Commercial Curriculum

The teaching of commercial (business) subjects has a long history in American secondary education. Early in the nineteenth century, when such training prepared bookkeepers and merchants, most students were male, and these subjects were often taught in proprietary schools that prepared students for business careers. Prior to the Civil War, however, such instruction was not commonplace in HIGH SCHOOLS and ACADEMIES, and private business schools were concentrated in eastern cities, where there was a demand for clerks, bookkeepers, and other office workers.

As high schools grew in number following the Civil War, interest in commercial education increased. This was partly a response to demands to make the curriculum more practical, but it also reflected the changing urban economy. The growth of large-scale business enterprises, from railroads to manufacturing concerns to mail-order houses, created a need for clerical workers to manage records, handle correspondence, and keep accounts. This did not occur overnight, but had become quite evident by the 1890s.

At the same time, technological developments changed the nature of office work. The invention of the typewriter in the 1870s, along with adding machines and stenographic devices in later years, made clerical employment more routine and hierarchical. It was possible to hire large numbers of moderately skilled workers with little prospect for advancement. Under these conditions, employers began to hire more women, and by 1910 clerical work had become largely a female domain–at the time of the Great Depression this was one of the largest categories of women's work.

The growth of clerical work helped to make commercial education a major component of secondary education in the twentieth century. In the 1880s and 1890s, proprietary business schools trained about 80 percent of all commercial students. By 1920, however, public high schools dominated the field, enrolling almost half of these students, eventually eclipsing private schools in size and influence. Students enrolled in public-school commercial courses increased from fifteen thousand to more than three hundred thousand in this thirty-year span.

The commercial course was defined by the technical requirements of the largest employers; typing and stenography were the most popular classes (and the most highly feminized). Bookkeeping, accounting, commercial geography, and other courses enrolled larger numbers of boys. In this regard the rise of the commercial course reflected the emerging division of labor within the business world. The secretarial curriculum, which focused on the rote skills of typing, stenography, and record filing, was considered appropriate for women, while the higher-order tasks of keeping accounts, managing personnel, and planning change went to the men. Students mainly represented the lower middle classes (the children of skilled workers and white-collar employees), but gender was especially salient. As surveys from the period noted, boys in commerical positions were often promoted to the administrative ranks, while the girls remained clerks until they left to be married.

See also: Coeducation and Same-Sex Schooling; Urban School Systems, The Rise of; Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools.


DeVault, Ileen A. 1990. Sons and Daughters of Labor: Class and Clerical Work in Turn-of-the-Century Pittsburgh. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Krug, Edward A. 1964. The Shaping of the American High School, 1880–1920. New York: Harper and Row.

Powers, Jane B. 1992. The "Girl Question" in Education: Vocational Training for Young Women in the Progressive Era. London: Falmer.

Rury, John L. 1991. Education and Women's Work: Female Schooling and the Division of Labor in Urban America, 1870–1930. Albany: State University of New York Press.