First day of school in New York: then and now

On September 8, public schools across the city will reopen their doors after summer break.

That’s about a week earlier than opening day in 1915, when kids headed back to “elementary, high, and training schools” on September 13.


A moved-up first day isn’t the only difference between opening day in 2016 and opening day today.

In 1915, about 800,000 kids attended public school in New York City. Department of Education stats from 2015 put that number at just over a million students.


Unlike their contemporary counterparts, teachers in 1915 were not unionized. Most were female, and once they became pregnant, they were fired.

This was actually an improvement over the previous longstanding, perfectly legal practice of booting teachers once they married. That rule was challenged in court in 1904.

Openingdaynycschoolsbain1915 girls

One thing hasn’t changed: overcrowding. In 1915, school “congestion” was so bad, thousands of kids were forced to go part-time while some schools, like Morris High School in the Bronx, held two sessions a day to accommodate everyone, according to the New York Times.


Oh, and (most) kids look just as excited on opening day 1915 as they typically do at back to school time—with what look like new clothes, hair ribbons, school bags, and caps for the boys, as these Library of Congress/George Bain images reveal.

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7 Responses to “First day of school in New York: then and now”

  1. Richard Kenyon Says:

    Looks like the girls are all virtually wearing a uniform white dress, and many of them have bows in their hair, similar to what we see today with little Russian girls. In the second picture, all the men and boys are wearing a cap (boys) or a hat (men), while the women and girls are bareheaded, save for the three women at the far left of the picture, And, nary a soul is wearing glasses!

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Interesting about the clothes: almost all the girl students are wearing black or white stockings. And heavy black lace-up shoes.

  2. nwpaintedlady Says:

    ~ especially enjoyed this post as I will be ‘starting’ our school year Sept 7th ~ great post

  3. Tom B Says:

    Was there segregation in the NYC public school system back then? The building looks new and expensive. The kids don’t look poor but they don’t look rich either, just very clean looking. The men wearing the skimmer and derby hats would be profiled as a potential pedophiles now.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    New York City and segregation have a strange history. Streetcars, which were run by private companies, were desegregated in the mid-19th century. And until 1950, private residential developments like Stuyvesant Town were legally allowed to ban African Americans.
    I don’t believe there was any school segregation, except the de facto kind that happens when neighborhoods coalesce along ethnic lines.

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