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Mabel Sykes: A Life Untold and an Architectural Geometry Book Rediscovered – Teaching Positions

Maureen T. Carroll (University of Scranton) and Elyn Rykken (Muhlenberg College)

Mabel began her teaching career upon receiving her bachelor’s degree from Wellesley in 1891. She did not stray too far from her alma mater, accepting a position just a few miles away at the Home School in Natick, Massachusetts. Perhaps she stayed to be near her sister, Marion, who was just starting her first year at Wellesley and with whom she would remain close for her entire life. Mabel spent only one year in Natick, where she taught classes in mathematics, Bible, German and French, before taking a mathematics position in 1892 at Alma College, a women’s college in Ontario, Canada [21, 23]. Founded in 1881, Alma was housed entirely in one building and enrolled about 80 undergraduates. Of the 20 faculty members, half specialized in music and fine arts and a quarter taught literature and languages. Mabel was the sole Mathematics and Natural Sciences faculty member [1, 3]. She spent three years in Canada before leaving to return to Chicago in 1895, the same year Marion finished her degree at Wellesley. They both secured teaching positions at a relatively new school located at what was then near the southeastern far reaches of Chicago, South Chicago High School.

This area of Chicago was feeling the effects of the burgeoning paper and steel mill industry, which was accompanied by a growing immigrant population and a need for public schools. South Chicago High School was established in 1882 to address these needs. During Mabel and Marion’s time there, the school experienced tremendous increases in its student body and several phases of building development and relocation, including a name change in 1910 to James H. Bowen High School. There were also periods of time when the school housed elementary and junior high students. Through all of these phases, Mabel always taught high-school-level mathematics, but Marion taught elementary-level science classes before transitioning to high school earth sciences in 1901 [25]. According to census records, Wellesley alumni records, the University of Chicago annual register, and the annual Chicago city directory, Mabel found student housing near the University of Chicago while Marion stayed with her parents closer to the business district in the first years after their return to Chicago. Mabel was paid $1000 per year in 1896, certainly a higher salary than Marion earned as an elementary school teacher [13]. Being in Hyde Park gave Mabel easy access to the resources of a major university, and she took graduate classes at the University of Chicago, though she did not earn another degree. Those readers familiar with Chicago might be interested to know that Mabel’s five-mile commute from Hyde Park to South Chicago would have been easily traversed with the extensive and thriving 5¢ cable car system in use until 1906.

Bowen High School faculty in 1912.

Figure 1: Bowen High School Faculty (1912): Mabel Sykes in third row from the bottom, third from the left. Marion Sykes in second row, second from the right.

The sisters had only been home for a year when their father passed away in October 1896. Marion continued residing with her mother and her younger sister, Winifred Wikoff, during this time, and she, like her sister, did some graduate work at the University of Chicago. While Mabel continued living on her own for at least five years, by 1910 Mabel and Marion resided with their widowed mother, Sarah Jane, in Hyde Park. The two sisters continued sharing their household after Sarah Jane passed away at the end of 1917. They would spend the rest of their lives working together in the Chicago public school system and sharing a home in Hyde Park. According to statistics published by the National Education Association, the median Chicago high school teacher salary in 1919 was $1107 [5]. Census data indicates Mabel and Marion were able to afford live-in help by 1920, and thus, we assume, they led a comfortable life. Mabel was involved in her local community, where she transcribed books into braille for the Chicago Public Library and worked for Children’s Aid [24]. Marion later served as the principal of the elementary and the junior high schools in her last fourteen years at Bowen [25].

Bowen High School faculty in 1915.

Figure 2: Bowen High School Faculty (1915): Mabel Sykes on right in front row. Marion Sykes in back row, fifth from the right.

Marion survived both of her sisters. Winifred passed away at the end of 1937 and Mabel passed away at home just a few months later on her seventieth birthday. Mabel’s obituary notes that she had been ill since shortly after her retirement in 1934 [9]. Marion retired the year after Mabel and lived another ten years after Mabel’s passing. Between the Sykes sisters there are 82 years of service to Chicago public schools, two full lives devoted to education.

Maureen T. Carroll (University of Scranton) and Elyn Rykken (Muhlenberg College), "Mabel Sykes: A Life Untold and an Architectural Geometry Book Rediscovered – Teaching Positions," Convergence (February 2020)