In the eighteen hundreds, many children went to one room schoolhouses. These were simple structures with a wood burning stove for warmth, a bell that was rung to signal the start of the school day, and an outhouse. Children in grades one through twelve often shared a space no larger than a modern classroom. Water was pumped from a well and brought to the school in buckets. Boys and girls carried their lunch to school wrapped in brown paper. The walks were often long, the roads dusty, and the seats uncomfortable. There were no organized sports and extracurricular offerings were nearly non-existent.
Summer vacations were observed so that children could be at home on the farms to help with planting and tending gardens, gathering crops, picking fruit, and cutting and baling hay. With no summer camps or team sports, most outdoor play was simple pick-up games that required little or no equipment and lots of running. During the summer months, little concern was given to children’s clothing. Boys’ pants got too short as they grew a few inches and girls’ dresses stretched tight as they filled out. As shoes became tight and worn through, many children went barefoot.
When schools opened for the year, parents lengthened pants and skirts, let out tight clothing and took shabby shoes to the cobbler to have them resoled. School children in affluent cities often chose new school clothes from catalogs or had dresses, shirts and pants made by dressmakers and tailors. Mothers of country children generally made their own back to school clothing, buying yard goods at the local mercantile. Hand-me-downs from older siblings were altered and worn by younger brothers and sisters.
During the nineteenth century, as cities grew and industry flourished in the north, more and more item were being ordered from catalogs. By the end of the century, most children were attending public schools and many were going on to colleges and universities. Ready-made clothing was beginning to become popular, especially among the rising middle class, and stores with racks of dresses began showing up with a wide selection for women and girls. New interest in the latest fashions from Paris took hold, making more and more young women style conscious.
The Second World War of the nineteen-thirties and forties was really the beginning of back to school shopping as we know it today. As more and more women joined the work force, they had less and less time to sew and make clothing for their children. Children’s wardrobes suddenly began to grow as two income families flourished and department stores sprang up in virtually every city and town. It didn’t take the stores long to figure out that just before the beginning of the new school year was a prime time to sell clothing, shoes, accessories and school supplies.
The race for sales was on and, by the nineteen fifties, stores advertised back to school clothing for children of all ages. Clothing became a status symbol rather than a simple necessity. Girls copied the looks seen on models and became determined to make an impression on their friends and classmates. Department stores lured customers with bigger, brighter selections, lower prices than their competitors and the latest styles for children and young people. The use of coupons began gaining popularity. Shoes were no longer taken to the cobbler, but replaced with the newest styles and most-popular seasonal trends.
Since them, back to school has become a big business. As parents have more and more disposable income and students want to follow the latest trends with the most popular styles, back to school shopping has become a multi-million dollar business. The Huffington Post reports that the average spending per child nationwide is $131 for clothes and $48 for other school supplies. A recent National Retail Federation survey found that families with children in kindergarten through 12th grade are expected to spend $688.62 on average for back-to-school items this year, up from $603.63 last year.
Is it any wonder we try so hard to comparison shop, seek out bargains and take advantage of sales? As school approaches this year, share this article with your children to show them just how much back to school shopping as changed in the past one hundred fifty years. Use this opportunity to teach young children what a cobbler did, what a mercantile sold and how hard many children had to work during the summer. Will the upward spiral of back to school spending continue? We can only assume that it will.
As always, maximize your style and minimize your spending~