Letters Home: Social Life at Vassar 1865-1880

Throughout the opening years of Vassar College, a number of students wrote letters to their parents, siblings, friends, and even future husbands. Before the advent of telephones or email, the weekly letter home was the primary way students kept in touch with their families. This tradition continued for some time: the last letter home in the Vassar Archives belongs to a member of the class of 1941. However, these earlier letters are of particular interest, as there is relatively limited information available about student life at Vassar in its earliest years. Moreover, as poor transportation initially kept some students who lived farther away from returning home for winter break, they often remained at Vassar for a full nine months. This lengthy separation from those at home made their letters particularly important links to the friends and families that they had left behind. Like those of the generations of young women to follow, these early letters were full of descriptions of rooms and roommates, classes, professors, and daily concerns. The girls attempted to outline college life for their parents by explaining their schedules, their traditions, and the rules that regulated their lives.

Letters Cart

Letters Cart

Schedules

In those first few years, the letters reveal a highly regimented schedule. Not only did the curriculum lack flexibility, the hours of the day did too. The college was involved in every aspect of its students' lives. As Irene Anderson told her brother in 1866: "We rise at 6 o'clock, have an hour to... prepare for breakfast. At the end of that hour, the breakfast bell sounds, we go to the dining hall without a moment hesitation, in which place there is usually a half hour consumed, we being allowed to get up when we complete our meal. We are permitted that privilege only at breakfast. Dinner and tea we all get up at the ringing of Miss Lyman's bell. Then we retire to our rooms, make our beds - ten minutes are allowed for that preparation. Then twenty minutes are given for "silent hour." We are to devote those twenty minutes to reading our bible or prayer if we choose. [At eight] we go to the chapel, hear morning prayers for one hour... and have ten minutes before the first bell rings for the first period. The day is divided in periods of sixty minutes, with the first commencing at ten minutes past nine o'clock... dinner at one o'clock precisely, we are in the dining room until two. At 2:15, the first period after dinner commences and so on until four o'clock. Then we have recreation until five, tea at six then retire to the chapel, one hour spent there, study hour from eight to nine, then twenty minutes "silent hour," then the remainder of the evening spent as we please, visiting the rooms of our friends, reading and writing or... fancy work until fifteen minutes to ten. Then the "warning bell" rings, and at ten o'clock precisely, the gas is extinguished." Clearly, this schedule permitted very little free time. Despite constraints that to a modern eye seem excessive, however, students commented that Vassar gave them more freedom than any boarding school in the country.

While free time was more abundant on Saturdays and Sundays, girls were still required to exercise, attend chapel three times, and go to Bible study classes run by members of the faculty. While the girls often remarked on how interesting Bible study could be, weekends were not necessarily enjoyable. Emma Logan McCoy, of '77 described Sundays as "doleful," a sentiment many other girls seemed to share. It seems that the extra time only gave students the opportunity to feel homesick. But Saturdays were letter-writing days, and more enjoyable. However, as time went on, the students noted that clubs and organizations were taking up the time they had once spent writing letters. As Sarah Glazier Bates, class of 1868, noted to a friend, "Saturdays are no longer the "beautiful days we once enjoyed," where we could engage in letter-writing for diversion - To-day we had the first regular meeting of a "missionary society" (don't you wonder what organizations will spring up next?) which is to meet once a month."


Thanksgiving

As the students only had a day off for Thanksgiving, very few chose to leave campus. Emma Logan McCoy described the event to her parents in 1872. Apparently, they ate an elaborate turkey feast at dinner, which was followed by a dance. President Raymond then read "The Merchant of Venice" until eight, when the students went to a reception with the teachers in the president's parlor where the vocal teachers sang and the instrumental teachers played. The students were served ice cream in the dining hall at the rather late hour of ten thirty before they were told to go to sleep.

Student Organizations

A sharp increase in the number of descriptions of student organizations in letters home occurred during the early years. Martha Warner told her mother, in October of 1865 that, "our life goes along in a sort of monotone, nothing occurs that would interest anyone outside the building," and devoted her letter to inquiring after the family. However, over the course of her time at Vassar, her letters became increasingly full of her activities at Vassar, demonstrating that her life did not remain too "monotone" for description long. Even so, it is clear that academics remained too central to daily life for the taste of some students. Emma Logan McCoy told her mother in the mid 1870's: "What was said at home about Vassar girls thinking there isn't much else to do besides study, seems really true." Apparently, she found Vassar girls excessively focused on their academic careers.

Nevertheless, organizations were developing. Initially, most girls' letters referred to the Philaletheis or Literary Society, and noted the introduction of class government. A bit later, allusions to the Student's Association, the Floral Society, the Missionary Society, and various sporting societies spring up. As time went on, the number of societies continued to grow: by the 1870's, girls were writing home about excursions with the Shakespeare society, or the first publications of the Vassar Miscellany, a student's magazine.

Clearly, these organizations afforded these young women a number of opportunities to assume leadership positions. Election to office was an exciting event, and girls who found themselves officers wrote long letters home recounting the results in detail. From the beginning, however, girls felt that popularity as well as ability determined the results of elections. As class sizes grew larger, these positions became more competitive and their relationship to social status more complex. Lucy Sellers Barnes, class of '75, noted that while the classes above her were too small to allow for significant social division, her grade had divided into two distinct cliques. Election to office, she informed her parents, was only possible for members of the larger of these two groups. Despite her claims that this social hierarchy would prohibit her from assuming office, however, she became secretary of her class sophomore year. Perhaps the divisions were not as rife as she believed.

Clubs and student government clearly offered more to the students than leadership opportunities. These organizations planned social and academic events to occupy the students' free time. Students wrote elaborately about the "exercises" periodically organized by the Philaletheis Society. They generally consisted of the reading of an essay, a critique, a piece of literature, and music.

Carrie Slade, 1866

Carrie Slade, 1866

President Raymond, a very real presence in the students' lives, often participated. Students wrote glowing reports of his talented elocutionary skills. His periodic readings of Shakespeare were always something to look forward to, even if his apparently excessively long weekly lectures in chapel were not. Less formal events occurred as well, such as weekly games of charades and spelling bees.

Dramatic performances often provoked a flurry of letters. Generally, these were one act plays or "tableaux" that the students often wrote themselves and in which they invested quite a bit of time constructing elaborate costumes and scenery. Originally, these larger-scale performances only occurred on special occasions such as Thanksgiving, Philaletheis Night, or Founder's Day, but they became increasingly common over the years. By the late 1870's, students had more than enough events to choose between. In 1877, Helen Jackson told her parents that she had plenty to do, as there were plays each Friday, a dance every Saturday, and frequent lectures.

Hall Life

The structures and regulations of hall and dining life deeply influenced the daily experiences of the students. As the rules shifted over time, the girls wrote about the ramifications of the changes in their letters. Initially, the students of every academic level lived together in hallways supervised by a corridor teacher. The corridor teacher enforced rules, but she also played a supportive role: comforting girls if they were homesick, or bringing them tea if they were ill. The Lady Principal was also an active force in daily life during these early years. Miss Lyman lectured the girls each evening about the disorder and breeches of protocol she had witnessed during the day. The girls wrote about her with respect but also a little bit of fear.


Christmas and New Years

Particularly in the early years, due to the difficulty and expense of transportation, many students from the south or the Midwest spent winter vacation on campus. Away from home during the Christmas season, they wrote numerous letters to their parents about holidays at school. For the most part, the girls seem to have enjoyed themselves. Maria Dickinson McGraw, from the Class of 1867, told her friends that the Lady Principal and the President had told the girls to imagine that they were spending Christmas with a family. She noted wryly that the number of rules that the corridor teachers still enforced had a rather stifling effect on familial feeling, but was touched nonetheless. The rules did loosen somewhat: students slept later and had more free time. One night both students and faculty even went on a sleigh ride to Hyde Park, and stopped by the Forbes house for warm drinks. On Christmas Eve, they had a feast, and President Raymond read Shakespeare.

By the late 1870's, however, arrangements had become much more elaborate. As Lula Moore described the New Years' celebration, in 1878, "We watched the old year go by and the new year in at a masquerade party, given by the Assistant Lady Principal, Miss Palmer... About five minutes to twelve the large front parlor doors swung open, and four young ladies, dressed as pall bearers in deep black, with '78 in silver on their breasts, drove in a skeleton... in a little cart of inky black, and behind the skeleton... was a girl dressed in fiery red, with a black tail... Just at twelve, the same large doors swung open, and two beautiful little girls dressed in white gauze, white slippers, powdered hair, and little silver bells which jingled... came tripping in, dragging a throne, in which was seated a beautiful little blond angel..." Apparently, this celebration was met with great acclaim.

Over time, girls found new freedoms and options in both their living and dining conditions. In the college's second year, one girl noted, students could elect to sit at a French or German language table in the dining room. The same year, the few students who possessed junior or senior status were given their own tables, without a teacher at the head. The college altered its housing policy in the 1870's. Lucy Sellers Barnes told her mother about the change of housing policy in 1872: "The preparatory students are to be entirely distanced from the rest of the collegiates that they are to occupy the north end of the building with the exception of the second corridor, which is for seniors exclusively... they will be granted many more privileges which we cannot enjoy. They will not have any corridor teacher, but have her room which is quite large for a senior parlor reading room reading room or what they chose to make it... the rest of the building is left for the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen." While she complained that the reform forced her to find a new roommate, as the girl she was currently living with was a preparatory student, she, like most students, supported the alterations.

Students also wrote extensively of their interactions with their professors. Because almost all students and faculty lived under the same roof in the early years, they intermingled in a variety of contexts. Professors sat at students' tables in the dining hall, and knocked on their doors during visiting hours. Relatively frequently, they invited girls over to tea or dinner. Unsurprisingly, some professors were more popular than others were; students made fun of the less amenable ones in their letters. However, they spoke of most of their teachers with both familiarity and respect.

Perhaps most importantly, students wrote of their relationships with other students: describing new friends or gossiping about those whom they disliked. They even sent photographs of friends home, a rather expensive commodity in the nineteenth century, so their parents could picture their new companions. It is clear that students formed deep friendships with their fellow classmates. While students could only visit other rooms during specified hours, they clearly employed them productively. Students also extended visiting time by sneaking between rooms during after the lights went out, or during study hour. A girl recounted one escapade: "After the ten o'clock bell rang I got out of our window and ran two doors up the corridor to Belle and Fannie's room, climbed their window and perched on the upper sash. They were nearly frightened out of their wits at first... then they begged me to come in but their window made such a racket I ran back for fear of alarming the corridor teacher. Soon there was a sound as of one running and into our bed fell Belle. In a moment the sound was repeated and in piled Fannie, then we were bombarded by Clemmie..."

It is clear that rule breaking was an activity that solidified friendships and occurred rather frequently, although they usually appear in letters to siblings or friends, rather than parents. Mary Morris Pratt, class of 1880, described an elaborate prank played on the seniors on Halloween, when the senior parlor was expected to open: "A committee was appointed... from the junior class to go to every room... and, empty all the water pitchers, hide the matches, put court-plaster on the gas burners and do anything else they could... the seniors came home early to have a private opening of the parlor and couldn't get in - the corridor was very dark and they stuck on the door knobs. As soon as they entered their rooms, they went for the matches, but they didn't think to look under sofas and in such places, they had to go out and borrow some. Then they went to wash their hands, couldn't find a drop of water, and had to go pitcher in hand to the bathroom where they stuck to another knob. They probably had some trouble lighting their gas, and when they went to brush their teeth they found salt in their mugs and brushes..." From playing tricks on each other, to making candy in the kitchens and roasting chestnuts on gas burners, these girls were perfectly capable of finding their own entertainment.

Excursions

Girls also wrote extensively about their adventures off campus. These became significantly more frequent as time progressed. In the first year the college opened, girls were unable to leave campus unless escorted by a teacher. Subsequently, girls over the age of twenty or in their junior or senior year could go shopping or to church in Poughkeepsie, but the trip remained an occasion meriting full description. Over time, however, the rule demanding an escort became even more flexible. Younger students wrote of their increasing ability to convince the Lady Principal that they should be able to venture into town with an older student rather than a teacher. And by the late 1870's, girls with parental consent could go alone, judging by the sudden influx of letters requesting permission to travel to town.

Longer trips were harder to arrange; the Lady Principal had to approve, which was often difficult to orchestrate. But with luck, students might leave to visit family friends in the area, or to have tea with a professor who lived off campus. The requisite daily hour of outdoor exercise also provided the eligible students with an opportunity to explore the area. While many girls disliked the compulsory walks, others wrote rapturously about going "chestnuting" with friends through the woods that surrounded the college, or gathering apples in local apple orchards. Girls of sufficient age took the horses from the riding stables out on the road, and even younger girls could go riding with a teacher.

Trips were sometimes more formal. The President periodically organized excursions for students and faculty to local estates owned by trustees or other college associates. In May of 1872, for example, Lucy Sellers Barnes describes a weekend that all the collegiate students spent at Mohank, a mountain resort about twenty miles away. There, the students, professors, and President enjoyed good food, relaxation, as well as hiking and even went rowing "about 10:30 when the moon was out." While such trips were relatively rare, the space the girls devoted to them in their letters demonstrates the extent of the impression they made.


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Sources

Bouslog, Elba Huffman, Letters From Old-Time Vassar Written By A Student in 1869-70. Poughkeepsie: Vassar College, 1915.

Student Letters, Boxes 12, 13, 14, 15, 63, 64, 66, 70, 71, 72, Special Collections, Vassar Library.

Vassarion Yearbook, 1965.


CBC, 2005