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North Bennet Street Industrial School

Digitized Archival Materials | Digitized Publications

Three Generations Enjoy the Tarantella, from North Bennet Street Industrial School annual report, 1928.
"Three Generations Enjoy the Tarantella," from North Bennet Street Industrial School: [annual report], 1928.

Located in Boston's congested North End, the North Bennet Street School was founded with a dual mission—education for employment, and acculturation of its neighborhood's primarily Italian immigrant residents, who struggled both to make a living and to adapt to American customs and culture. Under the leadership of Boston philanthropist Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the school opened in 1880 as the North End Industrial Home. Initially, it operated laundry and sewing rooms where local women could improve their skills and earn a small livelihood. Later, after adding a kindergarten and a day nursery, the Home started printing and woodworking shops for school-aged children. By 1885, the Home's focus had shifted from employment opportunity to education, and the directors had changed its name to the North Bennet Street Industrial School.

Over the next 20 years, the School developed an extensive manual training program in partnership with private philanthropy and the Boston Public Schools. Children from North End grammar schools were granted "release time" to attend North Bennet Street, and an average of 900 children per week—most of them Italian—attended. Boys enrolled in printing, drawing, carpentry, clay modeling, and leatherwork classes, and girls, in preparation for family life as well as for possible employment, studied printing, clay modeling, cooking, housekeeping, and laundry.

North Bennet Street directors and teachers viewed their offerings as model programs that the public schools could then adopt. They took special pride in pioneering the American adoption of Sloyd, a Swedish woodworking program that was believed to draw on a child's eye, hand, and mind to develop the whole person. By the early 1890s, the Boston Board of Education required its schools to offer cooking, sewing, and manual training classes, although the offerings were uneven, and many schools had kindergartens.

School directors believed that their manual training program served a number of purposes. Most simply, the program offered preparation for employment by teaching specific skills to immigrant children so that they could avoid the poverty and dependency that seemed to characterize the Italian community. Equally important, the program instilled habits of work—diligence, responsibility, initiative, and pride in accomplishment. In the past, children would have learned these values at home and as apprentices, but the modern factory system and the disorganized family life of immigrants had disrupted the social order. Industrial training, together with North Bennet Street's related programs of English classes, lectures, and reading clubs, provided alternative ways to assimilate immigrants into the world of work and into traditional American customs and behavior.

George Greener, school director from 1915 to 1954, introduced handcrafts, such as ceramics and weaving. He also adapted the industrial arts program to meet specific needs of modern factories and began a vocational guidance program. Long-standing recreational activities—sports, reading clubs, and camps—continued, and civics classes prepared immigrants for naturalization.

Gradually, the Boston Board of Education took over the school's administration and expenses. In the 1940s, the school offered training classes to veterans, and, later, to students with disabilities. By 1985, when the Board transferred its social service programs to another agency, it changed the name to the North Bennet Street School and began to focus solely on quality handcraft education.

Today North Bennet Street continues to offer a variety of post-secondary programs in traditional crafts, including carpentry, violin making, piano technology, cabinetmaking, and bookbinding.

Archival Materials Digitized for the Immigration to the US Collection

Records, 1880-1973. MC 269.

Series II. Office files:

Series IV. Class registers and attendance books:

Series VII. Scrapbooks:

Full Collection Citation

North Bennet Street Industrial School Records. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.

Electronic Finding Aid

North Bennet Street Industrial School (Boston, Mass.) Records, 1880-1973: A Finding Aid. Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe College.

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North Bennet Street Industrial School

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