Tracking down the stories behind a trove of 1920s report cards from a NYC girls' vocational school

Writing in Slate, Paul Lukas tells a fascinating series of New York stories that he learned when he decided to track down the subjects of a packet of 1920s report cards from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls he'd rescued from the trash. The school was a revolutionary experiment in free, public, desegregated education for the girl-children of poor immigrant families, and included a job-placement scheme that tracked the graduates for years after they left school. Lukas tracked down several of the families of these graduates and learned how the school affected their lives, in a long feature that is both inherently fascinating and very well-told.
I have 395 student records, all from a now-defunct vocational institution originally called the Manhattan Trade School for Girls and later known by several other names (Manhattan Industrial High School, the Manhattan High School for Women's Garment Trades, and Mabel Dean Bacon Vocational School). For the purposes of simplicity, I will refer to it by its original name throughout this series of articles. Click here for a detailed description of the cards as physical objects.

Girls attended Manhattan Trade in lieu of high school, usually beginning when they were 14 or 15, and were expected to finish by the time they turned 17. The school was founded in 1902 by a group of wealthy progressives and offered one- and two-year programs in a variety of disciplines, primarily in the "needle trades" (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery) and, to a lesser extent, the "brush and glue trades" (sample catalog mounting, novelty box making, lampshade making). The curriculum also stressed thrift, home economics, personal presentation, and other life skills that would help the students survive in the labor marketplace. Many thousands of students attended the school over the years, so the 395 report cards in my collection are just a snapshot of the school's operations. (We'll take a closer look at the school later in this series.)

All 395 students were female. Most were born between 1900 and 1920, and a few in the late 1800s, which means they attended Manhattan Trade primarily in the 1910s, '20s, and '30s. They came from all five boroughs of New York City, and a few lived in New Jersey and Connecticut.

Permanent Record (via Kottke)


  1. Very cool project, but I wonder if it’s actually legal, or if it runs afoul of the Federal Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA). The release of educational records is quite regulated.

  2. Yup, seems the women in these cards are all dead (most of them would be in their 90s or 100s, so it isn’t very surprising). The article is truly fascinating, great find there and great researching.

  3. This is great.  I am presently working (as a volunteer) on an archive that is partially made up of documents relating to an alternative junior high school in New York that was called the Paul Hoffman Junior High School or PS 45. Other than what I find in these boxes, I haven’t been able to track down much info about the school. This might inspire me to try to track down former students and their descendants to fill in some of the blanks.

    1. Neat, as if the school records as presented didn’t already bring the story to life in an extremely evocative way! I went to U of R and am a big fan of the Eastman House (well, the film screenings at the Dryden Theater in particular).

  4. I’ve done a lot of public records research. Public records 100 or more years ago existed to document what was going on. Hand written, full of extraneous details, with decent penmanship and plentiful facts.  Todays public records exist to cover the ass of the administrators and convey no more than the mandated minimum of actual fact.  This is true from the local fire department all the way up to the pentagon.

  5. One nagging question… what percentage of these records was left behind, and presumably is now in a landfill somewhere? And to take it further… how many other neglected file cabinets like these are out there (and how many are in landfills)?

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