A Guest Post by Author, K.B. Owen

 Please welcome author K.B. Owen to the blog today! Kathy, as a historical fiction author, has graciously agreed to honor us with a fitting post about celebrating Christmas as a 19th century college student… a far cry from the behavior of today’s college students. However, as you read Kathy’s story you’ll find out what was considered ‘unusual’ in the 1880s and how college students, in other ways, are alike generation after generation.

Christmas Traditions in late-19th/early 20th century Women’s Colleges in the U.S.

19th century christmas VassarImagine young ladies, away from home with the holidays approaching, during a time in which it was unconventional for women to undergo such a separation.  In the 19th century, home was a woman’s sphere, the domestic realm over which she ruled.  She didn’t stray far from it.

Around the 1880s/1890s, however, a few of the well-educated daughters of the middle class began to get a little restless.   They were the second wave of female college students, following such pioneer women as Lucy Hobbs, Maria Mitchell, and M. Carey Thomas.  Even so, they didn’t represent a large part of the demographic:

In 1870 only .7% of the female population went to college. This percentage rose slowly, by 1900 the rate was 2.8% and it was only 7.6% by 1920” (AAUW, “Determined to be Educated,” http://www.northnet.org/stlawrenceaauw/college.htm)

These students were also a high-spirited lot, involved not only in their studies, but in all sorts of social activities: clubs, dances, plays, teas, charity work, and so on.  They made the holiday season as festive as possible while away from home, until they could return to their families for the winter recess.  For the time being, the college community was their family, and the holiday activities reflected some of the traditions of society at large.

The following is an excerpt of a December 15, 1901 article from The New York Times, detailing some of the Christmas activities/performances put on by the students of local Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York:

19th century christmas Vassar

…a bit omitted here…

19th century christmas Vassar

19th century christmas at Vassar

A brief explanation of some of the above:  the article puts “gentlemen” in quotation marks, and cryptically says: “the ladies and ‘gentlemen’ were distinguishable only by the bows and bells.”  This simply meant that, at a women’s-only college event, some of the women students were obliged to act in the roles of “gentlemen” dance partners.  This was a very common practice at all-female institutions, and didn’t carry the connotations that it might today.

In the play mentioned above, we have a similar situation: an all-female cast necessitated women adopting male roles; hence the quotation marks in the article when referring to a female player in the male role who “quite distinguished ‘himself.’”  Female students were not permitted to adopt male costume (read: trousers), so other props, such as a cloak, hat, or dagger, would be adopted to indicate the role.  There was a very great concern that women attending college would become less feminine, and college officials took steps to avoid that from happening.

So, what do you think of how women students adapted to college life, and the restrictions of their time?  I’d love to hear from you, here on Marcia’s site, and elsewhere!

Feel free to stop by my blog, kbowenmysteries.com, where you’ll find more historical material, as well as posts on mystery fiction and pop culture.  I also tweet at @kbowenwriter.

Marcia, thanks so much for hosting me – it was a privilege and great fun to connect with your readers!


K. B. Owen, authorK.B. Owen holds a Ph.D. in 19th century British Literature and taught college literature and writing classes for a number of years.   Since she has always loved mysteries (cozy, historical and otherwise), she decided to turn her hand to writing one of her own.  She recently finished her first novel in a planned series, set at a nineteenth-century women’s college in Hartford, Connecticut.  It’s a world filled with plucky heroines, quirky and beguiling characters, and mischief mixed with murder.  Dr. Owen drew upon her own delightful and varied experiences as a college professor, though unlike her central character, she thankfully did not have to conduct her lectures in a bustle and full skirts.

Kathy, thanks so much for being here and for bringing us a fun and enlightening post! I love learning the mores of different cultural times – some are so similar to today and others can be bizarre!  That the college administrators were concerned that the young women be viewed as anything less than feminine is not so different from today’s views. Though the prim behavior and dress of the late 19th century would not fly in 21st century colleges.

Please show Kathy some comment luv! You know we love hearing from you!

Don’t forget to join us on the 30th for The Life List Club Milestone Party! We’re celebrating our progress and the New Year! PLUS, we have prizes! See you there!


23 thoughts on “A Guest Post by Author, K.B. Owen

  1. Interesting as always, K.B. I continue to be amazed that my grandmother was in that fewer than 8% back in the 1920s. Sometimes, I think we gals take for granted the opportunities that our grandmothers and great-grandmothers would have loved to have had. I’m so glad they blazed the trail for the rest of us!

  2. Thanks so much for this historical look back, K.B and Marcia! Aren’t we fortunate to live in the times we do! An all-women Christmas evening today might still include red and green decorations, presentations, singing and a charity project but there would be no need for bells and bows. We love to boogie and partners don’t matter – right ladies?
    Wishing you both a joyous Christmas and New Year.
    p.s. Marcia, I’m baking your chocolate crinkles and candy cane cookies with my granddaughters tomorrow. Yum!

    • You’re right, Patricia…partners don’t matter much these days.
      Oh Patricia, after you make the candy canes , let me know how they turned out. My g/f made them and said they came out terribly dry. I’ve never had that problem with them and I checked the recipe to make sure i didn’t leave out something. If yours come out dry, try adding a little milk or cream. The fats in it should soften and moisten them.

  3. Amazing post Kathy (thanks for hosting Marcia). I love historical stuff and I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like to be a women in that time with so many restrictions and expectations. Wow. Love the news piece as it really brought it to light the times in which they lives. Fascinating!
    Happy holidays ladies…here’s to a wonderful season and a joyous 2012!

    • You are so sweet, Natalie, thanks! I wonder what women 100 yrs from now will think of us women? Will our “restrictions” seem oppressive and unnecessary?

      Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year!

  4. I adore your historical perspectives posts, Kathy! It’s lovely to see you over here at Marcia’s place. Merry Christmas to two of the best ladies I know. 🙂

    (p.s. You and me still have to get our Cowbell on together!!!)

  5. Yes, thanks, Marcia, for hosting Kathy.

    This is so interesting, and that old newspaper clipping is something else! That just blows my mind that the women couldn’t wear trousers even to portray the part of a man. Ha! This was interesting and fun!

    • Thanks, Lynn! It’s amazing the cool tidbits I picked up in my research for the novel. Early on, ministers, doctors, and social “experts” speculated that arduous study could damage a woman’s “delicate apparatus.” Some saw women’s colleges as a breeding ground for radicals (and they were sort of right, as the suffragist movement really gained ground from there). Lady-like behavior and Christian-based codes of conduct were top priorities. So glad you enjoyed it.

  6. In 1949, my own working-class mother was expressly forbidden to attend college. Your figure that only 7.2% went in 1920 puts that in perspective. A holiday toast to the women who made it possible for us to get an education and wear trousers! Looking forward to your novel, Kathy.

I love it when you tell me what you think!

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