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.

The Barnard “Farmerettes” of World War I

Eleven farmerettes (and one dog), Women's Agricultural Camp, Bedford, New York, summer 1917. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

With our entry into World War I, a crisis of wide-ranging proportions threatened to jeopardize the domestic and international food supplies in the United States.  The government recognized the devastating impact that a much-reduced farm labor force and a lessening of food output from the nation’s farms would have on the overall war relief efforts throughout the world.  They initiated a campaign called “Food Will Win the War” and sponsored programs to encourage citizens to take actions at a grassroots level to counter the threats of food shortages through conservation and food production.

One of the programs to grow out of these efforts was the Women’s Land Army initiative which was embraced by Barnard’s Dean Virginia Gildersleeve who was the chairman of the standing committee on agriculture for the New York Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense. In coordination with Dr. Ida H. Ogilvie, Associate Professor of Geology at Barnard, the Women’s Agricultural Camp in Bedford, New York, was established.

Farmerettes working in the potato patch, Women's Agricultural Camp, Bedford, New York, summer 1917. Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

During the summer of 1917, an experiment was undertaken by many women’s groups, including the women in the Barnard community, throughout the United States to supplement the diminished male labor force on farms, community gardens, large estates, and small home gardens with a female labor force often called the “farmerettes”. The farmerettes were comprised of college girls, trade school students, teachers, businesswomen, and secretaries. This radical idea, which challenged the traditional roles of women, was initially resisted by the naturally conservative farm community. However, as the dire consequences of being unable to maintain and harvest the crops on the farms became apparent, farmers and their wives were willing to give the young women a try.

Farmerettes feeding corn to three piglets, Women's Agricultural Camp, Bedford, New York, summer 1917. Photograph by The Mutual Life Quarterly, courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

The Bedford Women’s Agricultural Camp, supervised by Dr. Ogilvie, was established by the Women’s Land Army and housed a total of 142 farmerettes, many of them Barnard undergraduates and alumnae, during the summer of 1917. The farmerettes were housed at the farm house and in tents at the Camp and were transported to and from their assigned employers every day thus sparing the farmers and their families the burden of feeding and housing the workers.  Although the services of the farmerettes were opposed by most farmers in the early part of the summer, by the middle of July, and then at harvest time in September, the demand for farmerettes exceeded the supply of available workers.  The farmers used the farmerettes for planting, weeding, hoeing, haying and harvesting the fruit orchards.  The women’s efforts as farm laborers were highly praised by their employers for being conscientious and quick even if they were not as strong as the men.

The Women’s Agricultural Camp experiment proved to be such a success that, during the years from 1917 to 1919, in 25 states, more than 20,000 female agricultural workers, or farmerettes, replaced their male counterparts on the farm while the men were fighting in the war in Europe.  Dr. Ogilvie eventually helped to organize the national organization, Women’s Land Army of America, and served as its director after the organization became part of the Department of Labor.  Indeed, not only were these female volunteers willing to do their part for the country during war time, but the Woman’s Land Army proved that it was able to fund and govern itself without the input of the male dominated government agencies which was a great boost to the suffragist movement!

"Barnard Girls Who Are Doing Work For Uncle Sam". Courtesy of the Barnard College Archives.

Who knows…without the Barnard “farmerette” in World War I, we may not have had “Rosie the Riveter” in World War II, or the ability to vote in 2009!

For more images of Barnard “Farmerettes” of World War I, please visit our Gallery.

Written by Diane Lai