Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Women and soldiers dancing in the Boathouse Canteen, circa 1918. Photograph by Paul Thompson, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

The Barnard College Archives would like to announce the launch of its new exhibit entitled “Student Life at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” It is on display in the Barnard College Library front lobby just in time for New Student Orientation Program (NSOP). The Archives is showcasing college life for Barnard students who matriculated before 1920. These photos capture a time when young women were preparing themselves for changes in both academia and the world at large.

Barnard women of the past shared many similarities with the current student body. They were repeatedly told not poster the campus and that fliers would be torn down. They were reminded to visit the Registrar and Bursar and meet with their advisors. They were warned it was their responsibility to check the bulletin board for notices and changes in policy and that ignorance would be an insufficient excuse. While webmail and Ebear have replaced these bulletin boards, the reminders remain a constant. Students also performed in plays, voiced their opinions in newspapers and literary magazines, and excelled academically. They held internships, volunteered and navigated the streets of the city to find their callings.

However, some things have changed. Students no longer have a curfew that correlates to class year. The earlier classes of Barnard were required to take entrance examinations and pass courses with a C or better in which they were deemed deficient. Students were previously admitted to incoming first-year class either with or without conditions depending on their scores. Now the requirements are specified as the Nine Ways of Knowing but also require a C or better. The 1900 application to Barnard College required verification by a reference of an applicant’s good moral character. Students with conditions had to show proficiency in specific subjects in order to maintain their student status and obtain a diploma. Lists of students with excessive absences were posted on the bulletin board, and some lost credit or were banned from taking final examinations due to the amount of work they missed. Wigs and Cues had women-only performances. While the high expectations haven’t been altered by time, Barnard women now have greater freedom in areas ranging from course selection to access to resources to general autonomy.

Past traditions that no longer exist can be found in the pages of these scrapbooks. The Greek Games were highlighted as a main event each year, and the Dean officially would cancel classes on the Saturday morning of the Games so all students could attend. At certain events such as chapel services at which important members of the Columbia community such as President Butler addressed the university, students were asked to don their academic gowns. Wednesday afternoons were for a gathering of faculty and students over tea. The sophomores took it upon themselves to initiate the first years with a series of events known as “The Mysteries.” Veiled in secrecy, this ritual is revealed through a scrapbook passed down through the years and by alumnae whose scrapbooks document the night. Though the Mysteries discontinued after being deemed hazing, it brought new students closer to the community and became cyclical. These experiences bonded the community and promoted a sense of school spirit and warm ties to the school.

As the number of matriculates rose, so did the demand for more space. In need of more room for the overcrowded faculty, staff, and students, the Board of Trustees and the Dean asked both alumnae and the city of New York to help fund the expansion. Their plea was answered, and in 1906 there were invitations to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of Brooks Hall. Later additions include Hewitt Hall and Barnard Hall (referred to as Student Hall in 1917 and renamed in l926).

Please stop by the Barnard College Library to view “Students at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.” Dozens of scrapbooks and photographs can be found right downstairs in the Archives, located at Lehman 23.

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Virginia Hall

Note: This is part of a series of profiles about Barnard alumnae. These profiles were originally posted on the old Barnard Archives website.   

World War II Spy, Code Name ‘Diane’

On her application to Barnard College in 1925, Virginia Hall wrote that she was interested in a career with the diplomatic service and in foreign trade. “Both vocations would bring me into contact with many interesting persons and give me the opportunity to make use of foreign languages,” she wrote. What she could not have known then was that her interest would lead her to become one of the Allies’ most valuable and courageous spies in occupied France during World War II, and the only American civilian woman to receive the Distinguished Service Cross during the war.

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