One day in 1999, a treasure appeared outside the Beloit College Archives reading room. Unassuming in appearance, this battered leather suitcase contained neither diamonds nor gold coins but jewels of another kind. Hundreds and hundreds of letters stacked and tied together with twine. Let’s pluck one off the top and open it:
September 16, 1901
Arrived on time. Waited to see about my trunk & so found neither hack nor bus to bring me up to the college…my basket contained, the largest sword fern, 4 glasses of jelly, all my druggist’s shop, Bible & sundry heavinesses…I sat down to wait but only for five minutes when a bus drove up lickity split. It was for myself alone & therefore a little expensive, - costing $.25 to bring both me & my trunk a mile up here to the Hall.
This excerpt is from one of the earliest letters packed inside the decrepit case along with stacks of others—a precious trove of correspondence by Ethel Bird, class of 1905. Bird’s class was among the first to include women, and her letters vividly portray the daily life of a student who took full advantage of what Beloit College offered.
Over eight semesters, Bird wrote to her parents in Chicago at least five times a week. Far from dutiful and dull, her slapdash scrawl matches her spirited, irrepressible personality, revealed one forthright and witty letter at a time. Not only do the letters provide us with a vibrant mural of Beloit College in the first years of the 20th century, but they also allow us to hear a woman narrate her unique story in her own voice. And yet the letters are also timeless. Any student generation may relate to them.
When Ethel Bird matriculated in 1901, only 3 percent of American women aged 18-21 were studying at a college or university, earning 19 percent of college degrees. At Beloit, 19 of 72 freshmen that year were women.
Beloit had become coeducational in 1895, mainly for financial reasons. Although old-timers worried that the women would not achieve academic success, women valedictorians quickly silenced the critics. To Beloit’s credit, women and men followed the same curriculum and academic standards. By the time she graduated, Bird had studied Latin, Greek, German, math, botany, chemistry, English (literature and composition), classical art, philosophy, psychology, ethics, public speaking, pedagogy, and the Bible.
Most women students lived in Emerson Hall, a capacious new dormitory located on the far north end of campus. A self-contained unit, Emerson boasted a dining room, a gymnasium, and what Bird described as a “tasteful library—used as a reception room & for overflow gentleman callers.” Throughout her correspondence, Bird recorded rich impressions of the “homelike place” she lived all four years.
“I have made a little list of things I would like sent me,” she wrote early on, and then jotted down the items apparently needed by a turn-of-the-century student. They included a rug, curtains, blanket and quilt, sofa pillows, terra cotta portieres (doorway curtains), a table cover, an umbrella, rubbers, a golf cape and cap, a flannel nightgown, a shoe bag, a laundry bag, a soap dish, an eye shade, picture wire, a nail brush, hemp, rags, Pepto Mangan, cod liver oil, cocoa, caramel cereal, McLaren’s cheese, a “little pocket dictionary red leather,” shoe stain, scissors (to trim her lamp), indelible ink (to mark handkerchiefs), and a “revised version” of the Bible.
She relished college eats, which cost $2.50 per week:
We have awfully good eating here for a college dormitory. Yesterday noon we had fritters (fat round ones cooked in fat) & syrup & peaches & cream & cookies. Last night we had corn & meat & potatoes & lovely watermelon.
And detested washing laundry in Emerson’s basement:
I have been washing and my temper and general cheerfulness have joined hands and flown away … I am disgusted and my back aches. Some of my clothes look well, some distinctly mediocre and some fiendish. I haven’t had time to hunt up a wash lady so determined to be my own … One or two of the girls send their clothes home by express. That struck me very favorably at first, for 50 cents every two weeks seemed very little, no more than I paid most of the time last year for simply rough-drying them … I have thought of sending big things—sheets, night gowns, skirts, towels, pillowcases etc. by the dozen to the laundry for rough drying.
Bird was an eager scholar, but like many students in their first year, she was wide-eyed and distracted and did not study as hard as needed. That February she wrote:
…I am trying to settle down & do good work this semester. You know I kept saying I was over busy all the time and yet I did not do much studying. Well I went in for a good time at first—conditions were so new and so fascinating … but I came up, at examination time, with a thud against the fact that I had let my lessons go frightfully and I nearly killed myself getting caught up … O [sic], I could have cried to think of the marks that would probably be sent home to you—you who had been saving so that I could come to college —who were giving me every advantage—and I was, through them all, a mere recipient, passive, enjoying myself, not rewarding you in any way except by loving and I do love you two people—dear Mother and Father.
She resolved to do better: “I am trying hard to work systematically every day and not laze three weeks & buck the fourth as I have done in the past.”
Although women and men took classes together, not all extra-curricular activities were coeducational. For example, the debate team was only for men, the Shakespeare Society for women. Student publications and some of the choirs did, however, include men and women. Bird sang in the Vespers Choir, was a member of the Shakespeare Society, served on the editorial boards of both The Codex, and The Round Table, and participated in the college chapter of the YWCA. She did not pledge a sorority, although campus Greeks already played a significant role in social life on campus. Beginning with her earliest experiences at the Emerson Hall dining room, Bird noted the tension between Greeks and non-Greeks:
I have met almost all of the girls & the eight at my table are quite nice but of two distinct crowds—the Frat girls on one side & the anti-Frats on the other. I sit on the latter side but am trying to be neutral …
Two days later she clarified her thoughts:
Perhaps you don’t know that people are ‘rushed’ for a Fraternity when the members go out of their way to become friends, to do them kindnesses, & to generally get in touch before popping the question ‘Will you join us’? … I find [the Anti-Frat] crowd more congenial … The others are not so sincere, so earnest, so Christian, as the Anti Frat girls & I should have to work myself into their good graces while the other comes to hand in a simple natural congenial way … One thing is sure. It must either be “yea” or “nay.” For if you aren’t wholly with the Frat girls you can’t be with them at all. My day dreams of being ‘neutral’ are pretty much upset by the stern reality of things.
Although the “Frat” dilemma was resolved quickly, Bird struggled with her social status. Even in her final semester, she expressed uncertainty. On February 11, 1905, she wrote:
I am actually getting weak in the legs at the thought of that [Sig] party tonight. Isn’t that silly? … It is scarifying when one hasn’t been to a fraternity party since her Freshman days and all the Juniors girls and Sophomore girls and Freshman girls know it and will watch to see how she acts—that is they’ll do so if they are a bit superior feeling or if they are a wee bit jealous.
Three days later, she crowed about “what a good time” she’d had:
I danced 19 out of the 22 dances and sat out the other three with the very nicest men imaginable—men who don’t dance but are very good talkers. All the fear I had of being awkward was quite unnecessary. I don’t by any means say I was brilliant but I … have cultivated my ‘society ways’ some in the last three years and … they’ll stand me in good stead everywhere. I was so pleased to find myself really at ease and to feel that I quite did credit to my Mother & Father …”
Bird’s four years at Beloit were a whirlwind of activity, chronicled in loving detail. On campus she attended lectures, concerts, and debates. She performed in dramatic productions and cheered on the Gold at athletic contests.
Bird also documented forays into downtown Beloit and excursions to nearby Big Hill Park. She searched for wildflowers in the spring, bicycled, hiked, and rowed on the Rock River, ice skated in the winter, and traveled by train and horse-drawn buggy.
After graduating, Bird taught high school English for a year and then attended the University of Chicago, studying English and sociology. She wrote later that in 1907 she “went into [social work] as an experiment, only to find that [she] had at last discovered the thing she most desired to do.” Indeed she had declared during her sophomore year at Beloit, “I have decided on my vocation in life. I am going to start a little Home Bakery in the Slums and later as the need becomes apparent and as the chance comes to meet the demand, I shall form a little Settlement of my own with most of the classes Domestic Science ones.” Bird spent her adult life committed to social work through a notable career with the YWCA.
In letter after letter, Bird spoke in a strong, vibrant voice. Whether she sought to understand how a promising young man could squander his opportunities because of alcohol, to decide on her vocation, or to assure her parents she would bring them honor, she reveals to us, more than a century later, what a woman experienced as a student at Beloit College in the first years of the 20th century. That Ethel Bird earned a Distinguished Service Citation from Beloit College in 1955 should not surprise. She graduated equipped with skills honed during her four years to face challenges and do good work in the world. She passed away in 1960 and bequeathed to Beloit College part of her estate. But her real legacy is her priceless suitcase of letters.
Fred Burwell’86, college archivist, and Diane Lichtenstein, professor of English and Gayle and William Keefer Chair in the Humanities, have finished transcribing Ethel Bird’s Beloit letters, which will be added to the Archives website. Professor Lichtenstein also plans to publish a selection of the letters in book form.