What's in my Bag: Rural Schools, Saskatchewan, 1941-1943

Welcome back to another edition of “What’s in My ____?,” the series that uses material culture to take a snapshot of a moment in time. Find out about the inspiration behind the series and read the first blog post by going here.

Today’s blog post was inspired by the picture you see at the top of the page, which is an image of a child’s book bag from the early 1940s. The photo comes from the Virtual Museum exhibit on rural schools created by the Assiniboia and District Museum, located in southern Saskatchewan. As soon as I saw this picture, I knew that I had to write a blog post about it!

**All of the photos (with the exception of the final one) in this blog post are courtesy of the Assiniboia and District Museum, and used with permission. Please do not reproduce.**


One-Room Schoolhouses in Saskatchewan

Empress School, May 1941, by A.J. Norin.

Empress School, May 1941, by A.J. Norin.

When most of us think about country schools, we picture Laura Ingalls Wilder and one-room schoolhouses she described in her novels. When it came to schools in rural Saskatchewan, you wouldn’t be far off! These same schools were very much the norm in Saskatchewan in the 19th and 20th centuries. You may remember stories about young Laura (aged 16!) teaching a group of elementary students of all different ages. She used her own books to teach the class, and largely decided what was going to be taught based on her own education. Attendance was not mandatory, and students would often stay home during spring and fall in order to attend to farm work.

However, the 1940s one-room schoolhouses were very different from their 19th century counterparts. By by this point, attendance was no longer optional, much to the dismay of students across the country. 😉 Curriculums, textbooks, and grade levels also all became standardized across school districts, selected by school trustees and boards of education. Classes were still taught mostly by young women, and children from grades one through eight all learned together in the same room, but the very nature of the one-room schoolhouse had changed. [1]

Expert Tip: For more information on the history of rural schools in Saskatchewan, particularly in the Assiniboia region, I highly recommend checking out the rest of the exhibit mentioned above. They go into far greater detail about how schools were established and the histories of individual schools in the area.

It’s important to mention here that the schools I am talking about were designed particularly for the children of settlers. From the 1870s to 1996, a significant percentage of Indigenous children were sent to residential schools (and related institutions), which were specifically designed to “kill the Indian in the child.” The goal was to remove Indigenous children from potentially “corruptive” influences (their families and communities) and to forcibly assimilate them into Canadian culture. This was a form of a cultural genocide, or a deliberate attempt by Canadian government officials to destroy Indigenous cultures and ways of life. These schools were also notorious for extremely high levels of abuse — physical, emotional, and sexual. Many children died as a result of this abuse or in attempts to escape their schools. Generations of Indigenous peoples experienced this kind of treatment, and survivors and their descendants continue to live with the lasting legacy of this trauma to this day. For more on this, please see the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.


School Supplies

Imagine, if you will, a little boy or girl, roughly around the age of five, leaving for school early in the morning. The late August weather is still nice, and they live relatively close to the school, so they are able to walk there. Some of their friends live too far away and have to ride horses or mules to get to school. Their mother has prepared a lunch pail, with a sandwich and an apple. And they always make sure to take their book bag with them.

Child's lunch


Most children of this era would have had a traditional brown leather school satchel, just like the one above, which has its roots in Ancient Roman soldiers’ gear.[2] Before the 1930s, most children would have used a simple book-strap, but these kinds of leather satchels came into fashion at the beginning of the 1940s. [3]

Expert Tip: My husband appears to have developed an obsession with this lunch pail, and keeps insisting that I talk about it in this blog post.  While I’d love to be able to talk in depth about the lunch pail, the issue of food during WW2 is an enormously complex topic that deserves its own blog post. For instance, while we mostly associate WW2 with rationing, it wasn’t introduced until 1942 and wasn’t fully implemented until 1943. However, there were national campaigns to restrict consumption voluntarily.

Since I don’t have the space to fully do justice to the lunch pail, I highly recommend you check out this essay by Ian Mosby, or read his book, Food Will Win The War: The Politics, Culture, and Science of Good on Canada’s Home Front (Vancouver: UBC Press, 201) instead.

Inside the bag, we have a number of school supplies that are instantly recognizable to any student today: a pencil, an eraser, a pencil case, a notebook, and two textbooks.

Pencils also have a long history. They were first developed in England in the 16th century, following the discovery of graphite near the border between Scotland and England. These early pencils were simply pieces of graphite. The pencil as we know it today, employing graphite mixed with clay (as a binding agent) and wrapped in wood, was developed in France. The eraser was added in 1858.[4]

It's your funeral

You may be wondering, however, why there isn’t a pen in this child’s bag. It is missing for a very simple reason: children didn’t begin using pens and ink until grade five. Remember, this is before the era of the ballpoint point, so the only option in this era would be a straight pen and an inkwell.[5] Try giving that to a five year old. I dare you. 😉

Expert Tip: Before the invention and widespread availability of pencil sharpeners, students would just whittle their pencils with a knife.

The erasers that we are familiar with today were first developed in late 18th century Europe. Prior to their invention, the only way to erase pencil marks was to use moist bread. The invention of erasers is alleged to have happened when engineer Edward Nairn picked up a piece of rubber instead of breadcrumbs while working! The earliest erasers were made with Indian gum (also known as rubber), and eventually vulcanized rubber.[6]

Sliding Pencil Case

The first patent for pencil cases was granted only in 1946,[7] however cases for pencils date back to the 1800s. These cases were generally cylindrical in shape, and could be made out of wood, metal, or precious materials.[8] The design of the pencil case seen here, wooden, with a sliding lid, appears to have been in widespread use from the 1920s onwards, as you can see from a 1935 specimen from the McCord Museum. I remember finding one of my father’s when I was a child.

 The history of paper, made from crushed plant fibres, dates back to 200 CE China. However, the history of notebooks is much less clear. Copy books, which were used to practice handwriting, appeared in North America as early as 1748. Legal pads were invented in 1888.⁠  Spiral notebooks were invented in 1935 in the US.⁠  But the simple notebook, or exercise book as it is called where I grew up, doesn’t seem to have any specific origin⁠.[9] Paper used to be printed in large sheets with eight pages of text that would be folded twice to produce what is known as a quarto (different numbers of printed texts and folders produced different sizes, like a folio and an octavio). It seems logical to me that someone, somewhere, would have just done the same with a blank sheet, but without more information, I can only speculate.

Math Textbook

Finally, we have two textbooks: Everyday Arithmetic Primary and Our New Friends. Everyday Arithmetic Primary was a textbook published in 1936 by a Canadian publisher out of Toronto, W.J. Gage and Company.[10] This particular edition was targeted toward students who had reached a grade two or three level in their understanding of arithmetic. The entire series was approved for use in schools by the Saskatchewan Department of Education from 1934 to 1957.

While I haven’t been able to find much information on the math textbook, there is a wealth of information about Our New Friends, mostly because this was a Dick and Jane book. The Dick and Jane series of books, first published in the 1930s, have become ubiquitous,  largely due to their presence in schools for nearly 40 years. This particular book, Our New Friends, was a primer, used to teach English and reading to first grade students, and was first  published in 1940.[11] Our New Friends was authorized for use by the Saskatchewan Department of Education from 1941 to 1943, and from 1945 to 1961.⁠ (This is the reason for the narrow date limits of this blog post!)

Expert Tip: The Dick and Jane books have also been extensively parodied. If your sense of humour is as messed up as mine, check out Yiddish with Dick and Jane…. My relatives may or may not speak the same way…

Expert Tip: I’m sorry there are no images from the interior of these textbooks. Due to copyright restrictions, I can’t post pictures of them.


Slates and Notebooks

Anyone who’s read Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie is familiar with the slate and slate-pencil/chalk. (The incident where Anne breaks her slate over Gilbert’s head remains one of the best scenes in all literature, in my opinion). Slates were used because paper was simply too expensive to be wasted by students. Slates were also highly desirable because they were inexpensive, easy to use, and required little maintenance.

But you’ll notice that there isn’t one in the picture at the top of the page. That’s because following the end of the American Civil War, the price of paper decreased significantly, while pencils were developed that could be used by children with small hands. From that point on, notebooks and pencils gradually replaced slates and chalk. It might seem like this is a small thing, but the transition signaled a massive shift in ideas about teaching and learning.

Slates were tools from a society that highly valued oral traditions. The words recorded on a slate were always temporary in nature, and they could not record information. Instead, learning happened through repetition, with mnemonic devices and formulaic patterns to make memorization easier. This information was dispensed from the authority, in this case, the teacher, and was not to be questioned.

Work would be completed by the students, inspected by the teacher, and then erased with a piece of cloth or a sponge. Not only was this a very time consuming method of teaching, but it also limited the amount and kinds of information that a student could learn. Memorization is simply a reflection, and, in most cases, does not permit students to learn how to make connections between concepts. While this type of learning is viewed negatively today, at the time, the ability to repeat information was an indication of literacy and learning. Independent thinking was simply not as highly valued as it is today.

Doing your homework

The introduction of notebooks made memorization less important. Students could now take notes when their teacher was lecturing, meaning memorization was no longer required to the same degree. But, more importantly, information could now be reviewed, studied, and shared.

This allowed students to make connections and contextualize information, or, to think critically. While teachers were still figures of authority, the introduction of notebooks permitted students to take a more active role in their education and to formulate their own opinions (within certain limitations).

The significance of this shift cannot be understated; the transition from slates to notebooks marked a time of transition from society to one that was based on oral traditions to one that was based on written documents, with all of the attendant changes in thinking, communication, literature, and teaching and learning. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that these changes didn’t happen overnight, but, rather, over the course of several decades.[12]


Texts, Both Obvious and Not-So-Obvious

We tend to think of schools as places of learning and innocence. But one need only consider recent controversies in Quebec and Texas over history textbooks to know that knowledge and education are never neutral. Rather, textbooks and curriculums are carefully designed to teach students what educators believe is important, no matter what time period you live in.

In the photograph at the top of the page, we can see two textbooks. However, education was not limited to reading and mathematics. Students in the 1940s would have also learned about history, geography, science, and music. So rather than focusing specifically on the two textbooks above, I’m going to talk about school curriculums and textbooks in general. Since a comprehensive analysis of the curriculum and textbooks of the Assiniboia school district in the early 1940s is beyond the scope of this blog post, I’m going to touch briefly on three areas: nationalism, race, and gender.

Nationalism, a sense of loyalty to and pride in one’s country, has been central to Canadian education since at least the 1930s. What do I mean by this exactly? Some of you may remember how, in addition to rebranding the Museum of Civilization, Stephen Harper and his government announced plans to review the way in which Canadian history was taught in school. Their concern was that Canadian history courses focused too much on the negative parts of Canadian history, and should instead celebrate the achievements of the nation. The new curriculum was supposed to focus on the great political and military events of the past 150 years so that Canadians had something to be proud of. While there is nothing wrong with this per se, it’s important that we understand both the good and the bad, and to acknowledge that different people had different experiences.  (Check out this great editorial on the subject by my former supervisor!)

When we consider the ways in which nationalism was taught in Canadian classrooms in the early 1940s, we must consider World War Two. The war  resulted in a number of significant changes to school curriculums at all levels, many of which emphasized the idea of nationalism. Boards of Education issued specific instructions about how the war should be taught. Children were now to be taught about the war as it was happening, integrating this information into lessons on history and geography.[13] Wartime themes invaded (pun intended…) English and math classes, with vocabulary lessons using military language and math problems drawn from real-life navigational problems.[14] Students in this era were required to salute the flag, sing “God Save the King,” swear allegiance to the Crown, listen to patriotic speeches, sing patriotic songs, watch patriotic films from the National Film Board, and listen to war reports on CBC radio.[15] Citizenship classes, which had been added in the late 1930s, were increasingly central to the curriculum. These classes were designed to create ideal version of Canadian citizens, who valued such things as “thirst, hard work, perseverance, and the necessity of safeguarding democratic values and traditions.”.[16]

Young boys and girls in a classroom at Osgoode Public School (March 1945) Jack Long. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada, e010962256 CC BY 2.0

Young boys and girls in a classroom at Osgoode Public School (March 1945) Jack Long. Canada. National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada, e010962256 CC BY 2.0

The emphasis on nationalism went hand in hand with contemporary ideas about race. Textbooks published in Canada in the 1940s and 1950s emphasized that Canadians, Americans, and the British were brothers in blood. As one historian has argued, these texts created a sense of ethnic nationalism, that Canada was a land populated by individuals who shared Anglo-Saxon heritage (at least, they were the only ones that mattered). In other words, to be Canadian was to be white. There are allusions to “the coming of the white man,” or the “white man’s early efforts at settlement.”[17] European imperialism is described as the triumph of “civilization,” reinforcing the idea of whiteness as culturally superior. In fact, one textbook, Building the Canadian Nation (published in 1945 and authorized for use in Saskatchewan classrooms until 1960), describes Indigenous peoples as “howling like so many wolves and brandishing their war-clubs.”[18] Individuals who are not white are depicted as barriers to “progress” or inferior.”[19] Dick and Jane are a particularly egregious example of this type of rhetoric. The only people that exist in Dick and Jane’s world are white. In fact, a black family was only added after the mid-1960s.[20] 

While we tend to think of WW2 as a watershed moment for women’s rights, a look at textbooks from the period reveals a much more complicated side of gender norms in this period.  For example, school children were recruited to provide wartime services during class time. However these activities tended to be heavily gendered: girls rolled bandages, learned first aid, and created care packages for soldiers overseas while boys made wooden splints, test-tube holders, and board games (for service members).[21] Schools and governments routinely praised students for such activities using extremely gendered language. For example, in a full-page newspaper add, the Department of Munitions and supply told school children that:

“When you boys go out and cut lawns … you are doing a man’s work [which] releases one more man for the armed forces … When you girls … help with the housework … that means more hands to work in munitions plants.”[22]

Dick and Jane reinforced these gender norms. Father goes to work while Mother stays home. Dick is adventurous and bold while Jane only wants to take care of her baby sister. The same pattern can be seen in other textbooks. One scholar, Manami Iwata, has looked gender representations in elementary school textbooks in the 1940s and 1950. When examining language arts textbooks, she noticed that men were portrayed as farmers, school principals, firemen, postmen, secretary of the PTA, clowns, street car drivers, elephant trainers, potato sellers, and construction works. In these same books, women were portrayed as teachers (where they were referred to as “Miss”), housewives, and candy shop owners. A similar pattern held true for mathematic textbooks. [23] The difference here is quite stark. The message that was being communicated in textbooks, then, was that men are breadwinners and women are homemakers, and that these are the only acceptable gender roles.


1944 signalled the death of one-room schoolhouses in with the passage of a new School Act. One-room schoolhouses were simply no longer financial viable; families were getting smaller and more and more people were moving into urban areas. The war also played its part, causing a shortage in machines and men available for school repairs. Between 1940 and 1945, around 1,000 school districts closed entirely in Saskatchewan. Individuals school were often amalgamated and new, larger, schools with four to six rooms were built in centralized locations .[24]

But while one-room schoolhouses no longer exist, we can still learn a great deal about them from the artefacts that school children left behind. The 1940s was an era when education was highly prized, when being able to think critically and use reason were seen as signs of learning. They were also an era of heavy nationalism, where students were taught to have unquestioning pride in our country. At the same time, they were also taught very dangerous ideas about race and gender that continue to affect us to this day.

Schools in the 21st century are not immune to the same kinds of patterns. We need to consider very carefully what we are teaching today’s children.

That’s all for today! This was a fun post to do, mostly because I’ve always been obsessed with school supplies. I hope you’ve enjoyed our Back to School month here at Unwritten Histories! Are there any topics you’d like me to cover in the future, in this series or any other? Let me know in the comments below!


Extra Credit:



[1]  Amy von Heyking, “Implementing Progressive Education in Alberta’s Rural Schools,” Historical Studies in Education / Revue d’histoire de l’éducation (Spring 2012): 93-111. http://historicalstudiesineducation.ca/index.php/edu_hse-rhe/article/view/4072

[2] Check out the V&A’s satchel here: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O1121164/satchel-unknown/

See also: http://romanrecruit.weebly.com/the-marching-pack.html and http://www.redoxx.com/travel/bag-history-mankinds-oldest-companion-pt1/

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/03/backpack-school-bags_n_3860144.html and http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/11/02/445339503/from-book-strap-to-burrito-a-history-of-the-school-backpack.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pencil and http://museumofeverydaylife.org/exhibitions-collections/current-exhibitions/visual-history-of-the-pencil

[5] http://www.virtualmuseum.ca/sgc-cms/histoires_de_chez_nous-community_memories/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000700&sl=6627&pos=1

[6] http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/08/10-things-you-probably-did-not-know-about-eraser-technology/279028/

[7] You can see it here: https://www.google.com/patents/US2412938

[8] http://www.ehow.com/facts_7451850_history-pencil-case.html

[9] http://www.fountainpennetwork.com/forum/topic/235173-the-history-of-composition-notebook/

[10] You may know them as Gage Educational Publishing, which is a division of Nelson Education.

[11] https://www2.viu.ca/homeroom/content/textbook/Dickjane/dickjane.htm However, it must be said that not everyone was a fan of the books, even in the 1950s…. See John Hersey, “Why Do Students Bog Down on First R,” Time Magazine (May 24, 1954): 136-150.

[12] https://blogs.ubc.ca/etec540sept13/2013/10/26/from-slate-to-notebook-or-from-rote-to-note/

[13] “Education during the Second World War,” Wartime Canada.

[14] Jeff Keshen,  Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War (Vancouver, B.C.: UBC Press, 2004), 202.

[15] Keshen, 202 and “Education during the Second World War,” Wartime Canada.

[16] “Education during the Second World War,” Wartime Canada.

[17] Ken Montgomery,  “Banal Race-Thinking: Ties of Blood, Canadian History Textbooks, and Ethnic Nationalism,” Pedagogica Historica, 41, no. 3 (June 2005), 322.

[18] George Brown, Building the Canadian Nation (Toronto: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1946), 295 in Montgomery, 323.

[19] Montgomery, 323-325.

[20] https://rarebookschool.org/2005/exhibitions/dickandjane.shtml

[21] Kesehn, 203.

[22] Ottawa Journal, 7 April 1942, 13, in Keshen, 202.

[23] Manami Iwata, “Depictions of the Gender Roles in Elementary Language Arts and Mathematic Textbooks in the 1940s-1950s and the Present,” Working Papers of the Linguistics Circle of the University of Victoria, 14 (1997) 23-32. https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/WPLC/article/view/5130

[24] http://esask.uregina.ca/entry/saskatchewan_schools_early_history.html

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