Vocational Education, Industrial Education, and Trade Schools

The nineteenth century was characterized by the development of many types of vocational schools and programs. These programs had their origins in the movements and philosophies that grew out of the revival of learning during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The humanistic movement at that time placed emphasis on the privileges and responsibilities of the individual. A shift in emphasis occurred during the late-sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when the realism movement took form. This movement was responsible for the introduction of science and practical arts into the curriculum. The eighteenth century, or Age of Reason, was an age of democratic liberalism, benevolence, and tolerance.

Schools of Industry

Schools of industry were developed in Germany and England during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. These schools combined industrial wage work with classroom study. The industrial work was provided to enable students to earn money to pay tuition. Among the different kinds of industrial work done in these schools were flax and wool spinning, knitting, and sewing for girls and braiding, wood joinery, furniture making, and wood carving for boys. Leaders in education during this time stressed self-education, student participation in learning, universal education, and the importance of environmental factors in creating good workers and good citizens, with the result that many new schools and programs were created in the nineteenth century. Increased interest in human welfare was responsible for the development of schools for poor and delinquent children, while increased demands for labor led to school substitutes for the declining APPRENTICESHIP system. The emphasis on mass education and the need for trained workers made necessary the organization of schools and curricula for workers and prospective workers.

Trade School Movement in America

In the early years of the nineteenth century working people battled to obtain equality of education for their children: even their wildest dreams did not include the teaching of trades in free public schools. The idea of "educated labor" as opposed to merely "skilled labor" gradually gained acceptance through the first half of the nineteenth century. But it was not until after the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction, that the demand grew pressing for a new type of school that could prepare people for employment in the rapidly expanding industrial economy. The trade school movement thus emerged to provide a workable system of industrial education for all Americans.

One of the first private trade schools was Hampton Institute in Virginia, organized by General Samuel Chapman Armstrong in 1868. Hampton Institute was established to provide both liberal and trade training to African Americans to improve character and social status. Students devoted eight hours each day to the study of a trade through organized courses lasting for a three-year period along with academic courses that required four years. If students completed the entire four-year program they earned a diploma. Booker T. Washington was one of Hampton Institute's most famous graduates. He later became principal at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and had a distinguished educational career until his death in 1915.

The first school to offer specific trade training with supplementary studies related to each trade was the New York Trade School, founded by Colonel Richard Tylden Auchtmuty in 1881. As a result of his study of labor problems, Auchmuty developed a pattern of trade training designed to give pre-employment instruction as well as supplementary instruction for employed workers.

In contrast to the plan of instruction of the New York Trade School, the Hebrew Technical Institute, founded in New York City in November 1883, offered a greater range of general subjects. The need for a school of this nature arose because of the number of Jewish immigrants coming to America in the late nineteenth century.

The Williamson Free School of Mechanical Trades was organized in 1891 in Philadelphia by the merchant and philanthropist Isaiah V. Williamson. The school was designed to take the place of apprenticeship training that was no longer widely practiced. Boys from sixteen to eighteen years of age were bound as indentured apprentices to the school trustees for three years. After preliminary courses were completed, a student was assigned to a trade by the school trustees. Williamson was convinced that the abandonment of apprenticeship resulted in idleness and crime and constituted a threat to society. The school was entirely free–there was no charge for clothing, food, or instruction.

These three different types of schools gave birth to a limited number of trade schools throughout the country in the late 1800s. During this same period, public secondary schools increasingly offered courses in manual training and industrial arts, and a variety of proprietary and endowed vocational schools of less than college grade provided instruction in agriculture, business, home economics, and trades and industry.

As the nation entered the twentieth century, support for the use of state and federal funds to establish and operate a system of vocational education began to grow, even though labor and education groups frequently disagreed about what form vocational education should take. In 1905, Governor William Douglas of Massachusetts appointed a commission composed of representatives of manufacturing, agriculture, labor, and education. The commission was charged with investigating the status of vocational education and making recommendations for any required modifications. The commission's recommendations issued in 1906 included: (1) instruction to acquaint students with industry, agriculture, and homemaking in the elementary schools; (2) incorporation of practical applications into mathematics, science, and drawing at secondary level; and (3) creation of independent vocational schools to provide both day and evening courses in agriculture, domestic occupations, and industrial pursuits.

Smith-Hughes Act

Although the Smith-Hughes Act, which was to provide federal funds for the teaching of agriculture, home economics, and trades in the public schools, was endorsed by many groups, among them the Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Agricultural Colleges and Experiment Stations, it did not quickly move through Congress. It wasn't until February 17, 1917, largely as a result of appeals from President Woodrow Wilson and pressure from the nation's impending entry into World War I that the bill finally was approved. President Wilson signed the bill, officially titled the Vocational Education Act of 1917, on February 23, thus establishing the federal government's role in shaping the vocational education programs provided by the states.

Provisions of the Smith-Hughes Act established continuing appropriations for the salaries and training costs for teachers in agriculture, trade, and industrial education that were to increase annually until the maximum of $3 million each was reached in 1926. The funds thus provided were intended as seed money to encourage the states to expand programs and increase enrollments, both of which occurred during the period 1917–1926. Grant Venn has noted that within three years, enrollments in federally subsidized programs doubled, and the combination of federal, state, and local expenditures quadrupled.

Over the course of the twentieth century, vocational education became a fixture of public schools, but its appeal as an avenue for advancement and skilled learning declined. Increasingly a part of the curriculum to which the least academically engaged students were directed, vocational education was chronically underfunded, yet at the start of the twenty-first century, the real needs for the development of skills has seen a renewed interest in vocational schooling.

See also: Delinquency; Progressive Education; Urban School Systems, The Rise of.


Barlow, Melvin L. 1967. History of Industrial Education in the United States. Peoria, IL: Chas. A. Bennett.

Bennett, Charles A. 1926. History of Manual and Industrial Education up to 1870. Peoria, IL: Manual Arts.

Bennett, Charles A. 1937. History of Manual and Industrial Education 1870 to 1917. Peoria, IL: Manual Arts.

Gordon, Howard R. D. 2003. The History and Growth of Vocational Education in America. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

Hawkins, Layton S., Charles A. Prosser, and John C. Wright. 1951. Development of Vocational Education. Chicago: Harper and Row.

Roberts, Roy W. 1956. Vocational and Practical Arts Education. New York: Harper and Row.

Scott, John L., and Michelle Sarkees-Wircenski. 2001. Overview of Career and Technical Education. Homewood, IL: American Technical Publishers.

Venn, Grant. 1964. Man, Education and Work. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Walter, R. A. 1993. "Development of Vocational Education." In Vocational Education in the 1990s II: A Sourcebook for Strategies, Methods, and Materials, ed. Craig Anderson and Larry C. Rampp. Ann Arbor, MI: Prakken.