A glimpse into 19thc life: the Seven Sisters



image from vcreporter.com

Ahh, Labor Day weekend.  The last gasp of summer leisure.  ALL of the children going back to school.  Parents have been kissing college freshmen goodbye and returning to quieter homes (mostly).  It’s the first weekend of college football, too, when many of us ransack our closets for those college colors to wear, either in front of the tv screen or in the stadium.  This will be the year.  We know it.

It seems fitting, for this end of summer, to revisit an earlier post about one of my favorite subjects, 19th century women’s colleges.  So, in between those burgers and dogs and iced tea, here’s a little taste of your great-grandmother’s college.  Or the college she would have attended if she could.



The Seven Sisters

Sounds like something out of Macbeth, doesn’t it?  It’s simply a term to describe the loose affiliation of seven women’s colleges – Smith, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, Barnard, Mt. Holyoke, Amherst and Vassar – during the early years and into the 20th century.  These colleges were the cradle, so to speak, for the women’s movement generally and the suffrage movement in particular. (Image at right from etc.usf.edu)



Excerpts below from: Alma Mater: Design and Experience, by H.L. Horowitz

Smith College, regarding Rally Day (sort of a school-spirit day):

Smith College basketball team. Image via wikipedia

The receptions evolved into day-long college events. At the 22nd reception in 1898, “a little dancing was enjoyed,” according to archival resources. From 1890 to 1893, dances took place on the morning of February 22 in the gymnasium, but only square dancing was allowed; the waltz was not officially introduced on campus until the first junior prom in May 1894. Games were added to the day’s events in 1892, and the junior-senior basketball game [yes, the women played basketball in the late 1890s!  Check my earlier post about women’s college basketball] soon became a traditional part of the celebration. Other events included debates, dramatic presentations, singing and dancing.



Bryn Mawr:

19thc classroom laboratory, image via www.brynmawr.edu

Sophomores tried to steal freshmen’s caps overnight (and freshmen guarded them) to embarrass the freshmen, who would have to appear “unsuitably clad” in chapel the next morning.

Vassar College:

One of the first Lady Principals required students to wear gloves on formal occasions, including events such as reading one’s own essays to college classmates.


Also regarding Vassar College:

excerpt from The New York Times, June 14, 1899



















Read the rest of the NYT article here.


Do you have fond memories from college?  What do you think of these early young women, making their way in the world?  I’d love to hear from you.

Happy end of summer,



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5 thoughts on “A glimpse into 19thc life: the Seven Sisters”

  1. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen

    I was a mixed bag in college – loved it and hated it. Worked a lot, partied A LOT, and found out a ton about things that had nothing to do with school. 🙂

  2. Nancy LauzonNancy Lauzon

    I attended Acadia University in Wolfville, a little town in Atlantic Canada. Back in the day we were separated by gender into residence, and the boys would raid the girls’ residence and try to steal their panties … from the drawer. As I recall, I didn’t get a lot of studying done. I could hold my own at Caps Tournaments (throwing caps into a beer glass from 10 meters) and went to lots of parties. Ahh, those were the days, sniff….

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