Courtesy BTHL

This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.

Today, the design of schools and classrooms is anything but simple. The evolving technological and security demands of these projects notwithstanding, practitioners must also consider a multitude of theories on how best to configure and outfit a school to benefit students, educators, and the greater community.

But not so long ago, many schools across the country were merely single-room structures featuring desks and a chalk board—if you were lucky.

So when did this major shift occur? The BTHL helps answer this question with its comprehensive collection of school design and furnishing catalogs from the 19th century to the mid-20th century.

Warming and Ventilation, Mahony Warming and Ventilation Establishment, Troy, N.Y., 1887
This company advertised schoolhouse and church heating and ventilation systems that use steam, hot water, or warm air.

Architectural Terra Cotta: The School, National Terra Cotta Society, New York, 1914
The National Terra Cotta Society dedicated the first volume of its brochure series to schools. In this catalog, the organization promotes the connection between school architecture and “its influence in the community.”

School Furniture and Supplies, Union School Furnishing Co., Chicago, 1921
This school furnishings catalog offers everything from pencil sharpeners to desk seating, to playground equipment for those looking to outfit an educational setting.

Concrete Schoolhouses, Portland Cement Association, Chicago, 1921
This publication promotes the use of concrete for school construction because of the material's innate fire resistance superior. The catalog cites increased fire risks associated with kitchens, laboratories, and even public events with “lighted cigar and cigarette hazards” as reasons for fireproof construction.

School Construction with Denison Interlocking Tile, American Clay Products Co., New York, 1927
The American Clay Products Co. advertised the use of clay tiles for constructing fire-resistant, durable school buildings. These interlocking tiles are hollow, offering natural insulation.

Economical Heat Automatic: Schools and Colleges, Detroit Stoker Co., Detroit, 1937
The Detroit Stoker Co. manufactured equipment to load coal boilers. In addition to technical information about the stoker systems, this catalog features testimonials and photographs of completed installations, including energy savings data.

Automatic Control for Schoolroom Lighting, General Electric Co. (GE), Schenectady, N.Y., 1937
Prolific technology conglomerate GE advertised the use of automatic lighting control systems to “minimize eye strain for pupils … relieve the teacher of responsibility for lighting … [and] eliminate heating of room by unnecessary lights.”

The American School and University, American School Publishing Corp., New York, 1941
This comprehensive catalog serves as a “yearbook devoted to the design, construction, equipment, utilization, and maintenance of educational buildings and grounds.” It touches on topics including site selection, furnishings, and architecture firms.

School Buildings Your Tax Dollars Can Afford: One Story Schools of Wood Frame Construction, Timber Engineering Co., Washington, D.C., c. 1950
The Timber Engineering Co. advertised the use of wood in school buildings as a budget-friendly option for communities. The catalog avoids the question of fire safety by calling for one-story structures with direct exits.

School Architecture: Permanent Economy Through the Use of Stone, Building Stone Institute, Palos Heights, Ill., 1956
This trade publication was produced during the baby boom of the mid-1950s when a school building boom was also underway. This Building Stone Institute brochure promotes the use of natural stone for its aesthetics and durability, offering illustrations of completed school buildings across the nation.