Nestled amidst the quaint landscape of trees and small towns of Western Massachusetts is the city of Northampton, neither a booming metropolis nor a sleepy, rural village. It is the heart of the Pioneer Valley, home to nearly 30,000 permanent residents and numerous businesses. During the academic year, it is flooded with students from the 5 Colleges, chief among them, students from the all-women's Smith College.
Smith College lies only a stone's throw away from Northampton's busy downtown streets. The college's history began with the death of one Austin Smith in 1861, and the leaving of a large inheritance to his sister, Sophia Smith, a woman who was at first keen on endowing a school for the deaf. John Morton Greene, Smith's pastor, persuaded her instead that a woman's college, superior to the nearby Mount Holyoke Seminary, was a better investment. Smith was convinced, and this new institution was to, in her own words, "furnish for my own sex means and facilities for education equal to those which are afforded now in our College to young men." The college accepted its first class of fourteen of students in 1875.
Although originally Smith originally intended for this new college to be located in quiet Hatfield, Greene had differing ideas. Mount Holyoke was in a rural location, and Greene wanted Smith College to be located in a bustling town, so that the students would "be free from the affected, unsocial, visionary notions which fill the minds of some who graduate at our girls' schools." Reading between the lines: the presence of men and ordinary townspeople would ground students and keep them safely tethered to reality.
[[Behind you is busy Main Street. Up the hill, the college's tree-lined paths and architecturally eclectic campus awaits.]]
To your left is a quiet, tree-lined avenue. As you walk, you find yourself between two buildings - the public Forbes Library to your left, and Smith's massive College Hall to your right.
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Above: College Hall as it appeared in 1902.
College Hall was built as a type of "Old Main" building, a comprehensive all-in-one academic building seen in the male colleges of the time. They traditionally sat upon a hill (a local homestead was removed to make way for Smith's College Hall). The first floor held classrooms, so that students might get to their lessons without expending too much energy on stairs. The second floor held the president's office - here at Smith, a male president was hired, both to give the new college an air of academic seriousness and to contrast with Smith's rival female seminaries, whose presidents were all female "president-esses."
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Above: the College Hall reference library as it appeared in the 1890s
College Hall also held a science laboratory, an art gallery, a reading room, and a hall that could be used for daily chapel services. Unlike what one might expect at a school, there was initially no dedicated chapel or separate library, so that students would be encouraged to mingle with residents of the town and keep themselves in a mixed sex environment. A small reference library was soon put into place, however, while Smith College took advantage of the local Forbes Library's proximity to forgo a larger library until one was put into Seelye Hall in 1900.
[[You take a right onto a small street, lined with shops on one side and dorms, grass, and parking lot on the other.]]
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Above: students taking a break from playing tennis in 1882
If you take a right and cut across the parking lot, you find yourself in a small paved intersection, behind the kitchen of Hubbard House. It's an unimpressive spot today that doesn't invite pedestrians to linger, but had you taken this route a hundred years ago on a bright spring day, you would have found a lawn with students dressed in athletic clothes (which, in the late 1800s meant "a modified bloomer that freed her movement, or a tailored shirtwaist and golf skirt, shortened several inches from the floor.") While it was inappropriate to sit at the dinner table in such attire (a silk dress being much more proper), college life gave young women the ability to run around in much more freeing clothes than they would have otherwise - and Smithies took full advantage of this freedom.
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Above: students playing tennis on the lawn in front of Dewey House in 1883
There were multiple places for students to play tennis at Smith. The lawn between Hubbard House, Washburn House, and Seelye Hall is one such spot, but students played tennis in other areas of campus, such as in front of Dewey House, or out on Allen Field, which hosted two basketball courts, thirteen tennis courts, a volley court, and a field hockey pitch, prior to becoming the site where the Quadrangle is today.
“Monday afternoon I found a note on the bulletin board from Miss Elizabeth Chapin, 1910, saying that we had drawn each other in the tennis tournament and asking when I could play. After various notes and telephone conversations we determined on twelve o’clock Wednesday. It is one of the rules of the tournament that where once a day is fixed on by the two competitors one may not change or play another day. She forfeits the game to her opponent... Right after luncheon on Tuesday I stopped down street and bought a very good racquet for five dollars. No stores here carry the more expensive racquets.”
excerpt from a letter home by Kate Keith, dated October 4, 1906
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Above: Smithies watch a tennis match in 1912
[[Keep walking up along the quiet street.]]
[[Walk towards the ornate brick building emblazoned with "Alumnae Gymnasium A.D. 1890" that sits above the parking lot on a gentle hill.]]
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Above: the Alumnae Gymnasium as it stood in 1912
Today the Alumnae Gymnasium is a largely a quiet building. Occasionally, students move in and out with camera equipment rented from the Center for Media Production, while upstairs, researchers of all kinds make quiet use of the Smith College Archives and Sophia Smith Collection (one of the largest archives of women's history in the nation). To call such a building a gymnasium seems far from fitting.
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Above: on Rally Day in 1900, students lined up all the way up the hill to see an inter-class basketball game
Once upon a time, however, it was indeed a gymnasium - and it was an impressively full gymnasium for a women's college, boasting two bowling alleys, a squash court, a small swimming pool, and more. The first ever game of women's basketball, modified by instructor Sandra Berenson, was played in this building in 1892. It was a multi-purpose building and a very active part of the Smith community, hosting student parties and plays in addition to crowded sports games - a far cry from the hush of the archives today.
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Above: students crowd into Alumnae Gymnasium to watch a play in 1906
The name "Alumnae Gymnasium" came from the first generation of Smith alumnae who raised funds for such a building in their honor by (among other things) hosting tennis games at the college.
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Above: a program for an 1889 tennis tournament, held as a fundraiser for the building of the Alumnae Gymnasium
[[As you round the corner of a small hill, in front of the library's main entrance, you find yourself at a grand open lawn, nestled among the grandiose academic buildings.]]
It's a small bronze sundial set upon a marble pedestal.
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There's Greek lettering around the ends - a Classics major would be able to tell you that it reads: "Opportunity has short measure."
The design of the sundial makes it look like it's been at Smith for many decades, but the granite and bronze look brand new. There's a reason for this discrepancy - the sundial is at once a gift from the class of 1883 (and the Greek lettering the class motto) and a brand new statue created and put in place in the summer of 2012.
When the class of 1883 graduated, their class gift to the Smith campus was an elm tree, one that eventually died of disease. The alumnae were anxious to replace their class gift, and on their 40th reunion graced campus with two marble benches decorated with peacocks and a white marble pedestal with a bronze sundial. Unfortunately, thieves were attracted to the bronze sundial face, and within a decade the sundial was in bad shape, its bronze replaced with a less distinguished (and less expensive) sundial face, and its marble crumbling as a result of harsh New England weather.
above: the sundial in earlier days
Decades passed until a campus movement was started to revive this unknown corner of Smith history. The crumbling marble pedestal attracted curiosity from passerby, and after a search to find the origins of the object. Although the original bronze sundial face had longer been hacked off (along with multiple replacement faces), a rubbing of the original was discovered amongst the archives collection, and Smith students used it to recreate the face in a drawing, in clay, and finally as an 3D model that was used to recreate a new bronze dial.
[[You've reached the end of your tour.]]
What you see in front of you is a wide open space, a large lawn punctuated with a few trees. A few Smithies walk down the main thoroughfare to classes and meetings, but aside from the bustle of students, this inner part of Smith campus is a peaceful respite from busy Elm Street. What now is an open space once used to be much more crowded, as what are now Hatfield Hall and Dewey Hall used to be busy student houses. There was a third house that used to stand with them, Wallace House. While Hatfield and Dewey were converted to professor offices, Wallace House was unceremoniously chosen to be razed 1959 in order to build Wright Hall (amidst much protest from its contemporary residents and alumnae). It wasn't until the house was demolished that the site was deemed too small for Wright Hall - a cruel irony to all those who protested that Wallace shouldn't have been demolished in the first place.
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Above: a view of Smith's central campus in 1910, with Wallace House in the center
Wallace House is not the only house to have come into and out of existence at Smith. A decade before Wallace's demise, Dickinson House went down in a blaze of flames on December 14th, 1944, victim of a stray cigarette. Ironically, the houss residents had just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the house a month earlier. Luckily, the fire started at 10:15 in the evening, past the time when all students were required to be in the building, and so the Dickinson fire chief, one Lucy Adams, was able to round up all residents safely. Dickinson was destroyed and the students moved into rooms in Gillet House that until then had been occupied by WAVES (the women's naval reserve during the Second World War - officers for which were trained at both Smith and nearby Mount Holyoke).
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Above: Dickinson House in 1894, shortly after being built
But why were Smith houses built in the first place? They came to be as part of a plan to design Smith with a "cottage system," that is, small houses with groups of students overseen by female faculty, as opposed to the "congregate system" in place at Vassar and other women's colleges. The congregate system shut women away from "family life" and cut her off from the rest of society for four years, leaving them in an "unnatural" system. An 1873 editorial in an magazine called Scribner's written by one J. G. Holland describes the dangers:
"It is not necessary to go into particulars, but every observing physician or physiologist knows what we mean when we say that such a system is fearfully unsafe... Diseases of body, diseases of imagination, vices of body and imagination -- everything we would save our children from -- are bred in these great institutions where life and association are circumscribed, as weeds are forced in hot-beds."
Students at Smith had only one strict rule to follow - that of a regulated 10 PM bedtime - but students were otherwise left free to wander downtown or receive friends in their house, so that their social lives would not be entirely homosocial despite being at a woman's college. The fear in the back of everyone's minds, of course, was the specter of lesbianism.
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Above: students of the class of 1892 pose for a group photo
Back in the present, students begin pouring out of buildings, flooding the central campus with busy Smithies scurrying to print papers, eat lunch, and meet up with friends. You notice more than a few Smithies hand-in-hand in a more-than-friendly manner. The fears of the colleges founders has more than flourished at Smith, despite the precautionary measures of the cottage system.
[[Walking past the wings of Neilson Library, added in successive expansions, you come to a rest in front of where Wright Hall was eventually placed. A fierce-looking owl statue stands guard near Wright's front doors.]]
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The owl peers at you - and you peer back in return. The owl first graced the campus in 1962, creation of Leonard Baskin, professor of art. In 1978, when Neilson Library underwent yet another expansion, the owl was stored away in a dusty corner of campus and not restored for another twelve years.
[[You walk on, down a steep, curving path that takes you away from the owl and towards a quieter area of campus.]]
Water bubbles gently from a fountain to your right. As you approach, you see it is a stately woman with a book in one hand. On the base of the statue is an inscription, "In Memory of a Beautiful Life."
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above: the Lanning fountain sometime prior to its 1998 restoration
The statute and fountain were placed in that spot in 1912, two years after the death of student Mary Tomlinson Lanning. She was a sophomore from Nebraska, studying at Smith (and living in Baldwin House) and planning to go into social work. She never made it go graduation - she caught typhoid fever while at home during winter break of her sophomore year and died within two weeks. The statue isn't a depiction of Lanning herself - it's a large-scale replica of a statue by Jean Gautherin that the Lanning family owned.
The fountain has seen many changes to Smith's campus, from the destruction of the Student Building down the street, the construction of the Science Quad and Wright Hall, to say nothing of the changes in the student body since Lanning herself was a student here. It has remained, stately and unchanging, for over a century.
[[You take a moment to contemplate the Lanning statue, then turn your back on the fountain to stroll across the Science Quad. You take a left when you reach the same quiet street to head back downtown, away from Smith and towards downtown Northampton again.]]
[[There's something by that stone bench. What is it?]]
I hope you end this tour with more information about Smith's campus than you started it with!
If any of what you learned here piqued your attention, you can conduct further reasearch of your at the Smith College Archives, which you passed by earlier at the Alumnae Gymnasium.
If you can't make it to the Archives in person, you can browse online exhibits (created co-jointly with the Smith Libraries) about Smith's history at the following website: https://libex.smith.edu/omeka/exhibits
Further reading can be found in your library with:
Historical Handbook Of Smith College. 1932. Northampton, MA: Smith College.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. 1993. Alma Mater. Amherst: University of Massachuchusetts Press.
Lincoln, Eleanor Terry and John Abel Pinto. 1983. This, The House We Live In: The Smith College Campus From 1871 To 1982. Northampton, MA: Smith College.
Seelye, L. Clark. 1923. The Early History Of Smith College, 1871-1910. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.
You can also browse the following websites:
[[There's something by that stone bench. What is it?]]