Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The American Girl in College - 1895 Edition

Anyone who has been reading this blog knows that I am writing a historical YA set at women's college in upstate New York in the year 1895. I chose 1895 because it meant indoor plumbing, heat and electric bulbs, along with the Gibson girl hairdos and the mutton sleeves. Also, young women at this time were riding bicycles, typewriters were coming into use, the USA was heading towards the dawn of the 20th century. Also it was a few years before the Spanish-American war, which as far as I'm concerned is when Europeans started to hate us. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx united soon after with Manhattan to become the New York City that we know and love and can't afford to live in.

For my heroine and her friends, going to college was still a relatively new thing, although by 1895 more and more young women who could afford it were opting for a college education. By 1895, the 7 Sisters had all been founded, Radcliffe, Barnard, Vassar, Smith, Bryn Mawr, Mt. Holyoke, and Wellesley.

Mt. Holyoke and Elmira College were among the first schools offering advanced education to women, but Vassar was the first one to call itself a college. Mt. Holyoke didn't start offering a bachelor's degree until the 1870's, by which time Smith and Wellesley had been founded. Of course, going to a women's college wasn't the only option. Syracuse, Cornell, and Oberlin had all been admitting women for years but most middle class women opted to attend a womens college.

At first girls lived in boarding houses near the college before someone came up with the bright idea of building dormitories. At Vassar initially the students lived and attended classes in the same building. Vassar had also established a prepretory school to prepare young women for the rigors of the education at Vassar. The prepretory school last from the founding of the school in 1861 until the mid-1880's.

In order to attend Vassar, young women had to sit for an exam, the way that they do today for Oxford and Cambridge. There were no SAT tests, so girls were tested on Latin, Algebra and Geometry, either German or French and English composition. The Vassar catalogue for 1891 gives the books and plays that might be the subject for the essay on the exam. So basically, in order to apply, you needed to know those books and plays backwards and forwards because you had no idea until you sat down to take the test what the question would be.

Seriously, reading about the exam, I wouldn't have gotten into Vassar in 1882 anymore than I did in1982!

In 1895, I learned that Bryn Mawr and Vassar were the most expensive schools costing a whopping $400 including room and board. The cheapest was Mt. Holyoke. Mt. Holyoke managed to keep costs down by basically requiring the students do the work of servants as well as attending classes. Isn't that great? You get to go to college and wait tables, clean the dorms, and do the laundry. I think they even had to cook the meals as well!

At Vassar, laundry was included in the tuition for up to 15 pieces a week, more than that cost extra. You were also required to bring your own towels and napkins. Most schools had extracurricular activities ranging from student goverment to the glee club. Also sororities or Greek social clubs were also founded. Not like the ones we all might have experienced in college, which had chapters at campuses all across the country (at least 4 sororities were founded at Syracuse alone as an antidote to the fraternities that existed on campus). Most of them were particular to that school.

At Vassar, it wasn't uncommon to have the students perform plays like Antigone in the original Greek! Vassar was also known for having one of the first female astronomy professors and observatories in the country. Sports actually were pretty big news at womens colleges. Pretty much every school required that the girls take gym and participate in sports. Basket Ball (two seperate words back then) was in play at most schools by 1895, the rules having been modified for women at Smith College. Oh and they weren't called swimming pools but swimming tanks!

Most of my research has focused on Vassar for the simple fact that there web-site includes the most information that I could find on the history of the college. The other 7 Sisters schools have little to none. I've managed to incorporate some traditions from other schools from research that I've done on the Internet (yeah Google books). But I have a feeling that most of us would not have wanted to attend a women's college in the 19th century.

Not only did most of them have curfews (which persisted into the 20th century up until the 1960's), but a lot of them also had a morning bell at 7:00 a.m. No sleeping late and missing your first class at these schools.

Well that's just a brief taste of what life was like back in 1895 at college.

Thanks for reading,


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