The Life of a Bed: Not as Boring as One Might Think

Take a long look at the objects in the picture below. What do you think they are?

"Mystery" artifacts from Saints' Rest

“Mystery” artifacts from Saints’ Rest

I bet that your first guess was just a little bit off. They are not small hand-cuffs (as they were originally labeled in the lab!), buckles, or tiny horseshoes. They are actually hardware from a little discussed, yet constantly used, object found in every home: a bed stand! If you were wrong, don’t feel bad, I did not know the correct answer either until Campus Archaeologist Lisa Bright pushed me toward the solution.

Beds have been around for a very long time. They can be found in most households, and are used every day, yet they are rarely discussed unless you have back problems (Wright 1962).  Especially in college dorms, where beds are one of the few pieces of furniture present, they are essential for every day life. Everything from eating to studying, writing, relaxing, or posing for photos with eleven of your best friends all take place on a bed. They are also the perfect platforms for pranks. Speaking from experience, nothing is better than waking up your friend once he has been thoroughly plastic wrapped to his bed. As such, beds have a story to tell about the past, a perspective that helps us to understand the experiences of early students at MSU.

Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901.

Several college friends posing for a photo in an Abbot Hall dorm room, 1901. Image Source.

Recovered during excavations at Saint’s Rest, the objects above provide one of our few glimpses of early beds on MSU’s campus. These “D”-shaped fixtures, typically made from cast iron, were one half of a two-part system to hold pieces of a bed stand together. The circular end was fitted into a similar shaped slot in the side rail, so that the short square protrusions faced outward. These protrusions then slotted into a metal face plate attached to the bed post, forming the first tool-free bed stand (Taylor 2016). This technology, invented after the civil war, made bed stands more portable, as they were easy to break down and re-build in a different location. But, since the hardware was made of heavy metal, it was costly to ship. By around 1900, a lighter version, similar to those used today, was invented (Taylor 2011).

Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works

Example of how this “D”-shaped hardware system works. Image Source

In these early days, dorm rooms were often filled to the brim with students. Up to 4 students would sleep in a room in Saint’s Rest, using only two beds. Two young men would share one bed, continuing (I assume begrudgingly) the family tradition of sleeping together (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012; Wright 1962). Unfortunately, few images from within Saint’s Rest exist, so it is unknown what type of mattresses these bed frames supported, or what other activities may have taken place on them.

Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. 

Image of two gentlemen admiring their handy work after stacking another student’s room. Image Source

While it is clear that they were used for sleeping, easily dis-assembled bed frames also aided in at least one early MSU tradition, room stacking. An ingenious form of initiation, freshmen new to the campus would occasionally return to their rooms to find all of their things stacked into one large tower of furniture and personal belongings (MSU Archives Exhibit 2012). Not only were their possessions stacked, but it was done in such a way as to make re-assembling the room and sleeping in it difficult.  As one student who returned to a stacked room recounts, “It was past twelve o’clock that night before I got my bed down so as to sleep on it” (MSU Archives Scrapbook Page, 1902).

Oh, the tales these beds could tell if we could only re-create a bit more of their life histories!

References Cited

MSU Archives and Historical Collections:
2012   Exhibit- Dormitory Life: The First One-Hundred Years of Students Living on Campus. Created by Kim Toorenaar.
1902    Scrapbook Page about Room Stacking Pranks, 1902. Created by George Newnes.

Taylor, Fred
2011   “Furniture Detective: Hardware on Vintage Beds Crucial to Its Design and Function”
2016   “The Nuts and Bolts of Bedding Down Through the Ages”

Wright, Lawrence
1962   War and Snug: The History of the Bed.  Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.

The Archaeology of Shopping: Variations in Consumerism in the Past

So far this year, I have been examining the ceramics from various assemblages associated with early Michigan State.  While I have looked at what types of dishes were present and how they were used, I have not looked at how these assemblages compare to other sites in the Midwest.  Comparative analyses are one of the most powerful tools that archaeologists use to learn about the past.  Not only are they great for looking at similarities and differences between sites and people, but they can also be used to look at larger social and economic processes, such as the intersection of class and wealth, that go into the choices made by people.  Here, I will compare the tableware assemblages from historic MSU with those from various contemporary sites in the Midwest as a way to better understand the different choices made in terms of purchasing and the rationale behind them.

At MSU, the majority of the dishes that we find from MSU are inexpensive plain or embossed/molded whitewares and plain or simply decorated industrial wares.  These are typically associated with dorms and student life on campus, and were purchased by the university for everyday student use in dining halls.  Much more elaborate and expensive ceramics, decorated in many patterns and colors, are associated with faculty houses on campus, which were likely purchased by the faculty using their own funds.

Whiteware from West Circle Privy.

Whiteware from West Circle Privy.

Various decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage.

Various decorated ceramics from the Gunson assemblage.

Ceramic assemblages are somewhat similar at other sites.  At the Woodhams site, an urban farmstead in Plainwell, MI owned by families of modest means, there were about twice as many undecorated whitewares as decorated whitewares.  While not common, decorated vessels were relatively expensive transfer printed and decalomania dishes (Rotman and Nassaney 1997).  In the former Corktown neighborhood of Detroit, the home of working class immigrant families, people relied heavily on mass-produced whiteware vessels that were cheap and easily accessible through local merchants.  Despite this, some more expensive wares were also present, such as porcelain teaware, English transfer printed dishes, and other imported decorated vessels.  Interestingly, the homes in the area all differed in the types of dishes, wares, and styles that they bought, highlighting the greater selection available to those dwelling in a growing city and consequently the greater ability to differentiate oneself through decorative style (Ryzewski 2015).  At the Clemens farmstead in Darke County, Ohio, the home of wealthy free African Americans, 81% of the tableware were plain whitewares, while the rest of the assemblage was made up of a small number of hand painted or transfer printed vessels.  While this family had enough money to buy expensive dishware, they chose to be conservative with consumer goods while broadcasting their wealth through architecture and improvements to their land (Groover and Wolford 2013).  For those who lived in the Moore-Youse House in Muncie, Indiana, a middle-class family influenced by Victorian ideals and class consciousness, the possession of decorated and expensive tableware was more important.  Out of all of the tableware recovered, most was whiteware and ironstone, and 48% of it was hand painted.  Out of the other decorated vessels, 44% were transfer printed ceramics.  While porcelain was not present, the high number of decorated ceramics suggest that this family spent a considerable amount of money in order to have fashionable tablewares that demonstrated their social class (Groover and Hogue 2014).

Moore-Youse Home Museum, Muncie, IN. Image source.

Moore-Youse Home Museum, Muncie, IN. Image source.

While these different homes are similar to MSU in the types of ceramics that are found, they represent very different choices and needs.  For individuals and families, their decisions in what tablewares to purchase are often based on cost, personal style, and the ways in which they wished to demonstrate their social standing within the Victorian world.  For example, the Clemens family chose to use simple ceramics while improving their home and the grounds, making it one of the few examples of expensive Victorian architecture in the region and a clear statement of their social standing to all who passed by.  At the Moore-Youse house, the family chose to purchase more expensive and fashionable tableware, which would have displayed their standing to those who were invited into the home.  Some of these same concerns are reflected at MSU, such as in the delicate and expensive tablewares sometimes purchased and used by faculty living on campus, but we also must consider the institutional context that is much different than the homes discussed above.  At early MSU, the university needed a large number of dishes to supply their student body, as well as dishes that were durable and would survive abuse by students on a daily basis.  Faculty may have needed more dishware as well, as some of them often entertained groups of students and visitors during the academic year.  On campus, one needed to consider such factors as durability, the economics of supplying and entertaining a lot of people daily, and having dish sets that were similar so as not to alienate certain divisions of the student body.  Both MSU and different homes in the Midwest had access to similar ceramics, but made choices based on different needs, so we must take this into account and interpret ceramics from campus using a different mindset and theoretical base. Only using economic scaling models, as is often done with ceramic assemblages from homes, misses many of the more nuanced aspects of ceramic selection that takes place at an institution such as Michigan State.


Groover, Mark D., and S. Homes Hogue
2014   Reconstructing Nineteenth-Century Midwest Foodways: Ceramic and Zooarchaeological Information from the Moore-Youse House and Huddleston Farmstead. Midcontinental Journal of Archaeology 39(2):130-144.

Groover, Mark D., and Tyler J. Wolford
2013   The Archaeology of Rural Affluence and Landscape Change at the Clemens Farmstead.

Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 2(2):131-150.

Rotman, Deborah L, and Michael S. Nassaney

1997   Class, Gender, and the Built Environment: Deriving Social Relations from Cultural Landscapes in Southwest Michigan.  Historical Archaeology 31(2):42-62.

Ryzewski, Krysta
2015   No Home for the “Ordinary Gamut”: A Historical Archaeology of Community Displacement and the Creation of Detroit, City Beautiful.  Journal of Social Archaeology 15(3):408-431.

Transportation in and around campus during its early years: a brief look

The discovery of several horseshoes in Munn Field a couple of weeks ago (near the location of the old horse arena),

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

One of the horseshoes found at Munn Field

coupled with the CAP team’s ongoing archival research on the origins of the Grand River corridor, got me thinking about the importance of transportation during the early days of the university.
It comes as no surprise that travel by horseback or horse-drawn vehicles would have featured as a regular part of life for both students and professors in the pre-motor-vehicle days of 19th-century campus.
It also stands to reason that shipments of supplies or mail, or the arrival of visitors, to M.A.C. by wagonload or railroad would have been a noteworthy event at a time when even a place like Grand Ledge was far enough away to which to send a postcard (The cost per ounce of postage in 1885: 2 cents, the 2013 equivalent of which is 51 cents).

MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900

MAC students walking near MAC campus early 1900

The M.A.C. Board of Trustees’ meeting minutes from the late 19th century regularly mention reimbursing members of the college for transportation costs, or votes to allow the payment of transportation for building supplies, new farm animals, or faculty trips.
For example, in 1876: “Resolved that the Farm Dep’t be instructed to accept the offer of a Harvester from the College to pay the cost of transportation.” (By comparison today, transportation costs with large purchases today are often covered by the seller).

In 1877: “Resolved: That Prof. Gulley be allowed Five dollars each for the fifty pigs furnished by him to the Farm Department.
Resolved that the pair of Poland China pigs purchased by Prof. Gulley for the Farm Department be returned and the bill for their cost including transportation amounting to $52.95 be paid” (the 2013 equivalent would be $1141.88).

In 1881, a professor’s participation in an agricultural expo was contingent upon the reliability of the rail system:
It was resolved that the Prof. of Agriculture be required to make an exhibition of Cattle at the next State Fair, provided the railroads give the usual facilities for transportation

In 1902, transportation problems prevented the college from receiving shipments of coal necessary for smithing, smelting and coking:
I have thus far been unable to purchase any hard coal though it is greatly needed and some difficulty is being experienced in getting delivery of soft coal under our contract. The following letter from A.B. Knowlson who has our soft coal contracts will show this situation:
” Grand Rapids, Mich. Dec. 5th 1902.
A.M. Brown, Sec’y.
Agricultural College P.O., Mich.
Dear Sir:
Replying to yours of the 4th we have had trouble with the parties whom we had our contract covered with for Hocking coal, and they would not ship us coal, claiming they could not get transportation. We have been forced to go out in order to try and fill the contract, and pick up coal without any profit. We are doing the best we can for you in order to
fill the contract, although our contract with you is made subject to strikes and transportation, etc. We want to fill the order even if we don’t make a cent, and trust you will bear with us, as well as you can under the circumstances. If you think it is necessary we will come down and talk the situation over with you.
Yours respectfully,
A.B. Knowlson

The importance of transportation for the time period (and the awareness of such) is underscored by the copy of the commencement address by E.D. Partridge printed in the September 15, 1896 issue of the M.A.C. Record (the student paper at the time).
Titled ‘Transportation’, Partridge opens the address by commenting that “The growth [of the American transportation system], though slow and almost unnoticeable at times, has resulted in more good to the nation, and greater advantages to the people than any political movement could have brought about…. For, as farming increased, as manufacturing progressed, as the people turned their eyes westward and located at a distance from the center of civilization, as each community became less and less independent, it became plainer and more desirable that some regular means of transportation be established.” In this case, Partridge is speaking primarily of the trans-continental railroad system. He later says, “It is hard to say just what line of development the future will follow; so let us leave the future, and look at few of the needs for, and results of a good transportation system.”
He goes on to discuss the relative costs and benefits of cable cars, electric railroad, and bicycles for both urban and rural areas alike.
It’s interesting to note that, by the time Partridge’s speech was published in 1896, automobiles had been in production for 10 years in Europe (not that they were big sellers). Just a few years after Partridge’s speech, automobiles would go into large-scale production down the road from M.A.C. at the Oldsmobile Plant in Lansing, established in 1902, and a few years later by Ford. Yet it doesn’t appear that Partridge or his contemporaries would have predicted how predominant motor vehicles would become, nor their effect on the infrastructure and even social organization of a place like the M.A.C. Just a few years later, students at the college were apparently part of the growing national discourse passionately arguing over whither the future of American technology.  A printed version of a speech given by one Mr. Geo B. Fuller, M.A.C. 1900, printed in the March 13, 1900 issue of the M.A.C. Record, titled “The Evolution of the Automobile”, demonstrates the underlying optimism many had regarding this new technology and its potential for social and economic progress. Mr. Fuller’s speech talks of the public prejudice against early automobiles and their inventors in Europe. “The Englishman is an admirer of the horse; and those engaged in the horse trade were afraid of the automobiles, and took measures to have laws passed which would render them useless…. It was not until recently that movements might have been seen preparatory to the development and manufacture of automobiles as a new industry.” He furthermore speaks of automobiles as the solution to several extant problems, and predicts a new age of technological equality: “For the future, the automobile promises a city practically free from the rumbling of heavy drays, and the clatter of the horses hoofs which make modern urban life more or less miserable…. Not only will the rumble of heavy trucks disappear, but the removal of the horse from the street will practically solve the problem of street cleaning. The repairing of roads will be reduced to a minimum…. Once the horseless age is in full sway, every man will own his automobile. The bicycle will be put away – except for sport. Even on the farm motor-driven wagons will carry the hay from the field and the grain to the market. The horse will still be harnessed to the plow, furnish sport on the race course, and exercise for the few, but he will no longer be the burden carrier of man.”
It’s clear that the “horseless age” as envisioned by Mr. Fuller isn’t quite what came to pass, and the arrival of personal automobiles on the M.A.C. campus came with its own problems, to judge from further mentions of transportation in early 20th century M.A.C. Record issues and Board of Trustee minutes. By the 1920s automobiles had become common enough for college officials to worry about organizing parking during football games, but also popular enough for the student paper to offer advice on driving routes between cities.
The October 15, 1920 issue of the M.A.C. Record provides advice on automobile routes between East Lansing and Ann Arbor. Navigation by automobile in those days was much like driving off-road today, it seems; the routes between the two cities include dirt and gravel roads linking between the incipient state highway system, which did include Grand River (M-16) by 1918.

It’s not clear how students and faculty at an agricultural school such as M.A.C. would have felt about the changes that came with the transition to “the horseless age.” On the one hand, the presence of motor vehicles may have made certain aspects of campus life easier. On the other hand, some, especially those whose work (or research) depended a horse-based transportation system, may have felt that their future livelihood was at stake. It’s also not clear yet (from what I’ve found) just how quickly horse-based transportation truly disappeared from the landscape in a place as rural as the M.A.C. campus once was.

MAC Farm Lane 1913

MAC Farm Lane 1913

The reports on the first and second annual horse shows at the college in the early 1920s go out of their way both to remark on the presence of numerous automobiles (which underscores how noteworthy they actually were at the time) as well as comment at length on the importance of holding a horse show in the first place:
“The importance of such a contest at M.A.C. is twofold. It inspires interest in well-bred and trained animals and touches also on the preparedness of the military program. As an annual feature the horse show will undoubtedly grow in popularity and in the general interest displayed by the people of the state.” (M.A.C. Record, May 12, 1924). By 1930, however, emphasis on the nature of the horse show in the M.A.C. Record had shifted to its ‘aristocratic’ nature (actual wording used in the article), not its practical one (link). I can’t be sure that this is linked to changes in infrastructure and technological access, but this topic is of continuing interest to me, so I’ll likely be following it up more in the future. Stay tuned.

Benzedrine: Old School Adderall!

As you all may have noticed, I am kind of a geek.  I love to research many subjects, and archaeology and pharmacology (particularly psychopharmacology) are two of my favorites.  So, when CAP found an old Benzedrine inhaler on campus, I jumped at the opportunity to read and write about them both at the same time!

Benzedrine is an amphetamine, so it is a stimulant similar to many of today’s ADHD meds.  It was initially used as a bronchodilator, which is something that increases airflow to the lungs.  The name “Benzedrine” is the trade name of a particular kind of amphetamine mixture, and was first marketed under this name by Smith, Kline, and French in 1933.  People soon realized that it woke them up and made them “speedy,” which led to it being one of the first synthetic stimulants to be used re

Benzedrine Inhaler found at Munn Field

Benzedrine Inhaler found at Munn Field

creationally.  Instead of inhaling it, people would often crack it open and swallow the Bezedrine-covered paper strip inside, sometimes with coffee or alcohol*.  It was said to have a bitter taste.

Benzedrine and other amphetamines were used  in WWII to keep troops awake.  We found the inhaler in an area that was used by the ROTC after the war, so it is possible that it was used by someone who had fought and become addicted to the drug, therefore still needing it when they came back.  The inhaler was not broken in half like it would have been if they had been swallowing the paper, however.  Benzedrine and other stimulants would often keep them awake past the point of exhaustion, which led to side effects such as paranoia and hallucinations, which are pretty bad when you’re flying a plane.

It could also be said that the Beatniks were “benny” fueled.  It was referenced in Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.  Many of them felt that stimulants enhanced their creativity.

Benzedrine also came in tablet form, and was sometimes used to treat mental illnesses such as depression.  It was tested on children with behavioral problems in the 1930s.  It became a prescription drug in 1959.

It’s no secret that college students today often use stimulants that they were not prescribed to study.  According to a study, 14% of MSU students reported taking an unprescribed stimulant such as Adderall or Ritalin in 2012.  Here, we may have material evidence that this is not a new phenomenon.

*Not to sound like a PSA here, but mixing a stimulant (i.e. Benzedrine) and a depressant (i.e. alcohol) is a terrible idea.  At best, it can make someone not know how drunk they really are and do very stupid things with a lot of energy.  At worst, it can cause coma or death.  Don’t do it.


Is There a Doctor on Campus? A History of MSU’s Hospitals

Built in 1909, these Isolation Cottages served to quarantine sick students from their peers.

Built in 1909, these Isolation Cottages served to quarantine sick students from their peers. Courtesy MSU Archives

 This time of year it’s not uncommon for a Spartan to come down with the seasonal flu. Luckily the Olin Health Center is readily available to treat the aches and pains of MSU’s student body. However this professional care was not always so readily available.  A hundred fifty years ago a student had to consider the possibility that they wouldn’t live to see their own graduation. Contagious diseases were a menace to the campus for over half a century, killing many young Spartans. In MSU’s long history there have been a series of hospitals and medical centers of varying effectiveness. Olin is only the latest in a long history of medical care at MSU.

In the very beginning MSU had no health services for its students. A turnip field was all that resided at the site of the Olin Health Center. Sick students either went home or simply bore the brunt of the illness in their dorm rooms (some to never recover).  The swampy terrain of the region was prime breeding grounds for malarial mosquitos, which caused an 1859 outbreak that afflicted everyone on campus save a single professor. Outbreaks of diphtheria, measles, typhoid, and undulant fever would claim the lives of several students before they could graduate.

In 1894 the first campus hospital was established in a seven-room house on the site of the present day MSU Union for a cost of $3,500. It wouldn’t be until 1900 though that the first full-time nurse would be hired and a doctor would visit campus on a weekly basis. Epidemics of disease that would cripple up to half the student body continued though into the 1880’s and 90’s.

This small house would serve as the college's first hospital up until the 1920's when it was raised to make way for the new MSU Union.

This small house would serve as the college’s first hospital up until the 1920’s when it was raised to make way for the new MSU Union. Courtesy MSU Archives

To prevent such mass outbreaks, sick students were often separated from their peers in “isolation cottages”.  Built in 1909, these small buildings acted as quarantine spaces until the afflicted students got well or died. Originally located behind the Bacteriology Building (present day Marshall Hall), the Isolation Cottages served their purpose until a more modern hospital could be built.

The growing number of students and an outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 that claimed the lives of eighteen students, prompted college officials to upgrade their healthcare facilities. In 1923 the college hospital was moved into the President’s House (originally at the site of Gilchrist Hall). This though was hardly an improvement, as the building was ill-equipped for the needs of a hospital. Meanwhile the student body continued to grow in size. Faulty plumbing and a defunct sterilizer in the Bacteriology Building caused an outbreak of undulant fever among forty veterinary students in February 1939. Thirty would be hospitalized and one student from New Jersey was killed by the outbreak.

President's House

The President’s House. Courtesy MSU Archives

Richard M. Olin MD stepped in to promote the building of modern hospital for the college. Olin was the college’s first full-time physician and had served previously as the state’s first commissioner of health. Seeking to end outbreaks of infectious disease, Olin helped design the Olin Health Center that we know today. Sadly Olin died before he could see his vision of a modern university hospital completed in 1939.

The new health facility was equipped to house up to sixty patients and equipped with two surgical rooms. Olin would be expanded to its present size via additions in 1957 and 1968. These expansions increased the number of beds to 130, provided additional offices, and an emergency receiving space. Through these improvements the Olin Health Center was able to curb the number of sick patients, despite the exploding population of students on campus. Olin would also serve as the staging ground for various student events, fundraisers, and activist movements.

The Olin Health Center provided the medical care deserving of a first class university.

The Olin Health Center provided the medical care deserving of a first class university. Courtesy MSU Archives

In 1981 Olin ceased to be an inpatient hospital and became the outpatient health clinic we know today. Renovations in 1983 would convert former surgery and bedrooms into offices and waiting rooms. Today Olin provides a wide variety of services to students, including immunizations, counseling, and check ups. Although students of MSU will continue to get sick, we can hopefully count out such violent outbreaks that plagued the university in its early years.

Women at MSU: The Themian Society

As a new member of Campus Archaeology I have begun my research in the University Archives. Looking through the keepsakes of Irma Thompson with Amy Michael, one document specifically stood out to me: a booklet about the Themian Society. The booklet, published in 1922, commemorates the society, which was the second social organization for women at Michigan State University, then the Michigan Agricultural College. The booklet features information about the society, the school, and letters to the national chapter from faculty members, including the Dean of Women, who praise the accomplishments of the local chapter.

Booklet from Themian Society

Booklet from Themian Society. Courtesy MSU Archives

The Themians were a literary society for women on campus founded by eleven women in January of 1898. One of the founding members, Irma Thompson, was one of the main efforts in the establishment of the society and was the first secretary. Irma and her family moved to the area while she was in high school in order for her to attend college. Here she majored in the Women’s Course and participated in many campus activities, including the Themian Society.

The name of the Themian Society was chosen after Themis, the Grecian goddess of justice, as the society was dedicated to help in societal matters and “cultural advancement”. In order to become an active member in the society, the women were required to have an average grade of eighty or above and they needed to participated in at least two campus activities of their own choosing. Additional societal events took place throughout the year, including a formal banquet named the Themian German, a ball, and faculty teas.

In 1900 after the construction of Morrill Hall, the women’s dormitory on campus, the Themian Society was given a room specifically to hold its meetings, which was still in use at the time of this booklet’s publication. The Themian Society later became nationally known as Kappa Kappa Gamma, with MSU’s local chapter of Delta Gamma, which is still active today.

Rules for the Themian Society

Rules for the Themian Society. Courtesy MSU Archives

Also included with the booklet was a document called the “Themian Themes”, which outlined the constitution for the Themian Alumnae Association. Here it states that the annual dues for the National Association of Alumnae were one dollar, which included a subscription to the “newspaper”.

As an officer for a women’s group on campus, Graduate Women In Science, it is interesting to discover the history of this group on campus and how it differs from societies and sororities for women today. I hope that through my work through Campus Archaeology I will be able to continue to research the experiences of women here at MSU.

Traditional Graduation Festivities

With another semester coming to an end, there are many lucky students, whether finishing a semester early or taking that victory lap, who have finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel – the time to graduate is finally here.  As sad as I am to see many of my friends leaving Michigan State, they are all extremely eager to get out into the ‘real world’ and officially start their careers, much like any other soon-to-be graduate is.  Even though you may not see large groups of students running around campus in their caps and gowns, like in the Spring, seniors still find a way to carry out some of the traditions MSU has acquired over the years, as well as creating new ones.

MSU Seniors at The Senior Swing Out in 1926
Picture provided by Michigan State University: University Archives & Historical Collections

One of the very first traditions at MSU is what was called The Senior Swing Out.  This event would celebrate the first time a graduating class would be seen in their cap and gown.  Although it was the class of 1910 who were the first graduates to wear a cap and gown it was not until a year later, in 1911, that The Senior Swing Out formally took place.  The graduating class would walk around campus together, starting from “the Senior House,” passing the faculty buildings, to Morrill Hall, then the library and old College Hall, finally stopping at what was called Sleepy Hollow, which is the field located directly across from IM Sports Circle.  Upon arriving, the graduating class would get together and form lines to spell out their graduating year.  Graduating seniors continued to uphold this tradition until the early 1960s.

Normally every June, there was also the Water Carnival.  At this event, elaborate floats, designed and made by student organizations, would drift down the Red Cedar River.  The graduating senior class sponsored the first carnival, “Songs of Our Times,” in 1923 with only a few small floats.  According to a 1937 M.A.C. Record, this event drew in more than 10,000 spectators that year, making this one of the most popular events on campus at the time.  Sadly, once America fell into the Great Depression

A Hawaiian themed float in the 1950 Water Carnival
Picture provided by Michigan State University: University Archives & Historical Collections

and fought in World War II, the Water Carnival committee members no longer had the time, let alone money, to plan this event, causing this great tradition to come to an end in 1969.  However, in 2005, the Water Carnival was brought back temporarily in celebration of MSU’s 150th Birthday and as President Lou Anna K. Simon stated, this event “highlighted the rich social spirit of MSU and the community in times past.”

Another highly anticipated tradition was Senior Stunt Days.  According to The M.A.C. Record of May 1922, before graduating, students would parade around campus every Wednesday (at least for the class of 1922) in costumes that “exceeded even the most fanciful creations.”  Stunt Days would also include other entertaining social activities such as dances, roasts and friendly competitions, as well as other fun events, give the seniors the opportunity to make the most of the time they had left.

Although many of these traditions are no longer practiced, students participate in new ones such as painting The Rock and getting a picture with both the Spartan Statue and Sparty.  With many students’ collegiate careers coming to a close, congratulations to all of the Fall graduates and good luck with all of your future endeavors.

Two Generations of Spartans

My Grandma attended MSU in the late 50s. Growing up I can remember my family giving my grandma gifts relating to MSU, she loved to show her Spartan pride. One year we got her a bottle opener that played the fight song, another we got her white coasters with the Spartan Green ‘S’ stamped on the front. When I finally came to campus in 2010 I was excited to be attending the same University that an older generation of my family had attended and to know what it’s like to be a Spartan.

Grandma and I never really talked about when she lived on campus until after I had started my freshman year. That winter she sent me two-dozen oranges around finals as an early Christmas gift. I called her to say thank you and she asked how classes were going. They were going as well as could be expected I told her but I was worried about finals (as all students do) and she told me to make sure that I didn’t spend all my time stressing out about exams and to have fun with friends. Asking about why she sent me so many oranges I was told that they were for the people on my floor and, “a good way to make friends.”


Unveiling of Sparty. Via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

That winter break she told me a little more about when she was at MSU. Grandma asked if I had ever heard the legend about the Sparty Statue. This intrigued me because I had never heard of any legend involving Sparty. She started her story by talking about a weekend her parents had come up to visit her. They went on a tour and she took them around where her classes were and her dorm room and at some point they ended up by Sparty. She turned to her Dad and asked if he knew the story about Sparty and his helmet. He replied no. She informed him it was rumored that if a virgin ever walked by Sparty then he would drop his helmet out of shock. According to Grandma, her Dad was laughing but her Mom was not amused by the story.

In 1950 MSU was known as Michigan State College of Agriculture and Applied Science (MSC) and this was the year that my Grandma was on campus. She was excited to tell me that that was the year that Shaw Hall was opened, and was an all guys dormitory.

Postcard of Shaw Hall (1995)

Postcard of Shaw Hall (1995). Via Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections.

Shaw Hall was constructed to house 1,500 men and was considered to be the largest college dorm in the United States at that time. Grandma lived on the second floor of East Yakely, an all girls dorm, and things were very different. If her cousin was to come visit then he had to stay in Shaw with some high school friends that he knew. Boys were not allowed in a girl’s dorm unless it was a parent, even then Grandma says that the father would have to wait at the front desk until his daughter came down to grab him, and then she would have to holler, “Man on the floor!” so that other girls were prepared.  My grandma also says that there were stories of girls who would hang bed sheets out of the window for guys to climb up but the windows were small so she isn’t sure if anyone actually did this or just joked about it.

At the time Yakely had a curfew that all girls had to meet. If you were going out for the night then you had to sign-up on a list by the front desk but this only let you stay out until 10pm, unless you had Special Per. In the event that you were able to get Special Per. (given for reasons like seeing a late movie, going on a date, or attending a dance) then you were allowed to stay out until 1am. At these times the House Mother would inspect each dorm room to make sure that the girls were in bed. Grandma says that she was only ever late once time, and that was because she was babysitting the football coach’s kids and he didn’t get back until past curfew. The only reason why it was excused was because he drove her straight to her dorm and talked to her House Mother himself.

I asked my grandma what night-life was like when she was on Campus. She said that there was a nice café near the front entrance of campus that was good for getting dinner and maybe a drink or two but there were not many places in East Lansing to go out. She said that if you really wanted to have fun then you would have to make your way to Lake Lansing. Girls would wait for their dates to pick them at their Hall. If the guy got there before the girl was ready then he would have to wait at either the front desk or in a sitting room near the front, after he had checked in with the desk receptionist.

Michigan State is always undergoing physical and cultural changes. Some of these changes we can find in the material record that has been left behind but other changes are more apparent when you can get a first hand account of the time. I talked to my Grandma about how State is now offering co-ed housing for those that wish it. She didn’t seem shocked or surprised.  Oral histories such as my Grandma’s help to contextualize and make sense of material records that we find in Campus Archaeology. Archaeologists often rely on these oral histories to reconstruct the past.



Welcome Back: Students of Today Walking in the Footsteps of the Past

From the frenzied freshman with campus maps to the jaded senior who’s barely bothered to shower, the first day of classes always makes me slightly nostalgic. It reminds me of the days when I was that bright-eyed freshman excited for the first real college experience. I wandered the beautiful campus of MSU from the Sacred Space to the football stadium absorbing everything that it meant to be a Spartan. In my new role as Campus Archaeologist I find myself taking a new perspective, a perspective which considers the evolution of the student throughout MSU’s history. On this gloomy first day of classes as I watch students scurry across campus, I wonder if the students realize the history of the ground on which they tread?

While Campus Archaeology is gearing up for fall construction projects, I’ve been researching the history of Michigan State University and the role of the student. The goal of our program is not only to protect and mitigate the archaeological resources of this historic and beautiful campus, but also to add to the historical records and better understand how the university has changed and developed. In this case, I want to understand the heart and soul of the University, the students.

Students Working the Fields, 1892, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

Students Working the Fields, 1892, via MSU Archives and Historical Records

MSU’s first class session took place in 1857. The students of this first year had the same goals as the students of today, to earn a degree that would advance their careers. The students were required to take courses in natural science, chemistry, mathematics, and English (including Rhetoric, history, and political economy); foreign languages were not required because they were not seen as practical. Additionally, students had to perform three hours of mandatory labor. Generally, this labor was done on the farm, since MSU was first and foremost an Agricultural College. But, for the first set of students, this manual labor entailed clearing the swamp to make agricultural fields, planting trees, laying brick; building the campus we know today (Widder 2005:37). Students slept, studied, and ate in the first dormitory, dubbed Saint’s Rest by the students. Campus Archaeology has excavated several portions of this building in order to understand student life.

Saints' Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

Saints’ Rest 1865, via MSU Archives on Flickr

Since the new Agricultural College was erected three miles east of the Capitol in the middle of nowhere, students soon began to form their own social clubs and plan social activities. Debate clubs were organized so young men could heatedly discuss their new-found knowledge. Student publications like the Bubble and the Wolverine, gave views on campus life and concerns with instructors (Widder 2005: 288). The cafeteria food was so despised by students that they created boarding clubs which provided well-balanced meals for a weekly rate of $2.00 (Widder 2005:292). Men’s and Women’s Societies provided much need social activities, like dances in the armory and concerts in the park. Pledges of these societies were required to follow certain rules such as “every pledge must appear at breakfast”, or “two pledges can’t be seen together on campus together” (Widder 2005:302). Not too different from sorority pledges of today.

Athletics were also quickly adopted by the early students of MSU. Initially, the college would not financially support sports, so students organized on their own time (Widder 2005:371). The college administration soon changed its opinion and argued that physical education was good for the student and created a stronger identity with college. Beginning in the 1880’s, MSU supported numerous athletics for both male and female students (Widder 2005). MSU’s first football team was organized in 1884 for a field day with Olivet College. The football team lost that year (0-8) and had a losing season for the next two decades; one of the most humiliating losses was against the U of M with a (0-119) defeat (Widder 2005:378). It was not until 1913 that we had our first win over Michigan and a perfect season. After the first win over U of M, excited fans marched to Lansing, “built a bonfire in town, and called upon local businessmen to make speeches extolling the virtues of M.A.C. and its great football team” (Widder 2005:382). The celebration was so great that the faculty declared a campus holiday on Monday.

M.A.C. Football Stadium 1923

M.A.C. Football Stadium 1923

Traditions, like athletics, helped create the strong unified identity that has continued to grow and expand beyond the physical campus. The strong foundations laid by the early students and forged throughout the decades is still evident in the archaeology of MSU. By understanding the past students and their daily lives, we can connect the artifacts we find today to their actions and behaviors. The University not only is looking forward, but has begun to protect its past. In 2007, the Campus Archaeology Program was founded as a way to protect and integrate these artifacts with the general narrative and documentary history of MSU.

You can help with this timeline and add to our understanding of changes to the campus by volunteering for CAP or becoming one of our interns! If you’re interested, contact Kate Frederick, Campus Archaeologist, at

Widder, Keith 2005. Michigan Agricultural College: The Evolution of a Land-Grant Philosophy 1855-1925. Michigan State University Press, East Lansing, MI

MSU Archival Tidbits: Labor, Fires, and Enrollment

I am still working on the sustainability project which seems to have generated endless research questions. As I try to reign it all in, I have been writing about a category that I have blandly termed “Student Life” in my draft. This is the catch-all portion for the interesting factoids I come across in the University Archives. Somehow I will assimilate this information into a working draft, but for now I will share what I have learned below:

In the early days of the college, all students attending the college were required to split their days between labor and academics (T. Gunson, 1940). Through manual labor in the gardens and farms, as well as clearing land for buildings and roads, the student body effectively constructed the foundations of the institution while receiving their education.

In 1871, student Henry Haigh reported a fee of $29.95 for boarding at Saint’s Rest. Haigh journaled about the atmosphere in the dining halls which were structured by assigned seating. He mentioned the presence of women in the halls, though the ratio of men to women was still quite unequal at this time.

Engineering Lab on Fire in 1916, via MSU Archives

During October 1871, the year of the Great Chicago Fire, there were numerous raging fires in the woods around the new campus and across Michigan. Students were dispatched to fight the blazes along with seminal faculty members, Dr. Miles and Dr. Kedzie. Many people lost their lives and homes, especially in the thumb region of the state, but the college was spared due to the management of the students and their vigilance against the fires. Drs. Miles and Kedzie would divide students into groups to battle the blazes through the night, a task compounded by the water shortage from an ongoing drought. Classes were largely cancelled for a week while students joined with neighboring farmers to keep watch over the advancement of the fires. Haigh noted that many students knew how to combat fires and dense smoke, having experience with managing agricultural lands on their family properties. (Sidenote: if anyone has any information about the fire outbreaks during this time period, please share! I am curious as to why there were so many fires in Michigan at this time, though I presume it is due to dry environment).

Faced with declining enrollment numbers, President Snyder (1896-1915) personally corresponded with potential students and advocated the incorporation of promotional literature and calendars into the college’s recruitment plans. As a result, student enrollment increased during his presidency (though the onset of World War I drew students to combat soon after he stepped down). President Snyder encouraged the training of women at the college through a series of short course programs. During his term, Snyder also helped initiate summer courses and railroad institutes. All of these programs lended the college credibility in the eyes of the state population, as MAC faculty members traveled to rural areas of Michigan to give lectures and perform demonstrations for farmers. In an effort to appear relevant and indispensible to the state, the college also enacted county extension programs.

Frank Kedzie, President of the college from 1916-1921 during the turbulent war years, resigned in the wake of weak post-war enrollment growth. A change in leadership was thought to be needed to reignite admissions, so leadership was passed to President Friday in 1921. Friday was an economist and agriculturalist hired to solve the issues stemming from the national war effort. State farmers were suffering during the post-WWI depression. During his administration, Friday endorsed more liberal education programs, allowing engineering students to pursue liberal arts courses in place of some more technical class requirements. President Friday spearheaded the effort to grant PhDs, with the first degree conferred in 1925.