Like much of the United States, Vassar reacted to the outbreak of the First World War with shock, but with a prevailing sense of the war being a European problem, not an American one. The editorial board of the Miscellany, while acknowledging the “well-nigh unimaginable horror of the European War,” encouraged students in 1914 to “find a wiser point of view, to stand off, as it were, and look at the whole building,” not just the one unseemly part of it. The editors believed Vassar girls ought to stay informed about the war, but not rush to conclusions just yet, praising “the very sane attitude of our Faculty” in response to the conflict.
The Christian Association of Vassar College was among the first campus organizations to promote funding to aid the relief effort in Europe. “The need is greater than ever owing to suffering brought about by the European crisis,” wrote Theodosia Jessup ‘15 in the Miscellany News. “The mission study department…aims to combat the tendency of the college girl to lose interest in the world at large.”
Some students attended a Peace Meeting sponsored by the college, an event seemingly opposed to war. But the tone of the forum showed a more non-interventionist perspective than a pacifist one. Professor of History James Fosdick Baldwin reminded students “we need not be depressed by a war, but seek in it reasons for encouragement and stimulation,” while Professor of Political Science Emerson D. Fite suggested that “we really cannot appreciate the European situation, its spirit being so foreign to us,” adding that peace “is not to be desired until, through the humbling of one of the contestants, a political adjustment can be made.”
In November 1914, the editors of The Miscellany addressed the apparent indifference on campus toward the plight of Europe: “In unconscious self-defense we close our minds against the horror of realization and discuss the fall of Antwerp with the same detached curiosity with which children speak of the devil.”
Other students reacted to the Great War through poetry, channeling their indignation, sadness and fear into verse. Carolyn C. Wilson ’17 invoked a higher power:
God who has planned, let us thy children see
Thy purpose through the turmoil and the pain,
And come to know to-day’s discordant strain
For birth-pangs of a higher harmony.
Vassar alumnae, too, spoke up on the topic of war and its place at a women’s college. In an unapologetic essay entitled “Women and War,” Ruth Mason Rice ’06 sounded the following month something of a call to arms to her sisters in the ivory tower: “It is for [women] to help men to do away with the jingoistic spirit, the desire to impose our civilization on other nations, race prejudice, national distrust, rivalry, disparagement and contempt,” she wrote. Rice refused to consider war an exclusively masculine affair; in her opinion, everyone was implicated in some way:
“A mother teaches her small boy to be a “brave little soldier,” she gives him toy soldiers and battleships and aeroplanes to play with, and instills into him military ideals, confusing these with the ideals of manhood. And then, years later, when he comes and tells her that he has enlisted, she weeps, and wonders what influences have been at work with him, forgetting that he has merely followed where she led.”
Rice told her Vassar readers: “It is not enough just to dislike and deplore war—we must work actively against it.”
One college group that did confront and discuss violence in the world was the Socialists. Gertrude Folks ’16 attended a meeting of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society in late 1914, where she learned that “the fundamental causes of war were economic and that in Socialism lay the ultimate hope of peace.” She strove to found a Vassar chapter of the society, claiming “there is at Vassar an increasing interest in Socialism.” At that time, however, only five students identified as Socialist, and more often than not they joined forces with the larger Poughkeepsie branch of the Socialist Party.
As it became clear that the war would not end any time soon, the campus awoke to the possibility of sending financial relief to the ravaged Central Powers. The celebrated author Edith Wharton appealed to the women of Vassar for help in building a Tuberculosis Hospital in France. She asked for a collective donation that would cover the cost of one hospital bed, and the college community mustered around $4,000 for Wharton, which supplied six beds. In addition, in early 1917 Vassar students and faculty raised $1,800 to purchase an ambulance for the French government. Ambulance no. 610, “The Vassar,” was decorated for bravery in the summer of 1917.
The United States entered the war in April 1917, and the Vassar campus sprang into patriotic activity, embracing many ways to meaningfully support the American effort abroad. The War Work Committee headed by Jeanette Baker ’18 oversaw the “Preparedness” activities on campus. Although classes continued as usual, students, as long as they maintained decent marks in their regular classes, allocated much their extracurricular time toward Preparedness courses. Options included a stenography course, a personal hygiene course, a shorthand and typewriting course and a home economics course. The American Red Cross began offering training in courses in first aid to the injured, home care of the sick and surgical dressing. A course entitled “Elementary Training for Teaching the Blind” sought to “prepare teachers for our men, blinded in the war, so that they may be helped back to their normal place in life, and become self-supporting, happy and resourceful.” In addition, the modern language courses enlisted faculty members to teach conversational French, German, Spanish and Italian in order to “fit young women for work in censorship, translation, education of aliens, and other social work connected with alien supervision.” Another specialty course, “Charities and Corrections,” trained girls for “relief work in the many families in which the father has gone to war, and to assist in the protection of these homes from deterioration.”
Vassar President Henry Noble MacCracken was named the Director of Instruction in the Resource Mobilization Bureau of New York State, as well as a national director of the American Red Cross, “having charge of all junior work, …directing the entertainment of soldiers in mobilization camps.” MacCracken pioneered the creation of the American Junior Red Cross—drafting the organization’s charter in the basement of the White House and readying it for President Wilson’s signature. Once the war had ended, MacCracken journeyed across the Atlantic, under orders from Herbert Hoover, director of the American Relief Administration, to assist in the rehabilitation and reopening of European universities.
Professor of English Burges Johnson, like many faculty, also served the war effort; he assumed the role of Y.M.C.A. secretary upon outbreak of hostilities. In 1918, after visiting every Y.M.C.A. canteen in France, he met American soldiers at the front in Toul, and returned to campus in the autumn to tell students about his experiences. He also mentored English students in their writing of a column called “Cheese-Pairings and Candle-Ends,” which promoted wartime economy in the home; the students’ work appeared in periodicals and theater programs about the country. After the war, Herbert Hoover, then the director of the United States Food Administration, praised Johnson and his students for their meaningful contributions to the war effort.
Students founded a Red Cross Committee on campus, which trained young women in nursing and home care. A call to action appeared in the pages of the April 20, 1917 Miscellany News: “The Red Cross Committee wishes to call attention to the fact that the Faculty Room, on the third floor of Main will be open every day (except Monday)…for Red Cross work. Here is our chance to give immediate and effective aid, without delay for further training. By this work we can accomplish two ends, i.e., assisting the nations abroad, and helping our country to be prepared.” Many students took advantage of the nursing courses, and a group of about a dozen Vassar students and alumnae traveled to France in 1918 to help the wounded. Margaret Lambie ‘06, the leader of the Vassar Relief Unit, wrote about her time in war-torn Europe in Verdun Experiences, published in 1945.
Vassar faced a closer-to-home wartime tragedy in January 1918 when a nurse, Amabel Roberts ’13, serving at the No. 2 Reserve Base Hospital at Étretat, France, succumbed to septicemia. The alumna’s death shook Vassar. “Her name will live in our traditions, associated with quiet simplicity, the beauty of steady work and complete devotion to the service of humanity,” said Professors Elizabeth Hazelton Haight, Cora J. Beckwith, and Dean Ella McCaleb in their Memorial Minute for Roberts at a faculty meeting in the winter of 1918. “Who from Vassar will prepare to fill the gap her death has left in our lines at the front?” asked Haight in a letter to the Miscellany. Four other members of the Vassar community were lost to the war: Ruth Cutler ’12, Dorothea Gay ’11, Gertrude Chrissey Valentine ’12 and Lieutenant Alvin Treadwell—the son of Professor of Zoology Aaron Treadwell and an aviator killed in action.
To make up for the absence of many male workers on campus, Vassar students began doing manual labor. They served in the dining halls, mowed lawns, cleaned dormitories and tended to the Vassar Farm. Some two hundred young women worked on the farm in the summer of 1918, and the effort continued throughout the school year. One temporary farmer recalled the toils and rewards of agricultural work in the 1919 Vassarion:
“For the first week blisters, sunburns, and lame backs were in order. Before long these settled into callouses, coats of tan, and hard muscles. Four-thirty every morning saw the twelve on their way to the fields for two hours work before breakfast. This with four hours after breakfast and from two to four hours in the afternoon made a busy but not exhausting day.”
Vassar’s dining halls remained supplied in large part by produce grown on the campus farm, but in the halls themselves, students tried to cut back on dietary indulgences during the war, following the direction of Professor of Economics Herbert E. Mills: “It is absolutely necessary that every person in the country reduce his wheat consumption by one loaf of bread or its equivalent a week, if we are to escape a famine in the near future.” As a consequence, students followed conservation rules: in a given week, there was to be one wheatless day, one meatless day, absolutely no butter for dinner and just one vegetable per meal instead of two.
The war also brought about a change in social patterns. Before the war, no married woman could enroll in the college. But these rules were loosened during wartime, allowing for Vassar women to marry soon-to-be-deployed soldiers in training at the Plattsburgh, NY base. Patience Carr ‘20 explained the practice in the 1968 Vassar Quarterly:
“I will remember one such wedding. I think it was the first one held in the Chapel… When the news broke on campus there was tremendous excitement. Girls who had ferns in their room rushed over to the Chapel and put them on the platform. A charming idea, but there were so few that it looked more pathetic than romantic. We had time to change our clothing and throw on our most elaborate afternoon dresses. The Chapel was not crowded for the wedding. The service was very short, simple and to the point… The bride was not attired in the conventional white satin and veil—no time for that…”
As the war drew to a close, three trustees—Frank L. Babbot, Frank R. Chambers and Minnie Cumnock Blodgett ’84—oversaw the development of the Vassar Training Camp for Nurses, a program formed to meet the growing demand for professional nurses in the war and rehabilitation efforts. The program sought, “among the college graduates of the country, five hundred willing to enter upon a course of training for three months at Vassar and two years in a hospital, leading to the degree of registered nurse.” With Professor of Economics Herbert E. Mills as its dean, the Training Camp proved a great success in the summer of 1918, introducing 418 young women into the medical field, and often forging life-long friendships among the nurses. Said Katharine Tucker ’07: “To those of us who are both Vassar graduates and members of the nursing profession this is almost the proudest and most thrilling moment of our lives, for we see our own beloved Alma Mater making to our no less beloved profession the greatest contribution I believe, that any college could make at this time of our country’s need.”
The First World War changed much about Vassar College in a few short years, often allowing for an exciting change of pace on campus. Still, that excitement could hardly compare to the glee the students felt upon learning of the Armistice, agreed to in France on the morning of November 11, 1918, and put into effect 5 hours later. A member of the Class of ’19, writing as “Nina” in The Vassarion, recalled the event:
“Folks! Four a.m.—shrieks and songs—kimonas and fur coats! Such was Vassar’s reception of the wonderful, glorious news of peace. The hours between four and six we spent like caged lions fairly aching to burst forth into the open and give suitable vent to our feelings. And the moment the sun gave a suggestion of rising, we rushed to Sunset Hill to welcome daylight by burying a German helmet and singing ourselves hoarse. We are going to service in the Chapel now. History has been made today, and even in our little word here we are feeling it.”
On May 8, 1919, after a memorial ceremony in the Chapel, President MacCracken led the student body and faculty in a procession to Vassar Lake, and a singing of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” whereupon members of the Students’ Association planted four trees in memory of Vassar’s five fallen. “The trees will bind together the earth with their roots and ever remind us of those who have died for that purpose,” said Eleanor Kissam ’20 in an address to the gathered crowd. A few months later, in June 1919, the Associate Alumnae of Vassar College laid a tablet in the Chapel to remember Vassar’s deceased veterans.
And on November 11, 1919, the first anniversary of the Armistice, an elaborate memorial ceremony took place on campus, starting with a Chapel service and ending with a community meeting in Students’ Building. The Miscellany News recalls:
“President MacCracken spoke of the new connotation of “America First,” meaning America first in service and in progress, saying, “These are doubtful times, but if we are willing to see the interests of the small group in that of the larger, the interests of one class in that of the nation at large, and the interests of America herself in the world-wide league, then we can look on the war as achieving all we set out for, all our men died for.
Professor Johnson “made a dramatic entry, dragging a German gun, …a knapsack, and a gas-mask,” which was all he could find of his uniform from the front. Margaret Lambie extolled the virtue of her alma mater: “I want to extend the thanks of the Unit for that which caused you to send the Vassar Unit, and to continue your support of its efforts. We did out best to carry to the Verdun the spirit you showed at Vassar.”
A year later, on Armistice Day 1920, the French government presented Vassar’s campus with a retired tank, as a gesture of gratitude for the work its students and graduates performed in France during the war. A great ceremony met its arrival to the Josselyn hockey field, complete with renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” and the “Marseillaise.”
Indeed, a spirit of joviality seemed to return to the campus once the War had ended: “Now the college seems to be swinging back,” wrote the editors of the 1919 Vassarion. “Perhaps we became a little bigger than we were before. Perhaps the hedge will never be the boundary of the campus again. Perhaps—But 1919 will have to learn that at a reunion, for the reconstruction of Vassar is yet to come.”
“Preparedness Courses,” 1918.
“Armistice at Last,” 1919.
The Vassar Miscellany
Caroline C. Wilson, “A Prayer for Peace,” November 17, 1914, p. 25.
The Vassar Miscellany News
Editorial, “Perspective,” September 25, 1914, p. 2.
Theodosia Jessup, “Explanation Meeting of the Christian Association,” October 2, 1914, pp. 3–4.
Margaret Hotchkiss, “Peace Meeting,” October 9, 2014, pp. 1–2.
Red Cross Committee, “Be Patriotic! Be Humane!” April 20, 1917, p. 1.
Margaret Lambie, “First Letters from the Vassar Unity,” May 10, 1919, pp. 1–3.
“Vassar Pays Tribute to Her Dead,” May 10, 1919, p. 1.
“Armistice Day Celebrated Here; Community Meeting Held in Students’ Building,” November 15, 1919, pp. 1–2.
“The Great War at Vassar,” December 1968.
Vassar College Communications Dept. “VC War Activities, 1917-18,”
Folder 1. “Thrift Work at Vassar College.”
Folder 1. “War-Work at Vassar.”