In the fall of 1862, one year after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Edward Pickering began his studies at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School. The young scholar was sixteen years old, a year younger than the school itself, which was founded in 1847 with a gift from textile magnate Abbott Lawrence. At sixteen years old, Edward must have been wide-eyed at the prospect of studying science and technology, two subjects close to his heart and a far cry from the classical liberal arts curriculum he had been subjected to at Boston Latin.
But he would not have had the opportunity to study science at Harvard, or any other college of his day, had it not been for changing attitudes toward science since the colonies won their independence from Britain in the 1780s. The Revolutionary War, a grueling seven-year experience, served as a tremendous catalyst to the new country, a spark igniting the hearts and minds of its citizenry. The overarching theme in the early days of the post Revolutionary War period—beyond the basic desire for freedom—was an overwhelming thirst for knowledge, a thirst driven by two forces: the specific desire to improve one’s circumstance and a general desire for the social and economic progress of the new republic.
The intersection of these two forces was no more palpable in nineteenth-century America than in the burgeoning city of Boston, often referred to as the “Athens of America.”2It was here that many of America’s early educational institutions were envisioned, created, and tested. Not only did the greater Boston area host the country’s first Latin grammar school and college, it was also the home of Horace Mann, the nation’s first state secretary of education and one of the founders of the Common School Movement. It is no wonder that Boston became the hub of many other educational initiatives as well. Being the civic-minded town that it was, Boston saw the organization of a number of learned societies, technical institutes, and public lecture programs, each focused on the dissemination of knowledge, especially of a useful, practical kind.
One of the first groups to address the needs of unskilled young workers was the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association, founded initially to stem the tide of apprentices fleeing their apprenticeships before their contract was up. The apprenticeship, which was an age-old European custom that provided master craftsmen with low-cost workers while training young boys in a trade that could sustain them throughout their adult life, worked well unless masters abused the power of their office or their apprentices—once skilled—chose to leave their appointment prematurely in order to seek work at journeymen’s wages.
In Boston, as elsewhere, the problem of runaway apprentices was a nagging concern. In response to the problem several Bostonians, including Paul Revere who ran a copper-sheathing business, stepped up to address the issue. The result was the formation of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association in 1795. The group’s annual report a century later outlined the persistent problem:
“At that time it was usual for master mechanics in every line of industry to keep apprentices, bound by agreement to serve them during their minority. These being practically trained in all the details of their respective trades would, in many instances, after attaining their majority, in turn become masters themselves, thus perpetuating the line of master mechanics personally and thoroughly skilled in their respective callings. Such apprentices frequently became expert workmen before the expiration of their terms of service, and occasionally were dishonest enough to leave their masters and seek employment elsewhere, in order sooner to obtain journeymen’s wages.”3
For the first few years of its existence, the association focused primarily on the apprentice problem, developing a certificate of completion that was given to each apprentice at the successful conclusion of his apprenticeship, a certificate he had to produce in order to be hired as a journeyman. That seemed to stem the tide of most premature departures; as such, the group turned its attention to providing social and educational opportunities for its members and their apprentices. As a result, within a few short years, the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association hosted lectures, exhibitions, conferences, evening classes, as well as a library and a school—all focused on supporting tradesmen and their apprentices in the mechanic or practical arts. In other words, the group’s answer to the apprenticeship problem—beyond a certificate of completion—was a bold, progressive plan of education and technical training.
One of the most beneficial and lasting outcomes of the association was its library, which came about in 1820, when Boston merchant William Wood informed members of the association that he was interested in donating several hundred books to the group as the nucleus of a lending library for use by members’ apprentices. Within a few years, Wood’s interest blossomed into a full-fledged library of over fifteen hundred volumes. However, the time and effort needed to maintain the library became so great that the group’s members voted to hand the administration of the library over to the apprentices themselves. In 1828, they did just that, encouraging the apprentices to form their own organization—the Mechanic Apprentices Library Association. For the next several decades, members of the Mechanic Apprentices Library Association supervised the book-lending program, solicited new donations, monitored monthly subscriptions, purchased, processed, and shelved new books, and generally helped maintain and run the library.
Whereas the focus of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association was on the working-class adult, it did not ignore the public school system. Leaders of the group often had a close working relationship with members of the Boston School Committee, an institution that dated back to the mid-seventeenth century, with members often sharing leadership positions in both organizations. This was not out of the ordinary, rather another example of the far-reaching arm of any city’s business community, a community interested in many things, but especially in producing skilled workers to fill the ranks of their manufacturing, mercantile, and banking endeavors.
Since existing forms of education in and around Boston—the town school, the private academy, the Latin grammar school, and the classically-oriented college—didn’t address these needs sufficiently, members of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanics Association took it upon themselves to develop a free, tax-supported secondary school with a strong vocational emphasis. Boston already had a free, tax-supported secondary school—The Latin Grammar School of Boston—but that school existed for a small percentage of the population. Since admission to Boston Latin depended upon a student’s ability to pass a set of rigorous entrance exams, it presumed that a family could afford to send its sons to a private academy or to hire a tutor to prepare them for the exams. As such, the desks of Boston Latin were often filled with the sons (daughters would come later) of those who could most afford to prepare them for entry into the school.
What was needed was another secondary school experience, one that was also free and tax-supported, but open to the sons (again, daughters would come later) of the working class. A school where, along with grammar, rhetoric, English literature and composition, moral philosophy, history, civics, and geography, students could take courses in surveying, navigation, map reading, astronomy, optics, bookkeeping, even penmanship as they prepared for careers as accountants, surveyors, notaries, clerks, merchants, bankers, and the like.