Modern School Collection: Series Descriptions


Minutes, correspondence and other documents of the Ferrer Modern School Association, which was set up to administer the property of the Modern School of Stelton. It consisted of five members of whom three were trustees.

This series includes the certificate of incorporation (1918), as well as minutes and other items related to the final meetings of the Ferrer Modern School Association in 1958 and 1961, where trustees arranged to sell the school building and distribute the assets of the Modern School. This grouping includes correspondence between the trustees of the Association, notes, and various drafts of meeting minutes related to this process.

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Records of the membership organization which supported the Modern School of Stelton.

The minutes document the meetings of the Annual Convention, which included delegates from Stelton as well as various other modern schools and anarchist groups such as the publishers of the journal The Road to Freedom and the Kropotkin Group, which ran an anarchist summer school at Stelton. This series also includes reports on the progress of the children written by the principal and teachers of the Modern School of Stelton, which were read at the convention.

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REPORTS OF THE BOARD OF MANAGEMENT, 1922-1948. (3 folders)

Yearly narrative and financial reports of the Board of Management, which administered the Modern School. In these reports the board reviewed appointments of teachers, fund raising, publicity and relations with members of the Ferrer Colony.

Also includes reports of the principal, which were read at the Board of Management's meetings. The principal's reports describe the children's classes and activities, noting examples of responsibility and initiative shown by the children. These reports also discuss the hiring of teachers, teaching methods and the school facilities.

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Correspondence and ad hoc reports of the principal of the Modern School.

The major part of this series is the principal's correspondence (1935-1952), which includes letters from parents and social workers about the placement of children at the Modern School, requests for information and copies of Modern School publications, contributions and letters from researchers interested in the Modern School methods. This series also includes carbon copies of letters sent by the principal concerned with finances, discipline problems, etc. Of particular interest is a letter from Sol Ferrer, the daughter of Francisco Ferrer, who discovered that the Modern School was still in existence in 1949. There are also minutes and reports from various ad-hoc meetings which were attended by the principal.

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This series includes a few miscellaneous letters including one written by Harry Kelly's daughter Elsie who taught at the Modern School, as well as copies of circular letters used for publicity and appeals for funds.

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Minutes of an informal meeting of former students and friends of the Modern School held in 1946, where the publication of Elizabeth Ferm's manuscripts was discussed, and lists of former students who met on two occasions at the house of Paul Avrich, the historian of the Modern School.

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SCHOOL PUBLICATIONS, 1912-1949. (3 cubic feet)

Publications produced by the Modern School or individuals associated with it and printed in Stelton, New Jersey.

Includes an incomplete run of the school's journal, The Modern School (1912-1922 and 1943) and two issues of Open Vistas (1925), a literary review published at Stelton by Hippolyte Havel and Joseph Ishill, which only lasted for six issues. This series also includes a set of programs for the Daybreak Costume Ball (1930-1949), which was held every year in New York City to raise money for the school. In addition, this series contains a number of publications produced by the Modern School children, the most important of which is Voice of the Children (1922-1941). Voice of the Children was a magazine of stories, poems, and news, illustrated by wood and linoleum cuts, which was written, typeset and printed by the children of the Modern School. It was founded under printing teacher Paul Scott and later was supervised by printer Joseph Ishill. After lapsing in 1926, it was revived in 1929 when Jim and Nellie Dick returned to Stelton. Similar to Voice of the Children was Linoleum Cuts (1929), a booklet of linoleum cuts with names and ages of the children, of which there may have been only one issue.

This series also contains individual pamphlets relating to the Modern School which were published at Stelton. These include examples of Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm's educational writings, histories of the Modern School, an anti-war play which was performed at Stelton in 1916, and more general works about libertarian education. Finally this series contains miscellaneous Modern School publications such as The Stelton Outlook (1932-1933), a newsletter written by former students, and Action (1921), a newsletter of the Ferrer Colony, as well as programs from the annual convention of the Modern School Association of North America, theater programs, broadsides, tickets and stickers.

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PHOTOGRAPHS, ca. 1880-1965. (.4 cubic feet)

This series consists of black-and-white portraits and views, primarily from the Modern School of Stelton, as well as a few photographs from other communities and a few images reflecting the anarchist movement in general. It includes many portraits of Alexis Ferm at various stages of his life, as well as portraits of Elizabeth Byrne Ferm, Anna Schwartz, and other teachers, students and individuals associated with the Modern School. There are also several group portraits of the children and teachers. Of particular interest are three tintypes, ca. 1880-1890, showing Alexis Ferm as a boy, as a young man, and an unidentified woman who may be his mother. The views include Stelton buildings, and the Modern School children and teachers engaged in various activities: playing musical instruments, dancing, swimming, reading, working in the wood and weaving shops, and performing plays. Scenes also show the children's art work and items made by the children.

Views of other schools and communities include the Pioneer Youth Camp in Rifton, New York, sponsored by the National Association for Child Development, which Alexis Ferm ran for several summers (1929-1934); the Mohegan Modern School in Peekskill, New York; Fellowship Farm, a socialist community neighboring the Modern School of Stelton; the Ferrer School at Forest View Grove on the Hudson (oversize, stored in a manuscript box); and the Children's Playhouse in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, run by Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm before coming to Stelton.

Miscellaneous anarchist views include a postcard of Lawrence textile workers organizers Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph J. Ettor (1912); a photograph and three postcards of an anarchist rally in New York, ca. 1910; and a photograph of Alexander Berkman speaking in Union Square, New York City, probably in 1914.

As well as photographs, this series includes eight leaves of half-tone reproductions, which are stored in a manuscript box. These are sheets of images produced from photographs showing Modern School scenes dating from the 1920s, many of which are in the collection. The leaves measure 9 1/2 x 12 1/2 and each contain several images. Some were used in Joseph Cohen's The Modern School of Stelton (Stelton, 1925).

The photographs were donated by various former students of the Modern School and Stelton residents, some of whom identified and dated the images. A few seem to come from Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm's own collection, and are identified in Alexis Ferm's hand.

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NEWSPAPER CLIPPINGS, 1922-1952. (2 folders)

Photocopied newspapers clippings about the Modern School of Stelton and anarchist education.

Includes clippings from local papers documenting the history and specific events at the Modern School. It also contains a series of clippings from The Road to Freedom, an anarchist paper published at Stelton from 1924 to 1932, and continued under the name Freedom, from 1933 to 1934. These clippings pertain to the Modern School at Stelton, Francisco Ferrer and anarchist education in general.

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Typescript memoirs of four individuals who attended the Modern School or were associated with it: Lillian Rifkin Blumenfeld, Pauline Bridge Henderson, Harry Kelly, and Carl Zigrosser.

Lillian Rifkin Blumenfeld (b. 1897) was educated at Teachers College under John Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick and taught at the Organic School in Fairhope, Alabama. She taught English at the Modern School in Stelton from 1923 to 1924 and later taught at the Walden School in New York. In her 1974 memoir, she describes her childhood as the daughter of Russian immigrants in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, her schooling and the development of her interest in teaching. Although she only mentions the Modern School of Stelton briefly, she discusses the educational philosophy she used in her teaching there.

The memoir of Pauline Bridge Henderson (1958) takes the form of the middle section of a short novel called "The Dogwood Tree," which is based on her experiences as a child at the Modern School. On the original file folder, someone had written "Pauline and Joan Bridge were two sisters very dear to uncle [Ferm]--he called them his children." The two sisters were the daughters of William Bridge who was on the staff of the school in the mid 1920s. Joan Bridge became the mother of folk singer Joan Baez. In a letter to Alexis Ferm attached to her memoir, Pauline Henderson mentions her niece "Joannie."

The printer and anarchist Harry Kelly (1871-1953) was a founder and leader of the Modern School. In this typescript of a piece written for the 25th anniversity of the Yiddish anarchist paper the Freie Arbeiter Stimme (Free Workers' Voice), 1925, Kelly discusses the paper's support for the Modern School.

Finally, this series contains two chapters from a manuscript autobiography by The Modern School magazine editor Carl Zigrosser (1891-1975), later published as My Own Shall Come to Me (Philadelphia, 1971). He describes the evening lectures for adults at the Modern School in New York, where he heard Leonard Abbott and Will Durant speak, and took art classes taught by Robert Henri and George Bellows. He also describes his memories of anarchist leaders Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Hippolyte Havel. In the next section, Zigrosser describes his experiences editing The Modern School (1917-1920), and his impressions of Wallace Stevens and Hart Crane, who wrote some poems for the magazine, and the Van Gogh family, who allowed him to publish some extracts from Vincent Van Gogh's letters.

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Diary, correspondence, writings and scrapbook of Alexis Constantine Ferm (1870-1971), usually known as "Uncle," principal of the Modern School from 1920 to 1925 and 1933 to 1948.

Alexis Ferm kept a diary sporadically from 1893-1906, 1926-1928 and 1942-1944. In the early section, he describes attending lectures at the Ethical Society and speaking at the Brooklyn Theosophical Society, of which he was one of the founding members and where he met his wife Elizabeth Byrne. He describes their courtship and marriage in 1898 and the foundation of the Children's Playhouse in New Rochelle, New York, in 1901. Ferm describes in detail his observations of the children at the Playhouse, which moved to Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, in 1902.

During 1926-1928, the Ferms lived briefly at Stony Hill, near the single tax colony of Free Acres in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey, and then at their cottage in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Ferm describes his daily routine of caring for the garden, his teaching at the Road to Freedom camp in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, and his visits to the Stelton Modern School, the Mohegan Modern School in Peekskill, New York, and the Caldwell (N.J.) Country Day School, a progressive school, as well as his reaction to the Passaic mill workers strike and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti. In the final section, Ferm describes the illness and death of Elizabeth Ferm, who suffered a series of strokes and died in 1944, and his subsequent discouragement with the potential of the anarchist movement.

This series also contains collected letters written by Alexis Ferm to former teachers, students and friends of the Modern School, spanning the period 1930 to 1971. They are arranged alphabetically by name of correspondent, and chronologically within each folder. The bulk dates from 1948, when Ferm moved to the single tax community of Fairhope, Alabama, to his death in 1971, although some date from the 1930s when the Ferms had left the Modern School and were living in Newfoundland, New Jersey. Correspondents include Mrs. Sam Adel, John Aronoff, Judith (Lighter) Bokelman, Frances Sweida Browning, Aurora Greenhouse, Sasha and Gladys Hourwich, Sema Lighter, Nathan Marer, and Edgar and Martin Tafel. In his letters, Ferm describes his life at Fairhope, where he built his own house at the age of 79, and shows a lively interest in the fortunes of his former pupils. Nathan Marer's correspondence concerns the Alexis Ferm Fund. After the school property was sold in 1961, a trust fund was set up to provide a pension for Ferm, which was administered through the League for Mutual Aid. In the mid-1960s, the fund began to run out of money, so former Modern School students started giving privately to Uncle Ferm through Marer, who, however, led him to believe that the money was still coming through the League. Because of his distrust of the federal government, Ferm refused to apply for Social Security until the age of 98.

In this series also fall Alexis Ferm's writings. Of particular interest is a typescript manuscript autobiography entitled "Sven: the Ordinary Life of an Ordinary Boy," which describes the life of a Swedish immigrant boy growing up in Brooklyn in the late nineteenth century. Ferm wrote of "Sven" that "everything is true except the name of the boy." (1) In this manuscript, Ferm describes growing up as the son of Swedish immigrants in a working-class district of Brooklyn. He was forced to leave school early to work in a dry goods store, although he continued his education through evening classes. He describes working conditions at the time and relations with other immigrant groups. The manuscript begins when Ferm was about six years old and ends when, as a young adult, he leaves Brooklyn to manage a general store in upstate New York.

This series also includes some of Ferm's writings about education, pieces called "Education and Schooling" and "Education" written while he was living in Alabama, and part of a manuscript about the educational theories of Montessori and Rousseau and how they related to what was practiced at the Modern School.

This series also contains a facsimile of a scrapbook, 1929-1933, kept by Alexis Ferm, which primarily consists of clippings of his educational column from The Road to Freedom, an anarchist journal published at Stelton. Other articles from The Road to Freedom kept in the scrapbook concern anarchism in Spain and South America, conferences held at Stelton, book reviews, and articles from the Youth Section. The original scrapbook was in such poor condition that it had to be photocopied and discarded. Several items which were found in the scrapbook were removed and placed in folders. These include newspaper clippings from The Fairhope Courier and The Mobile Register where Ferm wrote letters to the editor about education, civil rights and other social issues, as well as a regular column of film reviews. A few letters were also found in the scrapbook including two responses from readers to his letters to the editor, one abusive and one supportive. Alexis Ferm was a strong believer in the rights of African Americans. His attacks on the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens Council in the paper led to harassment and hate mail.

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ELIZABETH BYRNE FERM PAPERS, 1895-1949. (.5 cubic feet)

Typescripts of published and unpublished writings by and about Elizabeth Byrne Ferm (1857-1944), co-principal of the Modern School.

This series includes the complete manuscript of Elizabeth Ferm's book Freedom in Education (New York, 1949), which was a collection of her writings assembled after her death by her husband Alexis Ferm, as well as earlier drafts of some of the pieces. It also contains published versions and typescripts of articles from Mother Earth, The Modern School, Progressive Education, and the journal Child Life (1897), which only lasted for one year. In some cases there are several versions of each article.

In addition, this series contains typescripts of lectures on early childhood education that Elizabeth Ferm gave in the 1890s and early 1900s; typescript poems dated 1906; unpublished manuscripts and parts of manuscripts on early childhood education, some theoretical and some recounting incidents at the Modern School; and miscellaneous notes on various educational topics.

The articles about Elizabeth Ferm include typescripts of published interviews, a chapter from a book, an obituary from the newsletter The Roman Forum, and several reviews of Freedom in Education, one a typescript written by Los Angeles anarchist Jules Scarceriaux, and several from newspapers.

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JO ANN WHEELER BURBANK PAPERS, 1944(1969)-1972. (5 folders)

Memoir and correspondence received by Jo Ann Wheeler Burbank (born 1905), who taught at the Modern Schools of Stelton and Mohegan from 1929 to 1946, and was one of the founders of the Friends of the Modern School in 1973.

This series includes a letter from a publisher concerning the publication of Elizabeth Ferm's book; correspondence regarding the distribution of the assets of the Modern School of Stelton in 1961, and letters from former students and teachers about the administration of the Alexis Ferm Fund, which Burbank took over from Nathan Marer in 1968. Most of the correspondence, however, is from Alexis Ferm himself during his last years. He describes his reading, his continuing interest in education, discusses their mutual friends, and his memories of the past. After Ferm moved to a nursing home in Alabama following a fall in 1969, Burbank corresponded with his neighbor Dr. Stanleigh R. Meeker about his condition. The series also contains letters Burbank received after Alexis Ferm's death in 1971.

In addition, this series contains letters from researchers such

as Laurence Veysey and Arthur Mark who began to study the Modern School in the early 1970s, along with carbon copies of some of Burbank's letters to them, and her comments on the manuscript of Veysey's book, The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth-Century America (Chicago, 1973). Burbank herself was instrumental in collecting memorabilia and reminiscences from former students and teachers at the Modern School which she later donated to Rutgers, so this series includes replies to her letters soliciting information from John W. Edelman, former principal of the Modern School, Modern School editor Carl Zigrosser and others.

Finally, this series contains Burbank's own memoir, part of a chapter of a proposed book entitled "School in a Jersey Meadow," in which she describes Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm, and some of her experiences as a teacher at the Modern School, such as an incident during the Second World War when she was questioned by the FBI about some conscientious objectors who were staying at the school.

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ITEMS MADE AT THE MODERN SCHOOL, 1932-1935 and 1960 (.4 cubic ft.)

Collected items created at the Modern School

This series comprises a rug handloomed by the Modern School children from scrap wool material which was purchased at the craft exhibit held at the Stelton Annual Ball in 1934 by Wanda Sweida; a table runner made of pure wool in the colors of the rainbow always used at the Modern School handloomed in about 1932; a woven hanging depicting a woman bathing; and "Baby's First Toy," six knitted balls on a string given to the baby of Frances Browning by Anna Schwartz in November 1960. This item is an example of one of the toys designed by German educationalist Friedrich Froebel known as gifts, which were supposed "to train children in dexterity of movement and teach them something of the laws of nature." This particular example, known as "Gift 1," because the sphere was a child's first shape, was specified as being made up of six worsted balls of one and a half inches in diameter, red, yellow, blue, orange, green and violet. (2)

Additional items present are a mahogany square with a carving of a girl's face on the front, signed on the back, "Eleanor," and apparently sold for 50 cents at a Modern School benefit, and two cards done by six and a half year-olds Philip and Sasha Hourwich, one a birthday card for their mother made out of construction paper with linoleum cuts, and one a series of abstract designs in watercolor.

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Publications and photocopied materials about other Modern Schools and anarchist communities.

Includes an issue of Experimental Schools (1917), the bulletin of the Bureau of Educational Experiments, with articles about Stony Ford School in Stony Ford, New York, and the Home School in Sparkill, New York; two issues of Open Pages (1932), a magazine of stories, poems, and linoleum cuts by children from the Modern School in the Mohegan Colony in Peekskill, New York; and a broadside from the Manumit School in Pawling, New York (1928).

Also includes photocopies of a hearing about the incorporation of the April Farms Association, 1925. April Farms was a utopian community founded in Massachusetts in 1924, and moved to Quakertown, Pennsylvania, the following year. A number of anarchists lived there including several people from Stelton. The community, which was founded by millionaire Charles Garland, only lasted until 1930.

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Publications including articles about the Modern School or concerning individuals who were associated with it.

Includes a Modern School special issue of the Los Angeles radical journal Everyman (1914), edited by Leonard Abbott; an issue of the Los Angeles vegetarian-fruitarian-humanitarian journal Human Culture Digest (1941) containing several articles about the Modern School and the Ferms; and an incomplete run of Mother Earth (1911-1917), the prominent anarchist journal edited by Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman. Founded in 1906, Mother Earth published frequent articles about Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School movement, as well as publishing advertisements and appeals for funds for the Modern School of Stelton. This series also includes an issue of its namesake Mother Earth (1933), a Thoreavian anarchist newsletter published in Craryville, New York, by Jo Ann Wheeler and John G. Scott, former teachers at the Modern School and residents of Stelton.

Finally this series contains a program from a conference held by the Road to Freedom Group in Stelton in 1934, in which they discussed organizing an Anarchist Federation of America. The Road to Freedom Group were members of the Modern School Association of North America.

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Printed items presumably used for teaching at the Modern School.

Includes maps of the colonial United States from a textbook and a photocopy of a short story or chapter from a children's book by Jack Sher, Memo on Kathy O'Rourke.

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(1) Alexis Ferm to Jo Ann Wheeler Burbank, April 8, 1970, Jo Ann Wheeler Burbank Papers, Modern School Collection, Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries.

(2) Evelyn Lawrence, ed. Froebel and English Education: Perspectives on the Founder of the Kindergarten (New York, 1969), p. 23 and 238.

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Back to: Title Page and Contents | History of the Modern School | Scope and Content Note

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