Yearbook Flip: High School History Lesson

The St. Catharines Museum currently has 259 yearbooks catalogued in its archival collection. The yearbooks span the years 1913 to as recent as 2016 and the collection includes yearbooks from St. Catharines Collegiate Institute, Grantham High School, Denis Morris, Governor Simcoe as well as from the Mack School of Nursing and more. What’s more, this collection keeps growing!

Cover of the Christmas 1920 Vox Collegiensis, a yearbook published for the students of the St. Catharines Collegiate Institute. STCM 2002.118.16.

Yearbooks offer us a unique insight into an aspect of history we don’t often think about: the history of being a teenager. We get a curated glimpse into their lives, from clubs and sports teams, to homecomings and the ever-important naming of pageant kings and queens. You’ll find pages filled with inside jokes, quips, and a bit of gossip. Furthermore, students and principals would often publish editorials commenting on the political and societal climate of the time – urging students to act or reflect in some way or another.

Editorial for the Christmas 1920 Vox Collegiensis. STCM 2002.118.16.

This material can provide an interesting layer of understanding into culture and society at the time the yearbook was published. How many female graduates wrote that they were pursing further schooling in the quotes beside their grad photos and for what profession? What types of school clubs and sports teams were males and females joining, and what do the types available tell us about the cultural values and interests of the time? How did issues of race, ethnicity, religion or economic status play out in the microcosm of St. Catharines high schools? How did larger historical events impact the lives and experiences of teenagers?

For example, in the Christmas 1920 edition of the St. Catharines Collegiate Institute’s yearbook, Vox Collegiensis, student staff write with a sense of moral urgency in the editorial:

It is a well-known fact that after every war there is a period of unrest and frivolity in sharp contract to the serious sentiment of the people during the time of danger…During the war people were called upon to sacrifice their own petty desires for the good of the country, and to expend all their energy performing their duty. When the war ended, there was a reaction. A wave of selfishness and pleasure-seeking has spread over the land, and we students must take care not be caught in it.

This publication came out at the beginning of what we now refer to as the Roaring Twenties, a period generally characterized by economic prosperity and a growing flourishment in arts, culture, music and entertainment. What fears were the editorial staff at the Vox Collegiensis speaking to in this column? Later in the editorial, the author noted, “Last year there was an unfortunate tendency among the pupils to put their pleasures first. In fact, our principal was forced to write to the press about it.” What incidents were they referring to and what were the consequences? Was this “tendency” to put “pleasures first” wide-spread in St. Catharines at the time? Were students simply following suit?

In flipping through the pages of high school yearbooks, we not only get sense of what life was like as a high school student at a certain moment in time, we also gather a more nuanced perspective of the larger historical events that impacted St. Catharines from voices that are often overlooked.

As historical objects, yearbooks are extremely valuable as material culture. Consider the yearbooks you might have at home and the scribbles, notes, and signatures that were written by fellow high school colleagues. These personal imprints give yearbooks even more historical meaning. Here, someone cut out part of an article from the Christmas 1920 Vox Collegensis. Our minds immediately wonder what was cut out and why? STCM 2002.118.16.

The Yearbook Flip blog series is a new series to be published monthly on Museum Chat. Over the course of the series, we will explore a broad range of historical moments, events, and issues in the twentieth century through the lens of teenagers and what they included, or sometimes more interestingly, excluded, from their high school yearbooks. Though life in St. Catharines has changed dramatically since 1913, the year of the earliest yearbook in our collection, we all can relate to being a high school student. We’ve all been there. For some of us, high school was the best time in our lives, for others, it was a time we’d rather forget. The Yearbook Flip blog series aims to dissect the memories of those wonder years.

Be sure to follow along for this high school history lesson!

Sara Nixon is a Public Historian and Public Programmer at the St. Catharines Museum & Welland Canals Centre

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