Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

In view of their complex, if not complicated, information systems, computers and advanced technology seemingly snatched from the next century, Pennsylvania’s “modern” state universities evolved from what were originally called “normal” schools. During the last century, both educational and social traditions have changed drastically; in fact, nineteenth century campus life not only makes for interesting research, but for entertaining reading as well.

The thirteen normal schools were born of necessity. Idealistic proponents of education for the masses, particularly Pennsyl­vania statesman Thaddeus Stevens, had scored a triumph with the Free School Act of 1834, but the demand for teachers rapidly outpaced the number available. As schools were established throughout the Commonwealth, the shortage of teachers grew apparent and the legislature, in a move to help alleviate the situation, passed the Normal School Act of 1857. Pennsylvania followed the lead of Massachusetts which had formalized its first state normal school in 1839. Massachusetts employed educational principles of the nineteenth century ecole normale, the French academy, and European institutions.

The normal schools envisioned by their creators were to set standards for teachers, as well as for the teaching profession. The 1857 act divided Pennsylvania into twelve districts, each of which would be served by a state normal school, but it offered no financial support or incentive. The legislators relegated the problem of adequate financing to private enterprise. They believed that the state administration of the schools, as well as granting the institutions the authority to confer certificates, provided an unprecedented prestige that would inevitably attract private investment.

The Normal School Act also established rigid standards for the schools themselves. Before designation as an official state normal school, each had to provide a ten acre campus, housing for the three hundred students, an auditorium capable of seating a thousand persons, rooms for libraries, a minimum of six faculty members and a model school of one hundred students.

The model school was a crucial component of the normal school because it served as a “hands on” practical training ground for the future teachers. Enrolled with children recruited from the community, the model school allowed senior teaching students to practice under the supervision of a “professor of pedagogy.”

When the Normal School Act was passed in 1857, an academy at Millersville had already served two years as a normal school for Lancaster countians, but it took an additional two years of expansion, fund raising and extensive upgrading before it became Pennsylvania’s first state normal school. Other established schools soon followed suit. In several districts where no suitable institutions existed, normal schools had to be built from the ground floor.

The schools which were eventually selected to serve the designated districts, in addition to Millersville, were: Edinboro (1861), Mansfield (1862), Keystone, now Kutztown (1866), Bloomsburg (1869), West Chester (1871), Shippensburg (1873), California (1874), Indiana (1875), Lock Haven (1877), Slippery Rock (1889) and East Stroudsburg (1893). A special act of the state legislature in 1874 authorized a thirteenth district which was served by Cheyney.

Normal schools, although they were created primarily for the training of teachers, were open to others as well. The schools encouraged prospective students to enter their “professional” programs in the hopes of gaining some advantage in the business world. Normal schools were also used as a launch for many who sought admission to full-fledged universities. Although the schools did not grant college degrees, the certifi­cates they awarded could be used to secure advanced standing at colleges and universities such as Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh. Normal schools would be equivalent to today’s junior colleges, but for most nineteenth century students a normal school certificate reflected the highest level of education the average individual could afford.

The normal schools, because they were affordable and serviced nearby communities, benefitted many. They differed from many of the private institutions because they were co­-educational. Now the norm, co-education posed severe problems for many faculty and administration members who, during the 1870s and 1880s, imparted to their students a rigid code of morality. As the Victorian era gave way to the raucous, high spirited “Gay Nineties” on America’s college campuses, the professors’ influence concerning morality began to rapidly erode.

During the height of the rigid disciplinary measures adopted by the state normal schools, one of the most important priorities was properly isolating the sexes. Up until the late 1890s, strict rules regulated interaction between men and women. Rules were proscribed in nearly every catalogue describing the schools’ curriculum and those imposed by the Keystone State Normal School (now Kutztown University of Pennsylvania) typify the strict codes of conduct:

It is expected that the ladies and gentlemen of the Institution will treat each other with politeness, but no conversation between them will be allowed in the lecture rooms, or in the halls.

No lady or gentlemen … will be allowed to ride or walk with a person of the opposite sex except in the case of necessity, and then only with permission.

No private meetings will be allowed between students of the two sexes other than relatives, unless upon business, and then only by special permission.

Gentlemen connected with the school will not be permitted to call upon lady students.

The Bloomsburg State Normal School’s litany of restrictions also forbade men and women to leave campus together without express permission. One day in the 1880s, two students exploded a furor by leaving campus without special permis­sion – even though they had attended Sunday church services. The faculty showed no mercy, however. The pair were severely reprimanded and “put upon the campus,” the equivalent today of being confined to the grounds.

Not long afterward, a fierce controversy erupted when the female students requested permission to use the ball field, up until 1889 the males’ domain. The faculty thought it most improper for men and women to use the same field and the college purchased a nearby grove exclusively for the women. But even the grove presented grave problems and mere strolling in the area was policed. Men would be allowed to stroll in the grove only during the morning, women only during the after­noon. And neither in the evening!

Each normal school seemed to have been blessed with at least one faculty member who was unusually enthusiastic about safeguarding the moral purity of the entire student body. Kutztown’s watchdog was the inimitable Professor Frank Krebs.

Telescope in hand, he clambered up the lofty bell tower of Old Main and secretly spied on students scattered on the campus grounds below. His favorite specimens were couples who had wandered off to a nearby stream and quarry on field trips for botany classes. Krebs’s gravest suspicions were confirmed. With the aid of both his telescope and his lofty perch, he caught several couples fraternizing, even holding hands. He scrambled down from his watch tower, breathlessly alerted his colleagues, and forbade the practice of “botanizing” on campus.

Nineteenth century rules designed to segregate the sexes inspired some of the more inventive students to divine ways in which to circumvent both regulations and faculty. Kutztown’s daring young men often feigned chivalry to make contact with the women they admired. Often, he would patiently wait until one of the women passed by and courteously offer to carry her water pitcher. The offer accepted, he would enjoy the brief walk with her – usually no more than thirty yards or so – to the dormitory.

But contact between the opposite sexes was not the only regulated facet of late nineteenth century college life. A multi­tude of regulations compartmentalized and regulated almost every hour of every day on campus. Each activity had an allot­ted time – and a bell to announce it. The schedule was rigorous and stridently enforced.

The day began for Bloomsburg Normal School students with the first bell at 6:15 A.M. Ln thirty minutes students had to assemble for breakfast; only special permission from a professor could exempt a student from breakfast. The morning’s fare was served promptly at 6:45 in the 4,000 square foot dining room located on the ground floor of the school’s only dormitory. The dining hall was large enough to accommodate Bloomsburg’s two hundred students and fourteen faculty members. Upon leaving the hall, regulations required the students to “pass in order … ladies first and gentlemen following.” Students walked in single file, scrutinized by an ever watchful professor, leather bound ledger in hand and ready to duly record demerits for misbehav­ior or dishonorable conduct.

In 1888, Bloomsburg Normal School students presented the faculty with a petition formally demanding “better butter, bread, coffee and other articles of food.” The faculty ignored the petition. Two years later a band of students rose in a body and left the hall in silent protest. The angered administration responded by giving each student twenty-five demerits for dishonorable conduct.

Strict rules regulated the dining hall as well as the class­rooms. Students were liable to receive demerits for improper etiquette and poor manners. In fact, an entire section of the school catalogue outlined correct table manners and reminded students that they “should not eat with their knives.”

Following breakfast, the next organized activity was a religious service, announced by a bell at 8:05 A.M. Attendance was required. Once a month, professors commented publicly on each student’s deportment, also announcing the number of demerits accumulated and recorded during the month. Demerits were seemingly dispensed freely and students were even penal­ized for an unmade bed during the ritual room inspection.

Classes began immediately following chapel services. The day was usually divided into seven periods, but as many as nine were not uncommon. Subjects were Rhetoric and Elocution, Penmanship, Moral Science, Virgil, Physiology and Hygiene.

At some point during the long day, men changed into their pantaloons and stockings, and women donned their “Swedish costumes” for physical education class. Originally called Physi­cal Culture, the class was not particularly enjoyable as it concen­trated on “the full and harmonious development of all parts of the physical organism.” The catalogue dourly informed students that “measurements are taken twice a year and exercise prescribed for developing the parts that need special care.” Students were cautioned that the gymnasium was not a “playroom” and that unnecessary noise was “strictly forbid­den.” Physical Culture class at Bloomsburg provided the sole opportunity for dancing – but men danced with men, women with women.

The noon bell signalled lunch which was supervised by a Professor Albert who kept a tardiness record for students who arrived late. For two hours, from two to four o’clock, students observed “quiet hours,” followed by ninety minutes of free time, until 5:30 P.M. The schools had little in the way of recre­ation and encouraged pupils “to walk about the grounds,” “visit rooms” (but only with official permission and not in rooms of the opposite sex) or “sing in the chapel.”

At 6 P.M. the supper bell sounded. Following dinner, a brief chapel service was conducted and studies began in earnest at 7 P.M. The study hours were taken very seriously and rules forbade pupils from leaving their rooms until nearly ten o-clock, when they were permitted to “fill water pitchers, visit fellows on their own halls, practice light gymnastics in their rooms and attend to all matters that need attention before retiring.” The last bell reverberated throughout the still campus at ten o’clock and all lights were off within twenty minutes.

Weekends brought little relief from the daily regimentation and regulations. Forbidden on Sunday were “amusements, visits of pleasure, gathering in groups, or noise in the room …. ”

The normal schools did proffer what they considered legiti­mate forms of entertainment for their student bodies. Concerts were frequent, but popular selections were not performed; the music was either religious or classical. Lectures were popular and, although the institutions were unable to afford prominent speakers such as Mark Twain, they did sponsor an occasional lecture merely for sheer amusement. One such talk, delivered by humorist). Robert Burdette at Kutztown in 1895, addressed “The Rise and Fall of the Moustache.” Bloomsburg hosted an infrequent co-educational “sociable,” a rather formal affair during which students dutifully played several parlor games such as charades, “fruit basket” and “proverbs.” Autumn brought an occasional chestnut roast and winter saw a weekend sleigh ride or two.

During the Victorian era, many of the normal schools’ social events were holiday celebrations: Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. A large dinner was served, followed by a costume party, apple bobbing or taffy pulling. Activities were co-ed, but always heavily chaperoned.

Both the Young Men’s Christian Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association conducted weekly prayer meetings at most of the campuses, but the only school­-supported organizations were the literary societies. The literary societies were cultural associations guided by lofty ideals and aimed at nurturing the moral and intellectual well-being of the student bodies. The weekly meetings of these societies featured orations, recitals, lectures, dramatic readings, essays and debates. Debate topics ranged from “Resolved that the South was justified in seceding” to “Resolved that the human race has benefitted more from the vegetable kingdom than from the animal kingdom.” The highlight of the 1896 literary season at Bloomsburg was the talk, “The Negro Problem,” by Booker T. Washington.

Unlike many of the literary societies’ events at the state normal schools, Bloomsburg Normal School’s lectures were open to the public. In fact, the society meetings in the 1890s became so popular with the townspeople that crowds swelled to the hundreds. However, the audience looked upon the meetings as social affairs and not as intellectual forums. Members of the Philologian Society complained to school officials that the public was not reacting to the meetings very seriously or intelligently. Society members !bitterly complained of the “audible sighs and jeers.” In a formal statement, Philologians wrote, “Literary meetings attract large crowds from the town, many of whom we are sorry to say, have been willing to go to almost any length to secure their end.” The faculty responded the next semester by closing the lectures and related events to the public.

Perhaps one of the greatest forces which affected the lifestyles of nineteenth century campus-bound students was the introduction of athletics – a new form of recreation differing greatly from the stodgy, unentertaining and unenjoyable Physi­cal Culture courses. The athletics movement swept through the private colleges following its acceptance at prestigious ivy league schools, Harvard and Yale, in the 1870s and 1880s. The schools had been inspired by European institutions and borrowed from Denmark and Sweden innovative systems of gymnastic training. By the third quarter of the nineteenth century, Harvard and Yale had converted rugby into the game of football which, in less than two decades, was drawing huge, enthusiastic followings. Despite the adoption of sports by ivy league and private schools, as well as public support, athletics and competitive sports were resisted by the faculties of the Commonwealth’s normal schools until well into the 1890s.

The 1893 catalogue issued by Kutztown rebuked the popular trend:

The students are not allowed to spend their best time and thought on foot-ball, base-ball and the various kinds of gymnastics; they are not permitted to roam the country for the purpose of playing match games; on the contrary they are taught to think and talk of their lessons and their literary societies, and to regard the attainment of superior scholar­ship and pedagogic skill as the mission of their life at school.

In a year, the school faculty relented. A gymnasium was erected in 1894 and the first football team was organized the next year. Baseball soon followed but the team was limited to away games each season. Of all the sports, however, football continued incurring the resistance of the faculty members at several of the state normal schools.

In 1896 a Bloomsburg newspaper reported a game, but in a rather uncomplimentary manner:

A game of football was fought at Bloomsburg on Saturday between the Normal and Selinsgrove University teams. Our readers may wonder why we say “fought” instead of “played” as is customary. The reason is, it appears to us a little too brutal to be called sport.

Football eventually won the appreciation of the faculty, but especially the school alumni. The magazine published by the Bloomsburg Normal School praised its team in that it had, once and for all, “proved that foot-ball can be played without revert­ing to blows and cuffs, or engaging in coarse or profane language.” The publication also offered a humorous verse entitled “In Season”:

Broken arm
Smash-ed nose
Black’n’d eye,
Injur’d toes
Swollen head
Sampson hair
Bruis-ed calves
Beyond repair,
And that’s not all
Great game, foot-ball.

As the twentieth century opened, so, too, did other opportu­nities for state normal school students. The relaxation of rules and regulations, combined with the appearance of the automo­bile, affected the length of time students spent on campus, as well as the ways in which they spent weekends and academic holidays. The ever-increasing popularity of sports, and especially, games played at other schools, broadened the students’ perspectives and horizons. No longer were they confined to a harshly disciplined, rigid school year, but the students were able to take advantage of activities sponsored in the communities in which their institutions were located.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, the state normal schools underwent great transformations and, by 1924, ten of the institutions were granted the power to change their names from the archaic state normal schools to state teachers colleges. In ten years, the last remaining normal school, Cheyney, was recognized as a state teachers college. But the evolutionary process – much like the evolution of the students’ lifestyles – continued, and the state teachers colleges were made state colleges in January 1960.


For Further Reading

Baum, Bernard. “Old Normal’s Golden Age.” Pennsylvania History 31 (July 1964): 327-333.

Graver, Lee. Beacon on the Hill: A Centennial History of Kutztown State College. Kutztown: The Kutztown Bulletin, 1966.

Holland, Ernest O. The Pennsylvania State Normal Schools and Public School System. New York: Columbia University, 1912.

Krebs, Frank S. “Early Days of the Keystone State Normal School.” Penn-Germania 9 (1908): 547-558.

Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction. One Hundred Years of Free Public Schools in Pennsylvania, 1834-1934. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, 1934.

Sack, Paul. History of Higher Education in Pennsylvania. 2 vols. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1963.

Wickersham, James Pyle. A History of Higher Education in Pennsylvania. Lancaster: Inquirer Publishing Co., 1886.


Mark K. Fritz, who resided in Bloomsburg as he researched this article, recently relocated to the Boston area where he serves as assistant editor of Sweet Potato, a contemporary music magazine. His interest in normal schools was sparked by his work with the collection of amateur photographer Wilmer Kester (1867-1956), which contains some of the earliest known photographs of Kutztown State University’s predecessor, Keystone Normal School.