entrepreneur named Halsey W. Wilson had capitalized on rising literacy among Americans.  He, too, was a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and owned a bookstore near campus.  As the twentieth century loomed on the horizon, Wilson noticed a trend.  His customers increasingly asked for specific articles, or for all articles on one particular topic.  He started reprinting these articles as a side business. 

H.W. Wilson Company Bookstore, circa 1900

But how did the readers learn about the articles they sought?

Only by word of mouth, Wilson realized.  There was no place to go look things up, no compendium that listed recently published material.  So he started to produce digests of articles and books, a book review index, informational handbooks, bibliographies, and, perhaps most famously, the weighty The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, each volume of which required a crane to be lifted from a library shelf.*

These reference guides may sound dull as dishwater.  But they were extremely important to enthusiastic readers.  Schools, libraries, scholars and students – no one could get information fast enough. 

Now Wilson needed intelligent, motivated employees to make it happen at lightning speed. 

See post on June 26, 2019, for part 2.
*The H. W. Wilson Company is still in the information business, although today its products are largely digital.

The Little Time Traveler

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