Flower Tech is a Gothic Revivalist school constructed of brown brick and clad in orange terra cotta. The focal point of the exterior is a tower that extends one story above the flat roofline in the center of the north elevation. There are two thin gothic-arched windows separated by orange terra cotta mullions on each side of the square tower. The four-story school building contains 40 classrooms, a library, gymnasium, lunchroom, assembly hall, and staff offices.
Flower Tech was founded in 1911 by progressive educator and suffragist Dr. Ella Flagg Young (1845-1918). Young was the first female superintendent of schools in the city of Chicago. Young hoped to provide teenage girls throughout the city with practical training that would prepare them for professional life after high school. “We have been doing a great deal in this city for the boys,” Young argued, “and I want to do something for the girls.” Young decided to name the school after famed reformer and Board of Education member, Lucy Flower (1837-1921). Flower is best known for her activism in the juvenile court system, yet she was also an ardent advocate of technical training for both boys and girls to give them practical skills for the modern workplace. Young enlisted the help of fellow education reformer Dora Wells (1862-1948), who served as principal of Flower Tech from 1911 until her retirement in 1933.
Flower Tech opened in 1911 in the abandoned South Division High School building on Chicago's south side. After four years, the school moved to a small, unused school building at 61st Street and Wabash Avenue. Enrollment at Flower Tech was extremely low in these early years; there were only seventy-five students total, only two of whom were African American. Yet interest in the school and its unique curriculum steadily rose by the 1920s and the Board of Education decided to give Flower Tech a new facility that would better serve the educational program and expanding student body. The board chose this location across from the Garfield Park Conservatory.
From 1927 to 1965, Flower Tech's curriculum hinged on a series of technical degrees in the fields of dressmaking, millinery, institutional cookery, beauty culture, nursing, and, after World War II, business. With the exception of nursing and business, technical majors could be completed as part of an intensive two-year schedule for students who hoped to join the workforce as soon as possible. The two-year program was more popular than the four-year program among Flower Tech students, many of whom needed to gain employment as soon as possible to support themselves and their families. The founders of Flower Tech insisted that these were “technical” rather than vocational programs because the curriculum in each major field focused on process and technique rather than general study. A student who majored in institutional cookery, for example, began her coursework learning the basics of diet and nutrition before working in the school cafeteria preparing and serving various meals to her peers. Dressmaking majors advanced from introductory courses such as “Care of Textile Fabrics,” which instructed in the art of stain-removal, to classes where they learned various techniques for working with silk, wool, and cotton before designing their own outfits. Upper-level beauty culture students were able to cut hair and give makeovers at Flower Tech in classrooms equipped with shampooing sinks and other amenities especially designed for beauty-school training.
In addition to the school's technical programs, standard high school subjects such as English, science, math, and electives in music or art were required coursework for all students to keep Flower Tech competitive within the Chicago public school system. The academic curriculum was also designed to make Flower Tech students eligible for any four-year university, and a student could enter the “college prep” program rather than a technical program if her grades were sufficient. While Flower Tech was first and foremost known for its technical program, the school developed a reputation for preparing girls for college because of its strong academic curriculum. In 1948, a Flower Tech student became the youngest girl to pass the University of Chicago entrance exams. Regardless of degree program, all students were required to supplement their college prep or technical coursework with home economics training in sewing, child care, home management, and nutrition. This training was intended to prepare students for what faculty assumed would be their ultimate careers as wives and mothers.
By merging home economics with vocational training, the curriculum at Flower Tech represents the paradox of female education in twentieth-century America. In the nineteenth century, most female students received only rudimentary education in American schools. Women began entering the work force in increasingly large numbers in the late nineteenth century. Over 10 million women were wage workers by 1900, mainly in major cities like Chicago. This led many educators to call for practical training that would prepare women for their dual-roles as mothers and workers. The question became how to properly educate the female worker, who now accounted for twenty percent of the American workforce. What would a distinctly female form of vocational training look like? How could women be educated to be both good workers and moral mothers? Should she be both?
These questions led to competing movements in women's education, both of which began to appear in high schools across the country during the early twentieth century. The first was vocational schooling for girls that, like vocational training for boys, would prepare students for white-collar jobs or industrial labor. Vocationalism was linked to the growing perception that the primary purpose of school was to prepare students for jobs. Instruction in millinery, sewing, and stenography became integrated into many high school curricula to prepare young girls for the demands of the twentieth-century workforce. The second movement in women's education was home economics. Home economics advocates positioned themselves in opposition to technical training for girls, arguing instead that homemaking was the appropriate female occupation.
Flower Tech's curriculum is significant because it sat at the intersection of these competing forms of gendered education from 1927-1965. Throughout its history, Flower Tech's educational program oscillated between traditional gendered work in home economics and professional training. While Young had originally envisioned a school that would give girls a “salable skill” upon graduation so they could enter the waged workforce, Principal Wells was more interested in home economics to train future mothers and homemakers.
Many students attended Flower Tech because of its reputation for cultivating ladylike behavior. This was particularly true for immigrant daughters who attended Flower Tech. Throughout the school's history, most students were first- and second-generation Italian, Polish, and German immigrants living on the west and northwest sides of the city. A 1938 study of Flower Tech students revealed that 40 percent had foreign-born parents. Many of these students were sent to Flower Tech not for its technical program, but because their families preferred a girls' school rather than a traditional coed public school.
Flower Tech had a reputation among these families as a serious school where “good girls” focused on their work without the distraction of boys. In fact, boys were not allowed within two blocks of the school building. If a student's boyfriend wanted to pick her up after school, he had to wait down the street and out of sight. The no-boys-allowed rule only added to Flower Tech's reputation in Chicago as a safe school for hardworking girls.
A third of the student body was African American by the 1930s, making Flower Tech one of the few integrated high schools for Chicago girls and the only integrated technical school. The percentage of black students at Flower Tech continued to increase throughout its history. Urban renewal on Chicago's south side forced many African American families to west side neighborhoods like Garfield Park, thereby increasing the number of black students at Flower Tech. The neighborhood also became increasingly African American with the influx of southern blacks to Chicago during this time. The black population in Garfield Park rose from seventeen percent in 1950 to sixty-two percent in 1960. In contrast to the daughters of European immigrants, few African American students were sent to Flower Tech because of the school's emphasis on homemaking and ladylike behavior. Rather, many black students took hour-long commutes from south-side neighborhoods because of Flower Tech's college prep program. Racial prejudice in the workforce made it harder for African American graduates to gain positions in their areas of study. Yet at Flower Tech, black students were generally offered the same educational opportunities as their white peers. Black and white students worked together on class projects, sewed matching outfits as dressmaking majors, and served each other lunch during cooking class. Thus the educational experience of black and white students at Flower Tech from 1927-1965 was unlike any other in Chicago.
Racial prejudice was embedded within the Flower Tech curriculum in one revealing area. While black students took the same courses as white students in both the two- and four-year program, they were not allowed to major in beauty culture. Only white students were eligible to learn the art of shampooing, skin care, and cosmetics. This injustice served as a constant reminder to Flower Tech students that in the eyes of the all-white faculty, black women had no place in beauty culture. Race relations at Flower Tech between students and faculty were unique. While the student body became increasingly African American from 1927-1965, the staff remained solidly white.
Race relations between black and white students were similarly complex. Former students remember that black and white girls were not close friends but they coexisted amicably. Some black students recall that white students organized a whites-only prom that not only excluded blacks, but was organized in secrecy. Another black student, however, recalls that her graduating class wanted an integrated prom but no respectable venue in Chicago would rent to them. Differing perceptions of their gendered curriculum at Flower Tech was one source of tension between black and white students. While white students often embraced home economics coursework as useful preparation for motherhood, black students at Flower Tech and other American high schools resisted home economics because of its association with domestic service. Even if black and white students wanted to build relationships with one another outside of school, racial segregation in Chicago made it all but impossible. When the school bell rang, black and white students went home to their racially-isolated neighborhoods, churches, and lives.
Flower Tech remained a popular high school for black and white students in Chicago until the mid-1960s. Several factors led to the school's decline. The changing neighborhood and growing racial prejudice of white families led to a steady decrease in white enrollment by the end of the 1950s. Flower Tech also fell prey to larger forces in the Chicago Public School system. Lucy Flower Vocational School went co-ed the following decade in 1978, which it remained until its official closing in 2004.
Whether they went on to become homemakers or professionals, Flower Tech educated generations of young Chicago girls between 1927 and 1965. Many former students recall a great sense of pride and accomplishment in their time spend at the prestigious Flower Tech during these years. Others remember resentment for the faculty's emphasis on ladylike behavior and traditional notions of gendered work. Both sentiments are equally important to the history of Flower Tech in Chicago and its significance to the history of women's education.