Lewis Institute and Armour Institute of Technology during the First World War
University Archives & Special Collections, Illinois Institute of Technology
Lewis Annual yearbook page for section listing students in the armed services, 1917
Although Illinois Institute of Technology was not formed until 1940, Lewis Institute and Armour Institute of Technology, its two predecessor schools, were both well-established when the U.S. entered World War in April of 1917. Over the next two years student life on both campuses was temporarily transformed as enlisted students shipped out, campus war training programs were established, and new war effort clubs appeared. Today, we can see the effects of wartime in our collections of student yearbooks, photographs, and alumni correspondence.
Though they evolved in different directions, the origin stories of Lewis Institute and Armour Tech sound strikingly similar. Both were founded in the late nineteenth century to offer “practical” education, both drew funds from local business leaders, and both aligned themselves with progressive and educational reform movements. Lewis Institute was established in 1895 through the will of Allen C. Lewis, who dictated that his estate should be used for a school with a progressive educational mission. Under the direction of educational reformer George N. Carman, Lewis Institute stayed true to this vision, offering both two and four year degrees to men and women as well as becoming the first college to offer evening classes for working students. Lewis’s diverse student body was made up of many first and second generation immigrants, who displayed no small amount of school spirit.
Armour Institute of Technology was likewise founded in 1892 by a prominent Chicago pastor and social reformer Frank Gunsaulus and funded by industrialist Philip D Armour. In fact, the idea for Armour Tech had grown naturally out of the Armour family’s earlier interest in the settlement house movement, and the college was initially established adjacent to the Armour Mission and Armour Flats apartments. However, as Armour Tech grew it eventually took over those buildings while also shifting towards a technical focus and traditional collegiate personality. By 1902 the student body had become exclusively male and remained so until 1940, when the merger with Lewis Institute returned liberal arts and female students to campus.
Wartime changes to campus reflect the different personalities of Lewis Institute and Armour Tech. Lewis Institute sent its first two students overseas in May 1917, when Hospital Unit 12 was called to France. When Ellen Thompson and Budy Streitmatter were told to report by the end of the week with a year’s supply of clothing, their classmates in the Domestic Arts Department leapt into action to help purchase, sew, and launder the necessary supplies. This planted the seeds for a Patriotic League, open to any women associated with the Institute, who worked throughout the war collecting reading materials and clothing for soldiers, supplying refreshments and entertainment at Great Lakes training centers, and raising money for the Red Cross and war orphans. Within a year, Lewis Institute had sent at least one hundred students to Europe to serve in the army or in hospital units, many of whom appeared to keep in close touch with the school and each other. And in 1918 the school became even more involved when it entered a contract with the War Department to train drafted men in woodworking, metal work, and electrical work in two month courses, which brought 200 additional men at a time to study, eat, and live at Lewis Institute. Altogether, our records suggest 2,705 Lewis students and alumni served and 24 were killed by the end of the war.
Postcard to Lewis Institute director George Carman from a student in Paris, 1919
Lewis Institute students in France, c.1918
Armour Tech also sent students to fight overseas: the 1919 yearbook commemorates six students killed and list 38 commissioned men. Though the all-male student body of Armour Tech seemed less inclined to support domestic war effort organizations or host drafted soldiers, they eagerly participated in the Student Army Training Corps (SATC) program. This national program added military training and drills to the standard college course load to train students as be officers, modifying student housing into barracks and dining into a mess hall. A significant part of the student body enrolled in this program and the naval training unit, around 300 in total, though the war ended before most of the graduated.
The Cycle Armour Tech yearbook dedication page, 1919
Armour Tech training unit group photo, c.1918
In our collections at the University Archives & Special Collections, the war’s impact is most visible in the student produced yearbooks, which contain dedications, summaries of war news, and the activities of war effort clubs between 1917 and 1919. We also hold correspondence between the Lewis Institute patriotic league and enlisted soldiers, and photographs and draft records from war training programs at both schools.
For more information about the Armour Institute or Lewis Institute during the war, contact: