Reflections on a Photograph

EPSON MFP image
Teacher Hemmann’s class – about 1911

I think one of the great things about looking at old photographs like the one above is how many stories and questions arise by simply taking a good look at them.  Yesterday, I asked one of our researchers, Gerard Fiehler, if he could find a photo containing Teacher Hemmann along with his students.  If Gerard cannot find it, then we don’t have it. He found this one.

Here are some of my observations.  Keep in mind that I am a retired teacher myself.

  • There are 41 students in this photo.  Although I have seen other photos from this era which contain more students than this with just one teacher, it would be unheard of in today’s educational environment to put that many students in one class.
  • When I see a teacher such as this with this many pupils, I always imagine that the teacher must have a big stick behind his back.  When you hear old-timers from around here describe their days in school, they almost always get around to mentioning that discipline back then was done by the board of education.  I think you can figure out what I mean by a board of education.
  • Of the 41 students, only 14 of them are girls.  There are 27 boys in this class.  That is quite the boy/girl ratio, and speaking as a former teacher, I know that must have made it even more challenging when it came to controlling the class.
  • This photograph was taken outside the Kleine Schule (Little School).  It was the only structure at Trinity in Altenburg which was a brick building.  The Little School was not given that name because of the building’s size.  It was because the building housed the littler students, those in grades 1-4.  There was also a Grosse Schule (Big School) which housed the older students.  The Big School building was once the congregation’s church sanctuary, and now it is part of our museum.
  • The children must have been told to dress up for “Picture Day”.  They do look quite dapper.  A few of the boys are even wearing ties. However, if you look at the shoes, they appear to be somewhat dirty.  That is one thing that has remained the same over the years.  Even if shoes start the day looking clean, the children have a tendency to get them dirty.
  • Teacher Hemmann is wearing a nice suit and tie, complete with a vest. One wonders if this was normal teacher attire.  As for me, when I started my teaching career in Florida, I rarely wore a tie to school.  When I moved farther north, I was told I must wear a tie.  That became a habit, and I continued to wear a tie to school on most days the rest of my career even if it wasn’t required.  However, I think I could count on one hand the number of times I wore a suit to school.  I think the number of male teachers wearing ties these days is quite minimal.  I happen to think that male teachers wearing ties would be a good thing, contributing to the acquisition of respect.
  • Teacher Hemmann is shown as the teacher of grades 1-4 in this photo.  A male teacher in these early grades is very rare nowadays.  In fact male teachers are currently not very common regardless of the grade level.  This too is a sad thing.  Someday, I may look into who the first female teacher was at Trinity Lutheran School in Altenburg.  I can only imagine the discussion that must have taken place in the voter’s meeting when the decision was made to choose their first female teacher.
  • When looking at a photo, one can question what time of the year the photo was taken.  This photo had 1911 written on the back, but there was no other indication as to the date, unlike the digital photos of today which store all kinds of information such as when the photo was taken.  In the case of this picture, I think you can only safely say what is NOT the case.  Based on the clothes worn by the students, it was not taken in the summer, and it was not taken in the dead of winter.
  • I love the hats.  Many of the boys have hats.  Only one boy in the front row does not have a hat with him.  When looking at several other photos similar to this one yesterday, I noticed that many of them had hats stacked on the window sill behind them as they do in this photo.  I wonder what instructions were given to the boys by either the teacher or the photographer concerning their hats. I like the boy in the back row who is clutching his hat to his chest, seemingly not want to let go of it.  The boys have hats.  The girls do not.
  • The girls are wearing dresses.  That is something you do not see often in today’s schools, even on Picture Day.
  • The children in the back row are standing on something.  Perhaps it was some benches.  One cannot tell for sure.  The boys in the front row are sitting on what appears to be pieces of firewood.  There were always pieces of firewood available back then for the wood stove which was used to heat the classroom.  Yes, indeed, they had the good, old-fashioned woodshed, which could have been the place where the board of education was put to use.
  • There are two girls in the second row wearing identical dresses.  They must be twins. I’m guessing that if we looked hard enough into genealogical records searching for a set of twin girls born to a family in Altenburg around 1904 or 1905, we might have a decent chance of actually identifying them.
  • Speaking of identifying people in photographs, let me comment that there are way too many photographs floating around in our lives in which the people are not identified.  Future generations will be thankful if we would take the time now to identify people in our photographs.
  • In this photograph, the only person we have identified is Teacher Benjamin Hemmann.  I don’t think we have school records that list the students in the school back in those days.  If you would be able to positively identify anyone in the photograph, please let the museum know.  This is one of those times when I would like to step back in time and be present when this picture was taken.  I could ask them all to tell me their names.  I would love to ask them too if they had any brothers or sisters or cousins in the class.  I would wager that there would be a bunch of them.
  • What about smiles?  There are none.  There is one girl, the fourth one from the left in the third row, who has just a hint of a grin, but that is all.  I remember the days of struggling to get all the students in my class to smile for the class photo.  I would guess that some sort of effort was made to get these students to NOT smile.  It would be my opinion that getting children to NOT smile would be even harder than getting them to smile.  Almost all old photographs are without smiles.  I’m told it had something to do with the long exposure time with the film, so people were told to stand perfectly still and not smile.
  • What about hair?  Most of the girls have their hair parted in the middle.  Most also have it pulled back pretty tight. The boys mostly have hair of medium length.  No buzz cuts there.  There are different ways their hair is combed.  One wonders if these students were given the opportunity to comb or brush their hair before the photo like they are nowadays.
  • All of the students are faithfully looking directly at the camera.  Not so with Teacher Hemmann.  I wonder why he is not.
  • Finally, I would encourage you to add your own comments to this post, either here on the website or where this blog is shared on our Facebook page.  We always love to get your input.

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