Thursday, August 20, 2009

Dr. Belfield, Chicago Manual Training School, 1884

From Dr. Henry H. Belfield's 1884 address to the Chicago Manual Training School Association:
The fact should never be lost sight of for an instant that the product of the school should be, not the polished article of furniture, not the perfect piece of machinery, but the polished, perfect boy. The acquisition of industrial skill should be the means of promoting the general education of the pupil; the education of the hand should be the means of more completely and more efficaciously educating the brain.
This following resolution was passed at the National Education Association (NEA) meeting at Saratoga Springs, NY, 1885... "
Resolved, that we trust the time is near at hand when the true principles of the kindergarten will guide all elementary training, and when public sentiment and legislative enactment will incorporate the kindergarten into our public-school system."
Unfortunately they tabled the following at the same meeting in their failure to grasp the linkage between kindergarten and manual training:
"Resolved, That we recognize the education value of training the hand to skill in the use of tools, and recommend that provision be made, as far as practicable, for such training in public schools."


  1. The Chicago Manual Training School eventually became the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, where I was a student from 1966-1978 (K-12.) One of the greatest influences the school had on me were the great woodshops - the middle school shop in Belfield Hall and the high school shop in Blaine Hall. When I was in 4th grade I turned my first bowl on a lathe. In 6th grade I built an acoustic guitar. Many of the lessons I learned at this early age are still with me to this day. (I am a furniture designer and woodworker living in Minneapolis, Minn.) Sadly, the Lab School shops no longer exist, replaced many years ago by computer labs. I am disappointed that kids these days won't get the same amazing experience that I had. In fact, I often wonder if they know how to do much of anything at all that is practical, honest, or useful.

  2. "I often wonder if they know how to do much of anything at all that is practical, honest, or useful." For some, we know the answer is no. And yet, if they had the opportunity to fulfill natural inclinations to make beautiful and useful objects, they would be far more likely to succeed in school and in life.

  3. I have been searching around on the internet for a history of the Chicago Manual Training School. I found a reference to an architect who graduated from it, but for all its groundbreaking role in its day, it is obscure enough to not even have a Wikipedia page.

    It is much discussed in Charles Ham's 1890s book on the Manual Training Movement. Doug, M, and anyone else; Do you know any written sources for history on what happened to the manual training movement and the Chicago Manual Training School?

    I grew up in 1970s/1980s Ontario Canada, and shop class was offered in every high school. We had polytechnic and trade-focused "tech" schools as well. It is my opinion that the name "Manual Training Movement" died, and that the shop class was born out of its ashes at some point in the 1950s or 1960s.

    My brother is a "tech" teacher who teaches "construction tech" and woodworking. My feeling is that the problem is that one can elect to not take shop, and not learn ANYTHING useful by the time one has graduated from high-school. That is a shame.

    Warren Postma
    Toronto Canada

  4. Hi Warren,

    An analysis of what happened to the Manual Training Movement (as well as the Progresive era in general) is unfortunately beyond my pay grade. That said, I can offer some other perhaps pertinent insight. First, I would point to the works of Philip Jackson, a John Dewey scholar and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago. This book might be a good starting point,

    Second, I can tell you that Belfield Hall still exists as an arts education center at the University of Chicago Lab Schools and is currently being reinvented. While the main corridor (which housed the woodshop and foundry, drafting studio, photography studios, home economics, theater, and music classes) has now been leveled, the East and West towers (which were really the only architecturally significant portion of the complex) still stand and have been integrated into a newfanlged arts complex that is being built to replace the old one. In fact, a significant portion of the funding is coming from George Lucas and new wife Melanie Hobson, a Chicago native and former key player at Ariel Investments (run by former Lab School attendee, John Rogers.) For more info see here:


  5. The same sorts of conversion have taken place all over the US. Teacher's College in NYC started due to the need to teach teachers to teach manual arts, and their first building on the new upper Westside Campus adjoining Columbia University was the Macy Manual Arts building. The building still stands, but it has art classes, and no woodworking tools of any kind.