Pieces of the Past: Women’s Scrapbooks from the Turn of the Century

In my last blog, I shared a portion of the draft that I’m working on about gendered spaces on campus. The most challenging part of the project thus far has been isolating documents, folders, or ephemera in the University Archives that can inform the research goal. This is a truly piecemeal endeavor: a pamphlet outlining a women’s course filed away in a binder about an old building, a receipt detailing the funds raised for a women’s club, a stack of old photos documenting female students gathered for a social event, and so on.

This week, I decided to focus on the scrapbooks compiled by female students during and after their terms at Michigan Agricultural College. Scrapbooks are probably one of the most direct examples of how memories are constructed and reinforced in later years; that is, some scraps are worth saving while others go the way of the landfill. A number of the scrapbooks have similar themes – dance cards, tickets to fancy parties, letters from prominent persons, and photos of friends were obviously deemed worth saving, documenting, and revering for future descendants or university alumni (depending on the intended audience for the scrapbooks!). I was struck by some omissions that I thought would be quite common: grade reports, written assignments, awards. Perhaps these materials were saved separately and never made it to the University Archives. Or, maybe these items were considered simply part and parcel of the college experience and not thought special enough to enter into a scrapbook.

Of the scrapbooks I viewed this week, I noted that “literary clubs” were popular among female students at the turn of the century. There were many invitations and announcements for literary club events that led me to some obvious questions: How many literary clubs were there? Were any of the clubs co-ed? What benefit did the clubs have for participants?

I have a few answers, though I believe these clubs (and others that are restricted to females only) are worth pursuing in greater detail for my project. In the 1905 Gluck Auf, a compendium of class rosters, clubs, faculty sketches, poems, messages from alumni, etc., there are 11 literary societies listed with four of these being female societies (there were no co-ed literary societies). I found some of the missions of the societies quite interesting, so I will reproduce brief descriptions below:

Feronian Society – The first society to be organized by two female students in 1893. The “purpose in view was to advance the intellectual, social, and moral standing of its members, to train mind, heart, and soul.” In 1901, rooms in the Women’s Building were given to the society for club use.

Themian Society – The society was organized in 1898 by female students who saw the need for another club. Irma Thompson is credited as being the driving force behind the creation of the Themians (I’ve written about Ms. Thompson in a previous CAP blog post – she’s one of my personal heroines!). This club aligned itself with the Oratorical Association and took home first place in 1905. The “constitutional object of the society is to promote the literary and social culture of its members, but the world Themian stands for more than this. We, its members, interpret its meaning as true loyalty to each other, and justice and friendship to all.”

Sororian Society – This club was initiated in 1902 by women who noted that attendance in the Women’s Course had increased such that only a small percentage of students could enter existing societies. “The aim of the Sororian Society is to perfect the intellectual and social faculties and thus develop that well rounded character which is the best product of college life.”

Ero Alphian Society – Formed in 1904, this club name means “love of the first, the highest, the best. “So, through the course in our college, we meet and pass one another, scarcely realizing the depth of character of those about us, until closer ties of friendship bind one to another. Knowing the importance of this, and the need of another society to promoste the growth of friendship and the development of literary and social talents, the Ero Alphian Society was formed.”

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