Schools in Department Stores?: Continuation Schools and Department Store Employees

By Sandra Roff

Lord & Taylor, Fifth Ave. 39th St., Social Service for Employees, Interior, Classroom. Source: Museum of the City of New York

Lord & Taylor, Fifth Ave. 39th St., Social Service for Employees, Interior, Classroom. Source: Museum of the City of New York

“Mr. Selfridge” and “The Paradise” are two recent PBS series that dramatize working in the new department stores established in Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Across the Atlantic, department stores were similarly enjoying success with stores opening and expanding to meet the demands of consumers. However, it was not just the sale of material goods to consumers that took place in these stores, but also activities that seemed to benefit employees. Forward-thinking employers believed they had a responsibility to provide for the welfare of their employees, whether it was for medical care, recreation, or even schooling: a movement known as Industrial Paternalism.

Schooling was an important issue in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as the education of immigrants was seen as a crucial means of integrating them into an upwardly-mobile American society. Unfortunately, many children were forced to drop out of school early and seek employment. To try to accommodate these children in the workforce, the New York State Education Department passed an evening school law in 1910 that made it mandatory for boys to attend evening school for six hours per week, for 16 weeks to qualify for an evening school certificate. [1] According to Professor Arthur J. Jones, writing in 1916, there was dissatisfaction with the evening school law of 1910:

It has become increasingly apparent [] that there are distinct limitations to the usefulness of the evening school. The amount of time given is very small compared with that of the day school. The usual time is two hours per evening for four evenings a week and twenty weeks a year, making a total of only one hundred and sixty hours altogether. Add to this the fact that the pupil has practically no time for study, that he is tired and sleepy, and we begin to realize how meagre are these educational opportunities at best.[2]

Even though the law was on the books, students didn’t attend. Social workers, employers and educators supported the young workers and the Wilmot Law was passed in 1913 which allowed local communities to force children between the ages of fourteen and sixteen who had dropped out of school to attend school during the day for four hours a week.[3]

Now the time was right for businesses to get involved in the education of their young employees. Those who were fortunate enough to be employed in department stores after 1914 were offered a chance to attend school while working. In 1914 what became known as continuation classes were started with the cooperation of the Board of Education of the City of New York. By 1915 the Journal of the Board of Education of the City of New York reported that all continuation classes organized in department stores, hotels and neighborhood houses be under the jurisdiction of the Committee on Vocational Schools and Industrial Training of the City of New York. Although this seems like a worthy endeavor by the owners of department stores, it wasn’t without controversy. The New York Times reported that the Retail Clerks’ Union protested the opening of these schools. “In this protest the union says that from reports it has at hand it is apparent that the vocational course given in the continuation classes will be a substitute for compulsory night school education.”[4]

Even before the Wilmot Law, there were early ventures into the education of workers in department stores. Siegel-Cooper, a massive department store on the corner of 19th street and Sixth Avenue was already participating by offering classes as early as 1896. The New York Times stated: “For them [young girls and boys] the firm will provide a free grammar school, where they will be permitted to spend two hours every day. The textbooks will be furnished free and the girls and boys will receive the same instruction they would get in the public schools.”[5] Another New York City department store, James A. Hearn & Co. also provided an opportunity for cash girls and boys as well as other young employees of the store to attend classes at the store. The New York Times reported that: “The schoolroom was opened on one of the upper floors of the establishment, and all day long children are sent in relays to the classes, where they are taught writing, reading, arithmetic, spelling, history, and general deportment. As an incentive to do good work in the school, advancement in the store is made dependent upon the standing of the candidate in his or her class.”[6]

After the passage of the Wilmot Law many more New York City department stores joined the movement and began offering classes. In 1914 Lord & Taylor took the lead and began a school for saleswomen, a different undertaking than the continuation schools, since the curriculum was limited to specific sales skills. Three New York women, Anne Morgan, Mrs. Henry Olliesheimer and Virginia Potter promoted the idea of a school in the store for two years. Potter and Olliesheimer founded the Manhattan Trade School for Girls and Morgan was a member of the vacation committee. They surveyed department stores to determine the requirements for a good saleswoman.[7] Miss Porter said: “While the first school is more or less experimental this is to be no small matter; we are working it out on a big scale, and we expect it to be as firm as a great university, and to spread all over the country.”[8] Classes were held four days a week, from 9:30 to 10:15 and they covered topics such as fashions, color, and a study of the stock.[9] At B. Altman and Co. an academic program conducted by the Board of Education was aimed at girls who had not completed grammar school was started in 1914. Graduation from the program was newsworthy and the New York Times ran the headline, “Altman Girl Win School Diplomas.” “Fifteen attractive young girls were graduated yesterday afternoon from the school which is held daily for the younger employes [sic] of the firm of B. Altman & Co. on the twelfth floor of the annex to the firm’s building, on Fifth Avenue.”[10] The following year Greenhut’s “Big Store” on Sixth Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets graduated nine girls from a continuation class. “The Class is composed of girls who receive instruction in common branches taught in elementary schools, with special relation to business application.”[11] Mr. Greenhut presented each pupil with a pin and urged them to make use of their opportunities. [12] The Altman school graduations continued to make headlines into the 1920s.

B. Altman's (now The Graduate Center) at 34th street and Fifth Avenue, 1915. Source: Museum of the City of New York

B. Altman's (now The Graduate Center) at 34th street and Fifth Avenue, 1915. Source: Museum of the City of New York

Lord & Taylor, Fifth Ave. & 39th St., Group of Girls and Boys (Graduates). Source: Museum of the City of New York

Lord & Taylor, Fifth Ave. & 39th St., Group of Girls and Boys (Graduates). Source: Museum of the City of New York

These schools seemed to have had their day by the end of the 1920s and were an experiment which eventually passed into mercantile history. Vocational education took on a new role and these vocational schools took the place of the continuation schools. In 1933, B. Altman and Co. began another experiment — a cooperative graduate course in retailing with the Columbia School of Business.[13] This program probably morphed into the many graduate programs offered in the city as retailing became a highly sought after specialty.

New York City department stores played an impressive role in trying to serve their young employees at a time when attending school was not economically feasible for many boys and girls. These continuation schools provided an opportunity for these students to get a basic education and perhaps even economic mobility. This was an example of the private sector venturing into the public domain in an effort to improve the lives of a small group of New Yorkers. With the demise of many department stores by the later part of the twentieth century, it is important to look back and recognize the role that they played in educating their employees.

Sandra Roff is a Professor and Head of Archives & Special Collections at Baruch College, City University of New York.


[1] Education Department Bulletin. Albany, New York, no.474 (July, 1910): 134. Google Books.

[2] Arthur J. Jones, “Continuation Schools,” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 67, (1916): 177.

[3] Edward Mayman, “The Evolution of the Continuation School in New York City,” The School Review 41, no.3 (1933): 195-98.

[4] “Protest Store Classes,” New York Times, March 13, 1914: 14.

[5] “Great Department Store,” New York Times, August 16, 1896: 3.

[6] “School for Store Children: James A. Hearn & Co. Will Give Instruction to Boys and Girls,” New York Times, November 10, 1901, 24.

[7] “Workers’ School Opened In Store,” New York Times, August 5, 1914, 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Id.

[10] “Altman Girls Win School Diplomas,” New York Times, July 1, 1915, 6.

[11] “Big Store’ Commencement,” New York Times, July 2, 1916, E5.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “New Retail Course: Altman’s and Columbia Cooperate in Move to Train Executives,” New York Times, January 15, 1933, N16.