Home gardening for town children, 1919.

“A garden for every child, every child in a garden.”

—–The motto of the United States School Garden Army

Michigan State University has preserved a large number of primary sources from the United States School Garden Army:

At the advent of World War I, the Bureau of Education within the Department of the Interior, with funding from the War Department, created the United States School Garden Army (USSGA) to boost the concept as well as morale. […] To support this program a series of documents were written and distributed.  Among these were at least 15 USSGA Manuals and Guides, and 17 School Home-Garden Circulars. The target audience was urban and suburban boys and girls, ages 9 through 15, and their teachers. The subjects covered growing vegetables from seed, growing flowers, building hotbeds and coldframes, organic matter and soil health, regional guides and others. As well as primary sources of gardening information from 1919, these guides are still applicable to the teachers, parents and young gardeners of today.

From an archived pamphlet (I’ve transcribed the text of the pamphlet below and highlighted a few particularly interesting sentences):

United States School Garden Army
Department of the Interior
Bureau of Education, Washington

Home Gardening for Town Children

Leaflet 1, November 1, 1919

by P.P. Claxton
Commissioner of Education


There is a need of suitable educative, purposeful, productive occupation for millions of school children in our cities, towns, manufacturing villages and suburban districts who now have no proper employment out of school hours.  In the cities, towns, manufacturing villages, and suburban communities of the United States there are approximately 13,000,000 children between the ages of 6 and 20.  Of these, about 9,750,000 are enrolled in the public and private schools.  The average daily attendance is approximately 6,500,000, two-thirds of the enrollment and one-half of the school population.  The average length of school term in the cities is 180 days.  The average attendance is 120 days.

Probably 5 per cent of these children are away from home during the summer vacation months with their parents at summer resorts or visiting in the country.  Between 5 and 10 per cent are employed in some useful, healthful, productive occupation.  Eight-five per cent remain at home without proper employment for any large part of their time.  Most of them have little opportunity for play.  Some of them work a portion of the time at occupations at which they earn very little and which are not suited for children of their age.  The dangers of idleness and unsuitable occupations are very great for all.  A large majority belong to families the members of which earn their living by their daily labor and whose earnings are so meager that anything which can be added by the children is much needed.  Many of them are cold in winter, and must go hungry much of the time.  More of them live in small, crowded rooms and in poorly furnished homes.  More than two-thirds of them leave school at 14 years of age or earlier, to become breadwinners.  Because of lack of proper contact with nature and the experience which comes from suitable, purposeful, productive occupations, most of them do not get from their years in school such education as they should.

Home gardening done by the children under the direction of the schools seems to offer what is needed.  In all of the manufacturing villages, suburban communities, and smaller towns, and in the outskirts of the larger towns and cities, there is much valuable land in back yards, vacant lots, and elsewhere which might be used for this purpose.  In every school in a community of this kind there should be at least one teacher who knows gardening both theoretically and practically.  This teacher, who should, of course, be employed 12 months in the year, should teach the elementary sciences in the schools during school hours and should, out of school hours, direct the home gardening of the children between the ages of 6 or 7 and 14 or 15.  If possible the teacher should have the assistance of an expert gardener, so that the work may be done in the most practical and profitable way.  The teacher and the gardener should help the children find the plots of ground near their homes best suited, properly plowed and prepared for cultivation, help them select seeds, and show them how to plant, cultivate, and harvest so as to obtain the best results.  The teacher should spend the afternoons and Saturdays of winter, spring, and fall when school is in session, and all of the vacation days of summer, if there are summer vacations, visiting the children in their homes, directing their work, and giving to each child such help as it most needs.  Once a week or oftener, during the vacation months, the teachers should assemble the children in groups for a discussion of their work and of the principles and methods involved.

Vegetables, berries, and fruits grown should be used first as food for the children and their families; then the surplus should be marketed to the best advantage.  Through the help of the teacher this can be done in a cooperative way.  Ten or fifteen cents’ worth of vegetables each day from the gardens of 200 children would amount to $29 or $30.  In summer and fall, when the surplus is large and can not be marketed to advantage, the teacher should direct and help the children in canning and preserving for winter home use or for sale.

It is difficult to estimate all the results of this plan once it is in full operation throughout the country.  For the children it will mean health, strength, joy in work, habits of industry, and understanding of the value of money as measured in terms of labor, and such knowledge of the phenomena and forces of nature as must be had for an understanding of most of their school lessons.  They will also learn something at least of the fundamental principle of morality, that every man and woman must make his or her own living; must, by some kind of labor of head, hand, or heart, contribute to the common wealth as much as or she takes from it; must pay in some kind of coin for what he or she gets.

The economic and sociological results are also worthy of consideration.  Experiments already made show that with proper direction an average child of the ages contemplated can produce on an eight of an acre of land from $50 to $100 worth of vegetables.  A third of the children in the city schools of the United States might easily produce $300,000,000 a year.

This plan in full operation would offer a valuable supplement to the child-labor laws.  A boy 10 or 12 years old, with a small plot of land, working under careful direction, can produce more for the support of the family than could be purchased with the same boy’s wages working factory, shop, or mill.  Children should not be ground in the mills nor sweated in the factories and shops; their strength should not be sapped and their nerves racked by working in the heat and dust and noise of indoors; yet all children should learn to work.  It is good for them, and they joy in it.

This plan in operation would do much to solve the problem of the idle Negro.  A large part of the Negroes of the Southern States live on the outskirts of cities and small towns.  Their cabin homes are frequently on large lots and surrounded with vacant lots covered with weeds and rubbish.  During the vacation months the Negro children roam idly on the streets, falling into mischief and vice.  Under proper direction they might make, on back yards and vacant lots, enough to support themselves and more. Incidentally these Negro quarters would be changed from places of ugliness to places of beauty.

Probably the most valuable result of this plan would be found in the fact that it would make it easy for most children to attend school three or four years longer than they now do, a thing more and more desirable, since education for life and citizenship in our industrial, civic, and social democracy can not be obtained before the age of adolescence.

Compared with the results, the cost would inconsiderable.  No addition to the number of teachers would be required.  It would only be necessary to require different preparation for one teacher in each school.  Fifty thousand such teachers would be sufficient for all the city, town, and manufacturing village schools in the United States.  To add $500 to the salary of one teacher in each school in order to retain his or her services throughout the entire 12 months would require an additional expenditure of $25,000,000, only one-twelfth of the present total cost of these schools and less than one-eighth of the total value of what might easily be produced by the healthful, joyous, educative labor of children who now spend much more than half of their working hours in idleness, hurtful to them physically, mentally, and morally.

Work under this plan should become a regular part of the school curriculum.  Gardening merits as definite a place in the school course as any other subject.  The United States School Garden Army was organized for the purpose of assisting school officials in making gardening a part of school work.  The enrollment of pupils in a National organization will increase interest in gardening, teach unity of action, and help to create a spirit of patriotism.

I think it would be nice to see a revived interest in gardening as part of the curriculum.  One of the school buildings I work in is considered rural and has a school garden; the children were out picking weeds even though there were flurries today and tables full of seed pots are out in the hallways now.  It’s a small project though, and it would be nice to see more schools integrate gardening and home food production in the curriculum.

This is an area where homeschoolers can really lead the way, too.  If you are educating your children at home, perhaps adding in gardening and food preservation to your curriculum (if you haven’t already) might be interesting and practical.







3 thoughts on “Home gardening for town children, 1919.

  1. Several months ago in Musings on free-range parenting, comfort-addicted kids, and underdeveloped gross motor skills I wrote:

    More than a few kids, though, don’t even want to go out.

    I ask some of the kids about what they did over the weekend, if they went outside to play at all; some do, but a lot don’t. And to be truthful, my own children will moo about being sent outside sometimes; they’d often rather lounge around inside. I find this odd because as a kid, I couldn’t wait to get out the door, even in bad weather.

    But I realized something today. You see, the third grade had gone out even though it was windy and cold to pick up litter and pull weeds from the garden areas behind the school next to the playground. I went outside to retrieve a trio of students to come to speech group; usually they like it but today they groaned and begged to be allowed to stay out. I was surprised; one of them in particular doesn’t like playing outside much, but she got very busy chasing down a piece of litter when she saw me coming today – and normally she likes coming with me! I think it was the chance to do useful work with their friends that had them excited and interested.

    You see, children really do like purposeful work, especially if they are guided into and through it. They like to work together with others, in particular with their friends and family (kith and kin, as it were). We’ve forgotten that children really aren’t happiest lazing around in front of a screen, but given some encouragement and the chance to be productive with and for the people they care about, children like to do purposeful work.

    A lot of what children are asked to do in a day feels like boring busy work to them. School gardens would really be beneficial (or home gardens for the homeschoolers) to get kids excited about learning and to teach them the pleasure of working hard to produce something useful.


  2. That’s a wonderful pamphlet.

    There are some great initiatives where chefs get involved with gardens and teach kids how to prepare their own produce. There’s some anecdotal evidence that children who learn to grow vegetables are much more open to eating a wider range of vegetables than their peers.


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