Wearing complimentary red and green costumes, this group of golden children appears wise beyond their years. They have dour expressions on their faces, and most are too wrapped up in their studies to even acknowledge the spectator. Wm. Campbell-Wall-Paper-Co manufactured “The Froebel” frieze in 1905. It was innovative wallpaper because it was antiseptic, treated to prevent bacteria and germs from absorbing into the paper. Its name came from another innovator, Friedrich Froebel (1782-1840), the inventor of kindergarten.
Froebel believed that children needed to be active participants in their education, free from authoritative instruction. He wrote, “Education must be passive and protective rather than directive, otherwise the free and conscious revelation of the diving spirit in man – which is the free development of the human race – is lost.” During the early twentieth century, education reformers sought to break from rigid and disciplined classrooms. They aimed to promote individual learning and democratic relationships within the classroom. In this frieze, adults are nowhere to be seen. The children possess tools for their education, such as an abacus and globe, and they have the support of each other. They’re not the typical school children one might find in a classroom filled with rows of desks facing the teacher; instead they’re unconfined, independent scholars.
Along the bottom of the frieze, a banderole is inscribed in German: Arbeit macht das Leben Süss [Work Makes Life Sweet]. Froebel advocated for children to work and learn independently, but not under such quiet and serious conditions as we see here. He recommended singing, dancing, and learning through open-ended play. Instead, these children stand like adults, reminiscent of Greek statues. The frieze markets a parents dream for a bright future where their children become solid and confident members of society. Sadly, it appears that playtime is not part of that dream.
i. Friedrich Fröbel, Froebel's Chief Writings on Education (New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1912) 32.