Since the mid-nineteenth century, school boards, scientists and social reformers have used textbooks to promote a wide range of idiosyncratic ideas, all promising to maintain the social order and control that most unruly of bodies, the pubescent teenager.

Textbook History’s Scandalous Hits


Textbook History started as a journal of social history as filtered through twentieth century American biology textbooks. Inspired by the work of Jim EndersbyJohn RudolphDonna J. Drucker, and Ronald L. Numbers, among other notable historians, it has evolved into an exploration of the intersection of popular history, popular science and popular culture since the industrial revolution.

It can get a little weedy. So, I thought I’d provide a short sampler of the more approachable stories found here.

Students of popular culture (with a dash of academic cred) are invited to dig into the Piltdown hoax, the masturbation panic of the nineteen century, eugenic pornography, the racist origins of Alfred E. Neuman, and everyone’s favorite, girl Nazis with whips.

The (even) geekier stuff can wait.

Ron Ladouceur

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Textbook Reconstruction

May 11, 2022

Carpetbagger and KKK CartoonReconstruction was a decade-plus (1863-1877) effort by the U.S. government to manage the readmission to the Union of states that had rebelled during Civil War, with specific demands by Congress to enfranchise and empower the 4,000,000 formerly enslaved people who resided in those states. It succeeded, but only temporarily. Under Federal watch, black men gained the right to vote, and, according to historian Eric Foner, an estimated 2,000 served in public office, including the U.S. Senate, through the nineteenth century. [1] But by 1900, through ongoing campaigns of terror and voter suppression, black Americans in the South were effectively disenfranchised.

In the decades leading up to and following this disenfranchisement, American history textbooks, academic histories and popular histories constructed a narrative that provided white citizens absolution by positioning Reconstruction as a “tragic era” of “scalawags” and “ignorant negroes” manipulated by invaders from the North, “carpetbaggers,” who “swarmed” South after the Civil War to pillage and humiliate.

This essay traces the development of this “tragic” narrative through a review of American history textbooks published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, focusing on two series: one written by the husband and wife team of Joel Dorman and Esther Baker Steele of Elmira, New York, and a second authored by Susan Pendleton Lee of Richmond, Virginia.

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To Conserve Man

December 22, 2021

Bison from Civic BiologyTo our Rachel Carson-tuned ears, the word conservation means allowing nature to hold sway, to designate areas as wetlands, protected habitats and forever wild, to be humble and accept that nature is usually smarter than we are. But to biology textbook authors in the 1920s, 30s and 40s, influenced by the eugenic ideas of Henry Fairfield Osborn, Madison Grant, Theodore Roosevelt and others, conservation meant something else entirely. It meant first, preserving select symbols of American virility, like the redwood tree, the bison, and most importantly, their own “great race,” and second, managing the rest of nature – forests, water resources, wildlife, and soil – so that it could be exploited maximally without collapse.

This ideology entered the classroom, briefly, in the mid-1920s with Benjamin Gruenberg’s Biology and Human Life (1925) [1] and George W. Hunter’s New Civic Biology (1926). [2] The two books were similar in structure (even though their authors’ politics were quite different). Both ended with linked chapters on conservation leading to a closing call for eugenic management. But the high school classroom proved a poor platform for “human conservation,” as it was called. [3] New Civic Biology along with other harsh economic biologies published in the early 1920s [4] gave way in the market to less didactic works. [5] Scholars often attribute this shift to the effect of the Scopes trial and the chilling effect it had on a bold or matter of fact presentation of evolution. But with education through the tenth grade now compulsory in all states, biology teachers, facing classrooms full of not just college-bound students but students from across the economic spectrum, may simply have preferred not to present lessons that referred to some of those students as “parasitic on society” (Hunter, 1926, 399). [6]

But in college classrooms it was another story.

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Pre- and Post-Scopes Textbooks (Finally) Come Into View

Updated December 7, 2021. (Originally published as “Pre-Scopes Textbooks Coming Into View,” January 18, 2019)

After a 96-year embargo (thanks, Sonny Bono), copyrighted works from the early- and mid-1920s are finally entering the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, this list will include textbooks and other works by prominent biologists and educators published in 1926, including Samuel. J. Holmes, George W. Hunter, Truman J. Moon, and Alfred Kinsey (yes, that Alfred Kinsey – see related article).

Why is 1926 so important? It was the year after the famous Scopes “Monkey” Trial. Publishers, spooked by the possible loss of sales in the south (and everywhere else evangelicals held sway) encouraged authors to edit their texts in response. For an overview, I encourage you to read Adam R. Shapiro’s article on the topic … and mine. But now that you can do your own primary document research, I encourage you to examine these textbooks for yourself.

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Gairdner B. Moment: How the Cold War Pushed an Almost Revolutionary Off the Rails

June 26, 2021

Gairdner B. Moment, a professor of biology at Goucher College from 1932 to 1970, was a textbook pioneer, the first author to use the term “Darwinian Synthesis,” [1] and the rare author in the 1940s to forward ecological awareness, not eugenic management, as the purpose of his profession. He did this with the publication General Biology for Colleges in 1942.

But then World War II happened. Biology, following physics and chemistry, muscularized its curriculum and began reasserting its claim as the central agent in the maximization of natural resources, including human resources, in a newly interconnected world.

Moment was caught in the wave and taken by its undertow.

An almost revolutionary in 1942 on the order of Rachel Carson or Marston Bates, by the 1960s, Moment devolved into a reactionary critic of the emerging culture of environmentalism he had helped spawn, and is remembered today as the scientist who wanted grizzly bears eliminated.

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How Are We Going to Control These Kids? Biology Textbooks in the 1940s

July 31, 2019. (Originally published in longer form as “Biology Textbooks in the 1940s: If Not Eugenics, What?” – January 22, 2019).

The 1940s were a pupil-poor and scientifically unsettled time for U.S. secondary school biology textbook authors and publishers. The economic depression of the preceding decade led directly to a reduction in both birth rates and absolute births. Between 1940 and 1947, the number of students eligible for high school biology decreased by more than 13%. [1] Making matters worse, World War II interrupted the free flow of scientific information right as new ideas about evolution, eugenics and race were coming into focus, forcing (or encouraging) authors to rely on old information or kind of wander around.

This created an odd market where idiosyncratic works by authors on soapboxes competed for a share of a shrinking audience with barely revised reprints of out-of-date texts and encyclopedic works that purportedly instructed students how to “adjust” to life. Only a few of these weird creatures would survive the decade.

Of the 16 new or revised high school biology textbooks published during the 1940s, only two managed to successfully navigate the harsh environment. The first, the perennially popular (and pandering) Modern Biology by Truman J. Moon, Paul B. Mann and James H. Otto, first published in 1921, gained a strong foothold in the market with revised editions in 1926, 1933 and 1938. It’s unlikely rival, Exploring Biology, started life as the kitchen table project of a small-town high school teacher named Ella Thea Smith and her illustrator husband, Marion Cox. By the end of the 1950s, these two textbooks would command 75% of the market. [2]

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Discovered! Ella Thea Smith’s First Textbook

Updated September 25, 2018 – Text now searchable

Smith, Ella Thea. 1932(?). Biology: The Science of Life. Unpublished. Salem, Ohio: Salem Historical Society.

NOTE: Comparison of this typewritten biology textbook from 1932 to its contemporaries, and to Smith’s published version (Exploring Biology 1938), would be useful to anyone studying the history of the teaching of evolution, health, alcohol, eugenics and other key topics in biology.

Ella Thea Smith graduated in 1920 from the University of Chicago with a degree in Botany. She returned that year to her hometown of Salem, Ohio, where she would teach biology until her retirement in the early 1950s. Evidentially, Smith was so dissatisfied with the biology textbooks then approved for use in her district that she wrote her own.

Smith’s typewritten, mimeographed and string bound textbook, Biology: The Science of Life, was first used in classrooms in 1932, and was revised by Smith several times over the next few years. The copy offered here was discovered in 2007 misfiled under the title “workbook” at the Salem Historical Society. At the time, this was the only known copy. A second has since been located.

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The Science of Life by Ella Thea Smith

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Henry Fairfield Osborn and the Tragic Legacy of Piltdown Man

Revised February 4, 2018

According to Henry Fairfield Osborn, Piltdown man, the famous fake [1], was proof that Darwin’s theory of natural selection was wrong, and that modern humans did not need trace their ancestry through Africa. To bolster his arguments, Osborn, who was president of the American Museum of Natural History from 1908 to 1935, turned the considerable resources of his institution toward the development of a wide range of compelling visual materials – reconstructions, painting, charts, graphs and photos – that illustrated his story of evolution. He then distributed these materials freely to textbook publishers and the popular press.

The consequences were tragic.

By flooding the market, Osborn, with sympathetic textbook authors and a socially conservative public as accomplices, advanced a racialized theory of evolution that resisted countervailing evidence for decades, survived Piltdown’s fall in 1953, and tainted the teaching of biology in high schools and colleges well into the 1970s.

This photo of the skull reconstructions of Java, Piltdown, Neanderthal, and Cro-Magnon men (as they were listed in the text) are from Ruth A. Dodge’s 1952 revision of the venerable Smallwood biology textbook series, which traced its history back to 1916. This would be the last textbook to picture Piltdown. Revealed as a fraud in 1953, and as you can see, neatly X-ed out with pencil by an anonymous student sometime after.

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Eugenics in High School and College Texts Graphed

June 26, 2014

Eugenics stopped being a topic of credible scientific inquiry in the United States around the time T. H. Morgan’s lab began publishing Drosophila-based genetic data in 1915, or at the latest, when the Carnegie Foundation began to pull funding from the Eugenic Records Office at Cold Spring Harbor in the later 1930s. But its legacy as part of the biology curriculum was much longer-lived than is commonly assumed.

The charts below track the relative priority of the topic of eugenics in the American biology curriculum based on direct examination of 83 high school biology textbooks and 43 college-level biology textbooks published in the United States between 1904 and 1973. (See database).

Tracing the history of the promotion of eugenics in American biology textbooks reveals several surprises.

First, despite the eugenic horror of World War II, the topic of eugenics remained a fixture of a majority of biology textbooks into the 1960s. Second, while the decade between 1925 and 1935 represented the peak of enthusiasm for eugenics in textbooks, this enthusiasm diminished only gradually over the following 30 years. Third, while a few high school textbook authors began to actively counter eugenic claims starting around 1938, college textbook authors continued to present eugenics without disclaimer. Lastly, no college textbook failed to mention eugenics from the mid-1940s on. Forgive the double negative, but what this means is that after World War II, college-level textbooks featured eugenics more routinely than they had in years prior.

Eugenics in High School Graph

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Where’d Hugo Go?

December 14, 2013

[NOTE: This post has been significantly revised – and improved – based on input from Jim Endersby, author of the Isis article referenced herein. The original post, along with Endersby’s comments and my reply, are attached as an addendum.]

Dutch botanist Hugo de Vries gained global fame in the first decades of the twentieth century for being the guy who finally figured out how evolution worked.

Darwin and De Vries

Opposing portraits of Charles Darwin and Hugo de Vries from the 1954 edition of Ella Thea Smith’s popular high school textbook, Exploring Biology.

Of course today we credit Darwin for this discovery, and backdate it to the publication of Origin of Species in 1859. But for many decades, into the 1930s in fact, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was considered insufficient (see Bowler, 1992). In the minds of many, De Vries’ idea completed the story of evolution.

MUTATION THEORY

Rather than suggesting that speciation resulted from an accumulation of small variations over long periods of time, like Darwin’s theory implied, De Vries posited that new species could actually pop into existence in a single generation. In fact, according to De Vries, multiple representatives of the same new species could pop simultaneously, creating a pool that would breed true.

Many biologists felt De Vries had solved the most vexing problem in evolution – how variations could avoid being swamped or blended back to average through interbreeding.

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