I receive many archives questions via telephone call, but this was definitely one of the most interesting. The woman on the other end of the line described her question: a family history search had turned up a family member name in a US census from the 1920s. This family member, George, had been a young boy, elementary age, at the time of the census, and the census taker had registered him as being an “inmate” at Seattle Pacific College. What could that possibly mean?
In the early part of the 20th century, teacher training was done at “Normal Schools,” and part of that training involved, as it does today, practice teaching on actual students. In current times, teachers-in-training go to elementary or secondary schools to do this practice teaching, but in the early part of last century, many Normal Schools had their own elementary schools attached, so that the trainee teachers wouldn’t have to go far to find students to practice on. Seattle Pacific’s Normal School (the forerunner to today’s School of Education) had its own small elementary school, which was also a boarding school. The students there would come from far away and live on campus during the school year.
Perhaps you, knowing this, can see why young George would be at Seattle Pacific College. He was one of the boarding students in the Normal School’s Elementary Department. A search of the SPC Catalog from the year in question revealed his name on a list of students in the Normal School Elementary Class, along with those of his classmates and the full-time teacher who taught the students when they weren’t being “practiced on” by the Normal School Trainee Teachers.
What about the term “inmate,” though? Think of the poor census taker, faced with a group of elementary aged boys and girls living at a college! He probably had no good term to use to classify them, and had to pick from a list of less-than-perfect words to describe the students. While some of the implications of the term “inmate” are unfortunate, it does get at the fact that the children lived on the campus, which is really all the census needed to know.
I sent a set of scans from the SPC catalog to the researcher, including George’s name on the class list, some information about the Normal School, including tuition and room and board rates, and a photograph of the building the elementary students had classes in. Another mystery solved by the archives!
To read more about the history of teacher training at SPC, read Clint Kelly’s Response article regarding the subject.
–Adrienne Meier/University Archivist