Socializing at Home and the Importance of Commencement
In the 1880s, the less than one hundred men attending Davidson College had a relatively quiet social life. Davidson College was located in a small town, isolated by inadequate roads and surrounded by cotton fields. As Mary Beaty explains in A History of Davidson College, “Lacking other thrills, the students would go down and watch the trains come in four times a day” (Beaty 199).
Writing to the college’s first librarian, Anne E. Sampson, wife of a Latin and French professor, noted that, “The students lives were very monotonous. Before we were married, Mr. Sampson, wrote me that he hoped we would be able to do something for the students socially…. So we used to invite six or eight guys to dinner or to supper and play Authors afterwards. In this way we wanted every boy in College at least once or twice a year. Of course other Professors invited one and another of the students. There were hardly any for the girls for the guys to visit.” (Sampson)
Throughout much of this period, students had classes six days a week, leaving limited time for social events. But the students knew no different. Most students came from small towns in North and South Carolina, so the social life at Davidson was quite vibrant compared to their hometowns. As Walter Lingle ‘92 commented about his own student life, “We did not lead drab lives that were occupied exclusively with the thoughts of binomial theorem, Greek and Latin roots, or the fine distinctions of the aorist and subjunctive in Greek. On the contrary we lived very happy and wholesome lives” (Lingle 61).
While social interactions with young ladies were limited, students did find social outlets in skating rinks, which were merely wood floors converted for the activity, the tennis courts, church, and school sponsored or Davidson resident hosted events. A skating carnival began in 1891 after the Gymnasium Committee decided to allow the wood floors of Morrison Hall, the Y.M.C.A building on campus, to be used as a skating rink for students and young women in town once a week. (Roller skating had become a popular recreation activity in the United States in the 1880’s.)
Talking about his time as a student, Walter L. Lingle, estimated that 52% of the students “visited the young ladies of the town” who were typically daughters of professors or local businessmen. He describes the town girls as attractive and their families as hospitable (Lingle 41). Families in Davidson often hosted students for meals, carnival with music, domino parties, hay rides, receptions, and the like (Beaty 197). In 1895, for example , Colonel William Joseph Martin, a Chemistry professor who served one year as interim president, opened up his house to students and local young ladies for a “fancy dress party” (Beaty 197).
College students were clearly interested in the activities of the young ladies in town because a section in each Davidson Monthly was dedicated to describing all aspects of the women’s lives, including their visits to the “hill,” a reference to the college, their health, and their travels.
In addition to attending events with young ladies in town, Davidson students socialized with women attending nearby colleges for women, such as Queen’s, Winthrop, Concord Presbyterian Female College, or Salem College.
The college helped to foster romantic interaction by organizing days where students from a nearby women’s college would come to campus and interact with the young men through events such as picnics and plays. In June of 1898 four hundred young women from Winthrop College traveled by train to campus for “Winthrop College Day.” This annual event was considered a “red letter day for the boys of Davidson” (“College Happenings” 520).
The 1890’s at Davidson College were successful in establishing a class structure with a strong sense of loyalty and belonging. During this time period, class banquets were the major social events with, “elaborate menus, decorations, singing, and speeches” (Beaty 199).
Many events revolved around the musical, athletic, and intellectual talents of the students. Musical performances and oral recitations were often held in the gymnasium, and performances were typically given by the student glee club, orchestra, or visiting artists, and speakers.
Even though Commencement was considered the “social climax of the year, attracting thousands to campus,” it still offered limited social opportunities (Beaty 200). This four day long affair, which included Junior and Senior Speaking days, brought many women on campus. Mary Beaty noted that “Young women came in numbers, and not dressed in homespun either. Even at commencement, social life was at Davidson was limited to a buggy ride, a climb into the cupola of Old Chambers for the unparalleled view it gave of the surrounding countryside on a moonlight night, a concert by the brass band from Steele Creek or elsewhere, or a walk around town”(Beaty 155).
A large reason so many women attended was to meet prospective future husbands. The May issue of the 1889 Davidson Monthly jokingly urged people to bring their daughters stating, “Mammas who have marriageable daughters and want them provided for, let them come to commencement and their problem is solved” (“Our Commencement” 19).
The Davidson Monthly editors presented commencement as a guaranteed marriage market. Some young men like Albert F. Simpson took full advantage of their limited time with the young ladies. He wrote the names of all the young ladies he interacted over the course of two days of the event in his scrapbook, allotting each woman one hour.
The November 1887 Davidson Monthly included a fake article, supposedly composed by Emeline, a guest at the 1887 Commencement, who found the Davidson men not all that marriageable, let alone interesting. She attributed their dry nature to over studying and not having fully recovered from their exams (An Open Letter 6-8). According to Emeline’s account, women may have attended the commencement festivities but they were not all impressed by the social graces of the men they found.
Holidays were not only a respite from classes and the routine of studies, but also an opportunity to socialize with women. While students were not allowed to travel home for Thanksgiving, they made the best of their time on campus with gymnastic exhibitions, a football game between the Juniors and Seniors, a skating carnival, and the marquee event, a couple’s cake walk. The cakewalk was a standard party game during the 1800’s similar to musical chairs where participants would walk around in a circle of numbered squares. When the music stopped, the person whose number was called out got to “take the cake” (Lazarus). The skaters and cake walk counterparts were young women who lived in Davidson or attended nearby colleges.
Some students even remained on campus for Christmas break. In 1889, around fifty boys and girls attended the festivities of a reception given by the college president of the time, Dr. Shearer (“Locals” 25). Other holidays also offered opportunities for courtship. An 1890 Davidson Monthly included an article about the young women who came to visit Davidson during Easter and is quoted saying, “the following young ladies made Easter pleasant at Davidson by their presence” (“Locals” 24).
1900-1920, Visiting College Girls
The student body expanded from 173 students in 1900 to 454 students in 1920. The enrollment increased annually except for in 1914, 1915 and 1918. Davidson’s enrollment dropped almost twenty students each year in 1914 and 1915 because of flu epidemics, and 73 students in 1918 because of WWI, as Blodgett noted in her book One Town, Many Voices. (94,104)
Transportation helped to enlarge the student body and bring girls to the town. In 1903, a new train traveling from Winston-Salem to Charlotte made a stop in Davidson, thus increasing accessibility to the college (Davidson College Bulletin and Catalog, 1903). The first cars came to town in 1911 and a bus service followed in 1917, making transportation to and from Davidson more accessible.
Queens College in Charlotte (established in 1857) was another popular all-girls school for the students of Davidson College to mingle with. The creation of the “auto bus line” in 1916 between Mooresville and Charlotte, which made a stop in Davidson, made it easier for students to visit the young women at Queens College (Blodgett 97). At night, the women of Queens College even came to Davidson from Charlotte by train for their Glee Club concert in 1915.
On March 22, 1915 Queens College Glee Club had planned to give their concert, “under the auspices of the Athletic Association” (Davidsonian 3). This was the second time their Glee Club had performed at Davidson, the other time being the previous spring. Whereas the purpose for their visit officially was to support the Athletic Association, students were undoubtedly excited about this event was because women were coming to campus.
Sickness and War
In the 1910s, social life at Davidson slowed considerably once flu epidemics reached the area. As noted by Jan Blodgett in One Town, Many Voices, local flu epidemics occurred in 1914, 1918, and 1920; in 1914, twenty-one people in the town died of disease and one each from gunshot wounds and a train wreck (104). The loss of the campus North Carolina Medical College a decade earlier played a big factor in the reduced amount of medical care available to residents of the area.
In addition to the flu, which reduced socializing considerably, America’s entrance into WWI in 1917 affected dating at Davidson. Beaty noted that, “Shortly after the U.S. declaration of war, roughly eighty Davidson College students were excused from completing the school year so that they could go home and help with food production” (112). World War I halted the social life at Davidson. Between April 1st, 1917 and September 1st, 1918, 158 students (roughly 40% of the student body) joined the armed forces to serve their country. In total, 73 student and alumni died in the war (Blodgett 112). Once WW1 ended, social life began to swing back in action, while students were required to participate in the newly established R.O.T.C. program.
“An Open Letter.” Davidson Monthly. November 1887: 6-8.
Beaty, Mary D. A History of Davidson College. Davidson, NC. Briarpatch Press 1988.
Bill Lyman, “By-Lines” The Davidsonian. 22 October 1942: 2.
Blodgett, Jan. Around the D, April 22, 2014 (http://libraries.davidson.edu/aroundthed/?s=spring+frolics)
Blodgett, Jan, and Ralph B. Levering. One Town, Many Voices: A History of Davidson, North Carolina. Davidson, NC: Davidson Historical Society, 2012.
“Bowery Ball Ends Brilliant Weekend” The Davidsonian. 25 April 1934: 1.
“College Happenings.” Davidson Monthly. June 1898: 520.
“Dancing Question.” Davidson College Bulletin. June 1931.
“General Information” Davidson College Bulletin and Catalog. 1903-1904.
“Headlines announcing 1941 Spring Frolics” The Davidsonian. 19 April 1941:1.
“Homecoming Party To Be Held By ‘Y’” The Davidsonian. 15 November 1928: 1.
Lingle, Walter L. Memories of Davidson College. Richmond, VA: John Knox, 1947.
Lazarus, Sheryl. “Cakewalk Games at Festivals.” A Hundred Years Ago. N.p., 23 Aug. 2013. Web. 23 Feb. 2016. <https://ahundredyearsago.com/2013/08/23/cakewalk-games-at-festivals/>.
“Locals.” Davidson Monthly. January 1980: 25.
“Locals.” Davidson Monthly. April 1980: 18-19.
“Mid-winter dance tickets.” DC0239s. William Rule Scrapbook. Davidson College Archives.
“Our Commencement.” Davidson Monthly. May 1889: 18-19.
“Panhellenic Week booklet.” 1924. DCO331s. Albert F. Simpson scrapbook. Davidson College Archives.
“Recent Dances Attract Many.” The Davidsonian. 02 February 1935: 1.
Sampson, Anne. Letter to Cornelia Shaw 8 July 1920. DC0156s. http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/digital-collections/anne-e-sampson-letter-8-july-1920
“Sponsors for Pan-Hellenic Dance.” The Davidsonian. 3 November 1937: 3.
“Students in Attendance” Davidson College Catalog. 1900-1901
“Students in Attendance” Davidson College Bulletin and Catalog. 1913-1914
“Students in Attendance” Davidson College Bulletin, and Catalog. 1914-1915
“Students in Attendance” Davidson College Bulletin. 1917-1918
“Students in Attendance” Davidson College Bulletin. 1919-1920
“Armory and City Auditorium, Charlotte, NC” Charlotte, NC – Government Buildings, Postcardman (http://postcardman.org/CharlotteNC/governmentbuildings.htm)
“Town History Timeline” The Town of Davidson, NC. (http://nc-davidson2.civicplus.com/129/Town-History-Timeline)
“With the Social ‘ Fraternities.” The Davidsonian. 10 January 1934:4.
“Victorettes Hold First Davidson Dance.” Pre-DeT. December 24, 1943: 4.
Authors: Eve Fickett, Qiyu Li, Danny O’Malley, Caroline Yarbrough
Cite as: Fickett, Eve, Qiyu Li, Danny O’Malley,and Caroline Yarbrough. “Dating Life at Davidson, 1880-1940s” Davidson Encyclopedia May 2016 <http://libraries.davidson.edu/archives/dating-at-davidson>