Modern School Collection

Modern School Collection
Manuscript Collection 1055,
Special Collections and University Archives,
Rutgers University Libraries

Arranged and described by Dr. Fernanda Perrone
as part of the "Utopian Communities Project,"
July 1995-June 1996, funded by a grant from the
National Historical Publications and Records Commission

Woodcut of tree with goats

History of the Modern School of Stelton


The Modern School at Stelton, New Jersey, was a child of the early twentieth century anarchist and libertarian education movements. It was inspired by the example of Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer (1859-1909) who had established "modern" or progressive schools in Spain in defiance of an educational system controlled by the church. Fiercely anti-clerical, he believed in "freedom in education," education free from the authority of church and state. Ferrer founded the first Modern School, the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, in 1901. The school was very successful, and soon branches were started throughout Spain. The Escuela Moderna, which also encompassed an adult education center and radical publishing house, was closed in 1906 when Ferrer was implicated in a plot to assassinate the King of Spain. In October 1909, Ferrer was tried and executed, accused of masterminding the events of the "Tragic Week," July 26 to August 1, 1909, when a workers' protest in Barcelona developed into open rebellion, resulting in the desecration and burning of numerous churches and convents. (1)

Activities in New York

Ferrer's death sparked an international outcry. Anarchists in New York, led by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, founded the Francisco Ferrer Association in 1910 "to perpetuate the work and memory of Francisco Ferrer." (2) Anarchist leader and printer Harry Kelly became chairman and Leonard Abbott, associate editor of Current Literature, was elected president. The Association had a threefold purpose: to publish and disseminate Ferrer's works, to organize memorial meetings on the first anniversary of his death, and to establish Modern Schools in cities throughout the country to be administered by local branches of the Ferrer Association.

The Ferrer Center and Modern School in New York opened its doors in January 1911 in St. Mark's Place in Greenwich Village. Its first principal was former Columbia English instructor Bayard Boyesen. The premises could only accommodate an adult school, so after a fund-raising drive, the center moved to a building on East 12th Street, which was big enough to house a day school. The school began with nine pupils, including Margaret Sanger's son Stuart. In 1912 the youthful Will Durant, later a well-known writer and popularizer of philosophy, took over the school. Under Durant, the Modern School became one of the most important centers of the Radical movement in New York. The adult classes thrived; students flocked to art classes conducted by Robert Henri and George Bellows, originators of the realist Ashcan School, who counted among their students several artists who would later become famous such as Man Ray, Max Weber and John Sloan. Communist writer Mike Gold and best-selling novelist and short story writer Manuel Komroff were also associated with the school, as were poets Lola Ridge and Edwin Markham; Durant himself lectured on the history of philosophy. Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Margaret Sanger, writers Jack London, Lincoln Steffens and Upton Sinclair and labor activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn delivered individual lectures at the center. (3)

The Day School was also fairly successful, although few radical families lived within walking distance of the East 12th Street location. In the summer of 1912, the school moved yet again to 107th Street in Harlem, where Durant soon had sixteen students. It was here that Durant met and fell in love with Ida Kaufman, a fourteen-year old student who would become his wife and collaborator Ariel Durant. The couple left to marry in 1915, and Cora Bennett Stephenson took over as principal. Under her tenure, a summer school and kindergarten were introduced, and the school had visitors from Switzerland and Germany to observe its methods.

The Move to New Jersey

In July 1914, a chain of events began which led to the school's ultimate removal from New York to Stelton, New Jersey. In that year a bomb went off in an apartment building a few blocks away from the Modern School. Three men, all of whom were regular visitors to the adult center, were killed by a bomb which was apparently meant for Standard Oil Chairman John D. Rockefeller's estate in Tarrytown, New York. The incident led to increasing politicization of the center, compounded by the infiltration of meetings by police informers, and the withdrawal of some financial support. Believing the increasingly fraught atmosphere was bad for the children, plans were made to move the day school to Stelton, New Jersey, about 30 miles from New York. The Ferrer Center in New York lasted until 1918.

After choosing the site, Harry Kelly, Leonard Abbott and cigar-maker and anarchist Joseph Cohen formed the Ferrer Colony Association to purchase land, which they resold to prospective colonists in small plots. The site comprised 68 acres of land, including an old farmhouse and barn. By 1919, about 100 families, of whom between twenty and thirty were year-round residents, owned land at Stelton. (The colony and school actually were located in eastern Piscataway Township, near the Raritan--now Edison--Township community of Stelton, with which they have always been identified). The people who settled in the Ferrer Colony came from diverse ethnic backgrounds; Laurence Veysey notes that the colony was unique in that it brought together college-educated native born Americans, immigrants, intellectuals, and working men in an attempt to build a new society. (4)

Although three quarters of the colonists were from an Eastern European Jewish background, the Modern School and Ferrer Colony were non-sectarian and most of the settlers did not identify strongly with their Jewish faith. Many colonists supported themselves by continuing to commute to the garment district in New York; in addition, all the land in the colony was individually owned and cultivated for profit, which was not inconsistent with anarchist philosophy. The community was also noteworthy for the settlers' commitment to sexual and racial equality. Many couples lived together without being married, and children were cared for communally during the day. Living conditions in the early years were primitive: the first summer residents lived in tents or chicken coops while they built their own homes. They had no electricity, central heating or indoor plumbing.

Education in the Early Years

In its first year at Stelton, the Modern School had no less than four principals: Bobby and Deedee Hutchinson, who left after a few months to start their own school in Stony Ford, New York; Henry T. Schnittkind, a Harvard Ph.D. who also departed because his wife could not adjust to living conditions in Stelton; and Abe Grosner from the Philadelphia Modern School who served as acting principal until William Thurston Brown was appointed in the spring of 1916. Under Brown, a minister and socialist who had already founded several Modern Schools throughout the country, the school at Stelton prospered. Like the school in New York, attendance was voluntary, there was no discipline, punishment, or formal curriculum. As well as learning from books, the students participated in outdoor activities and made handicrafts. Hungarian-born painter Hugo Gellert conducted art classes and master printer and anarchist Joseph Ishill taught the children printing.

In addition to the students who lived with their parents in the colony, thirty to forty children boarded at the Modern School. The farmhouse was converted into a boarding house, next to which was built an open-air dormitory, which was icy cold in winter. Margaret Sanger's daughter Peggy contracted pneumonia while at the boarding house, and had to be removed to a hospital in New York where she died. Conditions improved, however, after of the arrival of Jim and Nellie Dick in the spring of 1917. The Dicks had been active in the anarchist and labor movements in their native England, where they had both started Modern Schools. Jim and Nellie cleaned and reorganized the boarding house, which they rechristened the Living House. Nellie imposed some discipline on the children who had been running wild; as she said later "freedom without responsibility doesn't go." (5) In 1920, a new school building was erected. The Dicks ran the Living House until 1924, when they left for similar posts at the Modern School in Mohegan, New York, which had been founded by Harry Kelly the previous year.

The early 1920s were the most fruitful period in the Modern School's existence. Under Elizabeth and Alexis Ferm, who had taken over as co-principals in 1920, "the Modern School became one of the most radical experiments ever to take place in the history of American education." (6) Before coming to Stelton, Elizabeth Byrne Ferm (1857-1944) and her husband Alexis Ferm (1870-1971) had run their own school, the Children's Playhouse, in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, and later founded one of the first "storefront schools" on the Lower East Side, where they came into contact with Emma Goldman and other anarchists. Elizabeth Ferm was particularly influenced by the ideas of the German educator and founder of the kindergarten movement Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) whose theories emphasized encouraging self-activity and creativity in children. At Stelton, the Ferms promoted manual and creative work, such as printing, weaving, carpentry, basket-making, pottery, metal work, gardening, singing, dancing and other sports; they built a series of workshops in the schoolhouse, although the children still had the choice of studying academic subjects with Jim Dick in the library. This program led to a remarkable creative flowering among the children, who produced, among other things, the Voice of the Children, which they wrote, illustrated and printed entirely themselves. Eventually, however, the Ferms came into conflict with some of the parents who wanted a more radical, politicized education for their children, and objected to the lack of attention paid to academics. Refusing to modify their methods, the Ferms left in 1925.

After the Ferms' departure, the Modern School went through a difficult period of transition, until Jim and Nellie Dick returned in 1928 as co-principals. The Dicks renovated the Living House, which had fallen into disrepair, revived Voice of the Children, and reintroduced a full range of activities for adults. Jim and Nellie had always wanted to start their own school, however, and in 1933, they left Stelton to found a Modern School in Lakewood, New Jersey, which lasted until 1958. They were replaced by the Ferms, who were persuaded to return as co-principals.

Decline and Dissolution

In spite of the presence of the Ferms, the Modern School fell upon hard times in the 1930s. During the Depression, many working-class parents lost their jobs and had to withdraw their children from the school. Moreover, by this period the anarchist movement in general was in decline, and a number of colonists became communists, creating dissension in the community. By 1938, there were only thirty children left at the school. In the mid-1930s, the Living House was sold as a private residence, and the children were cared for in the homes of members of the colony. It was the Second World War, however, which was the final blow to the Modern School. In 1940, the federal government bought the land adjoining the colony for use as a military base, Camp Kilmer. The presence of thousands of soldiers changed the atmosphere of the community; houses were broken into and a girl was even raped by soldiers. (7) In 1944, Elizabeth Ferm died of a stroke. Alexis stayed on as principal for four more years before retiring to the single-tax community of Fairhope, Alabama. At this point, only fifteen children were left, mostly of kindergarten age. Anna Schwartz, who had taught at the Modern School for many years carried on until 1953, when the school was closed for good. Between 1955 and 1961, the trustees sold off the property of the school and distributed its remaining assets. The Ferrer colonists and their children gradually dispersed, although many still live in the area. Some of the original houses were torn down and replaced by a shopping center and condominiums as the area became more and more suburbanized. By the time of Alexis Ferm's death in 1971 at the age of 101, however, there was a growing movement among his former students to preserve the legacy of the Modern School. In 1973, the Friends of the Modern School was founded, which holds a reunion every year to exchange memories, ideas about alternative education, and contribute material to the Modern School Collection at Rutgers University.

(1) See Joan Connelly Ullman, The Tragic Week: A Study of Anticlericalism in Spain, 1875-1912 (Cambridge, 1968).

(2) Paul Avrich, The Modern School Movement (Princeton, 1980), p. 36.

(3) Laurence Veysey, The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago, 1978), p. 79-84.

(4) Veysey, p. 77-78.

(5) Nellie Dick in Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices (Princeton, 1995), p. 287.

(6) Avrich, p. 256.

(7) Veysey, p. 170-172.

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Scope and Content Note


The Modern School Collection spans the period from ca. 1880 to 1974, with the bulk dating from 1912 to 1971. It is approximately 6.6 cubic feet in size, including 15 manuscript boxes (two are restricted), four photo boxes, one newspaper box and a phasebox.

The collection has essentially two parts: the official records of the Modern School of Stelton, New Jersey, and items donated to the collection by the students and teachers of the Modern School and residents of the Stelton Colony. At the reunion of the Friends of the Modern School, held every year since 1973, items are donated.

Official Records

The official records of the Modern School comprise minutes and reports of the Modern School Association of North America (1922-1950), the membership organization which supported the school; records of the Ferrer Modern School Association, which administered the property of the school; reports of the Board of Management, which administered the School itself; and correspondence received and copies of correspondence sent by the principal of the school. These items amount to one manuscript box of material.

Collected Materials--General

The donated materials include publications, photographs, newspaper clippings, correspondence, writings and miscellany. Most of the publications, comprising about half the collection, were produced at the Modern School printing press. They include journals, most notably The Modern School; Voice of the Children, the journal of poems and prints produced by the children; programs of the annual Modern School benefit dance; and various other publications.

As well as publications produced at the Modern School, the collection contains various other publications which refer to the Modern School, such as a special issue of Everyman (1914) and a partial set of Emma Goldman's Mother Earth (1911-1917), which frequently included articles on the Modern School. The collection also contained a number of pamphlets which had no relation to the Modern School and part of Modern School founder Leonard Abbott's book collection; these items were transferred to the repository's Radical Literature Collection.

There are four boxes of black-and-white photographs (one 8 x 10 and three 5 x 7 boxes), spanning the period approximately 1880 to 1965, including portraits of the Ferms, and views of the Modern School children involved in various activities. Of special interest are three tintypes (ca. 1880-1890), showing Alexis Ferm as a boy and as a young man.

Other series are newspaper clippings documenting the history of the school which have been photocopied on to acid-free paper; and memoirs written by figures associated with the Modern School including The Modern School editor and art curator Carl Zigrosser and anarchist leader Harry Kelly.

Collected Materials--Personal Papers

The Modern School Collection also includes papers of Alexis Ferm, which comprise just over one manuscript box of correspondence, writings, newspaper clippings and a sporadic diary kept by Ferm from 1893 to 1944. There is also a separately housed scrapbook (1929-1933) of clippings of articles on education by Ferm and others published in the anarchist journal The Road to Freedom. Because of the extremely brittle condition of the scrapbook, it was completely reformatted: its contents were copied onto acid-free paper and it was rebound. Ferm's collected correspondence is comprised primarily of letters he wrote to his former colleagues and students after he retired to Fairhope, Alabama, in 1948. The students kept his letters and donated them after his death. These letters are arranged alphabetically by correspondent. This series also includes correspondence about the Alexis Ferm Fund, which helped support him in his old age, and clippings from local Alabama newspapers, where Ferm wrote frequently about education and civil rights.

The papers of Alexis Ferm's wife Elizabeth Byrne Ferm fill parts of two manuscript boxes. These papers are entirely made up of her published and unpublished writings as well as a few book reviews and an obituary. Elizabeth Ferm published articles about progressive education in Mother Earth, The Modern School, and other journals. After her death, Alexis Ferm put together a number of her writings, both published and unpublished, and raised the money to publish them as a book, Freedom in Education, in 1948. This series contains a complete manuscript of the book as well as drafts of various chapters.

Of the many people who contributed material to the Modern School Collection, teacher and trustee Jo Ann Wheeler Burbank contributed enough diverse material to constitute a separate series. This series includes letters from Alexis Ferm, correspondence pertaining to the Alexis Ferm Fund, and a typescript memoir. Photographs and publications were transferred to the appropriate series based on format.

Documentation of other Schools and Communities

The collection also contains a small amount of material (5 folders) related to other Modern or progressive schools or anarchist communities, including publications from the Mohegan Modern School in Peekskill, New York, and photocopies of a hearing on the incorporation of the April Farms Colony in Quakertown, Pennsylvania (1925). A few photographs from other Modern Schools have been transferred to the photographs series.

Finally, the collection contains several items which were made at the Modern School by its students and teachers, including a toy, children's watercolors, textiles and a wooden block, dating from the 1930s to 1960. Most of these items are stored in a newspaper box.

Restricted Items

Brittle items from the Modern School records and the Alexis Ferm and Elizabeth Byrne Ferm papers have been photocopied onto acid-free paper. The originals are stored separately, and are not meant to be used by researchers.

Research Based on the Collection

Several monographs exist which are based in part on materials in the Modern School Collection:

  • Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement (Princeton University Press, 1980).
  • Liptzin, Stanley S. "The Modern School of Stelton, New Jersey: A Libertarian Educational Experiment Examined" (Ed.D. Thesis, Rutgers University, 1976).
  • Mark, Arthur. "Two Libertarian Educators: Elizabeth Byrne Ferm and Alexis Constantine Ferm" (Ed.D. Thesis, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1973).
  • Tager, Florence. "A Radical Approach to Education: Anarchist Schooling--the Modern School of New York and Stelton" (Ph.D. Dissertation, Ohio State University, 1979).
  • Veysey, Laurence. "The Ferrer Colony and the Modern School," in The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-Century America (University of Chicago Press, 1978).

Related Materials

In its cataloged book collections, Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers holds a number of items published in Stelton, including some which are not present in the Modern School Collection. The latter consist of a more complete run of The Modern School (X-NJ LD7501 .S7M6); and a history of the Modern School by Joseph J. Cohen and Alexis C. Ferm, with photographs by Oscar Steckbardt: The Modern School of Stelton: A Sketch published in 1925 (X-NJ LD7501 .S824MC).

The Paul Avrich Collection in the Library of Congress contains material related to the Modern School of Stelton, such as interviews Avrich conducted with Modern School students, teachers and Ferrer colonists, and photographs. Also relevant are the Carl Zigrosser Papers at the University of Pennsylvania which contain correspondence and manuscripts relating to his work as editor of The Modern School magazine, diaries and the catalog from the 1913 exhibit of student art work at the New York Modern School.

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