More Than Lore

Chapter 4: Social Life and Mrs. Grundy

Marion Talbot

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

ROBERT MORSS LOVETT, writing of the first connection with the University of Chicago of his colleague and friend, William Vaughn Moody, said, "The crudeness of the western scene oppressed him sorely," and later on in this article, in the Atlantic Monthly, made the statement that "his [Moody's] new environment offered from the beginning an intellectual companionship and stimulus fully as valuable as that which Harvard had to give." These two sentences give a vivid and accurate picture of the heterogeneous conditions in which the members of the new University, Faculty and students alike, found themselves when the University opened in 1892. They were gathered not only from many parts of the United States but from many other parts of the world.

( 58)

They found themselves in a city not yet sixty years old, already overgrown in physical size but with very meager opportunities for education, scholarship, and the amenities of life. In fact, the Stock Yards was the feature of Chicago which most frequently came to people's minds when Chicago was mentioned. Even as late as 1902, when Prince Henry of Prussia visited Chicago, the Stock Yards was its one object of interest known to him and which he expressed a desire to see, although under some pressure he graciously accepted an invitation to visit the University.

A small and encouraging beginning had been made toward an art museum. Mr. Theodore Thomas' influence in music was beginning to be felt; a public library had been started; Hull-House had been established by Jane Addams; certain social customs which were well established in the East were observed by a small circle of people; but Mr. Lovett's phrase, "the somewhat forced and pretentious quality of Chicago's nascent culture," gives an accurate impression of what the newcomers found.

It would have been difficult, however, at that time to believe that within a generation the cul-

( 59) -tural achievements of the city would attract the wonder and admiration of the entire world, and make quite out of date the phrase added to Bobby Hale's bedtime prayer at Cornell when his father accepted a professorship at Chicago, "Goodbye, God, we are going to Chicago"—God to him meaning "sweetness and light."

One of the first undertakings of the new University was to establish friendly relations with the best and most helpful influences to be found in the city. It was fortunate in winning as friends many of the ablest and most cultured citizens, including Mr. Martin A. Ryerson and Mr. Charles L. Hutchinson, whose generosity and wisdom never failed. It was clear that the University must not fail in its own special type of leadership. What form this should take in regard to the social life of the University, and especially of the women, appeared at once as an important matter for Mrs. Palmer and me to consider. She set about making contacts with the actual and potential friends of the University, while it fell to me to help guide the social activities within its walls. It was necessary to formulate the essential principles of good social form and to de-

( 60) -cide what social conventions had lost their meaning and should be discarded. A few incidents will show the manifold variety of situations which arose.

Not very long after the University opened its doors the Trustees invited its members to an evening reception in Cobb Hall, at that time the only academic building erected. Very attractively decorated tables were provided for the refreshments; but after the party was over, it was discovered that not only forks and spoons but the handsome maroon ribbons which had been used to trim the tables had been stripped off and carried away. The question was how to bring to the attention of the community that such hoodlumism was nut to be counted among the social customs which were to prevail. Fortunately, it was not difficult to get unofficial expressions of condemnation of such acts, but it was a long time before similar depredations wholly ceased. It was not uncommon when receptions or parties were held in the Women's Halls for the guests to carry off pieces of bric--brac from the public rooms, and even personal articles from the students' rooms, which had to be used as coat rooms.

( 61)

Early in the first winter President and Mrs. Harper gave a delightful evening party, for which they issued very handsome engraved invitations. There was some curiosity as to where this work was done, for engraving for social functions was not commonly practiced in Chicago. One of the guests at the party, a professor in the University, appeared in his customary slouchy and well-worn working suit of clothes and was heard to inquire of the President why he had not let him know what kind of a party it was to be! To the group as a whole the form of the invitation gave sufficient information.

One day in the early winter two women students came to me in evident perplexity. One of them said that a man student had stopped her on the stairway in Cobb Hall and asked her if she would go with him to a dance some of the men were arranging to give a few days later at a public hall in the neighborhood. She had come from a community where it was customary for private parties to be given and gentlemen to be invited as guests; so she was in doubt as to whether to accept and had postponed her reply. The other woman received a similar invitation,

( 62) but her "hold-up" was on the street. My previous experience gave me no ready answer. I said, "Let us find out how parties are given and invitations issued by the people who are showing interest in the University." I said, "I have no inclination to force on the community the standards to which I have been accustomed, but I do not think we are compelled to adopt the standards of Podunk." I went out to make inquiries, knowing well what I should learn and knowing that, if we followed the local customs of which I learned, we should do just about what was observed the world around in the best society. I finally advised (a mild term!) that the undergraduates should not go to the party and that the graduates might do as they pleased. I confess that this was not kind. The graduates had much discussion among themselves. Several declined their invitations; but a few accepted and had a miserable evening, for it was known by that time that a social faux pas had been made. The papers got hold of the incident and made up a story of how the undergraduate women, compelled by the Dean to remain housed, flattened their noses against the window panes of the Hotel Beatrice

( 63) and enviously watched the more fortunate merrymakers pass by. This so misrepresented the students' attitude, for we had all agreed as to the proper procedure, that a delegation waited on President Harper to assure him that the story absolutely misrepresented the facts. Two weeks later a large party was organized along most respectable and approved lines. There was a large attendance, and "an enjoyable evening was had by all." A red-headed youth, who had called on me in quite a rage to protest against the decision in regard to the first party, called again some weeks later. He told me that on the occasion of his previous call he had left determined never to enter the building again, he felt so enraged. Evidently his red hair did not indicate long-lasting bad temper, for he wished me to know that, on thinking the matter over, he was very glad, in case he had a sister who wanted to enter the University, to know that some degree of social protection would be given her and social standards set before her.

Another case will help show how interesting and important it was to establish social influences which would aid in strengthening the posi-

( 64) -tion of the new University in the academic world. At a private dinner which Mrs. Palmer attended before the University opened, the plans for the advancement of scholarship were set forth to a group of prominent citizens. When reference was casually made to women as members of the University, somebody exclaimed, "How can the University be the dignified body of scholars you intend it to be if women are to be included!" This reaction to the generous and farsighted plans of the Founder and the President reinforced the determination Mrs. Palmer and I had already made that the presence of women should never mean the lowering of any standards, intellectual or social. From the outset the women students gave their active and sympathetic support to this resolution.

Social standards and customs change so greatly from generation to generation that it is often difficult to appreciate the significance of an event which occurred forty or fifty years previously. It would certainly not be easy, even if it were possible, for a young graduate student in 1930, in the age of hip flasks and bootlegging, to comprehend the stir made by an incident which occurred

( 65) at the Hotel Beatrice early in January, 1893; but the group at that time was convinced that a crisis was at hand.

The dining-rooms of the Beatrice accommodated, in addition to the regular residents, several women students who had rooms in the neighborhood. One day two graduate students came to me in some distress and said they found themselves in a trying position and wondered if I could help them out of it. One of the women fellows had had a dinner party during the holidays and told these students that she had some wine left and would like to invite some friends to "drink it up." Her room, however, was not a suitable place in which to entertain guests, and she asked the privilege of using the room occupied by these students. They were taken aback, but were at a loss as to how to refuse the request. The fellow then proceeded to invite guests. One after another accepted, though most of them with some qualms. Drinking, especially by women, was in those days not often made the sole feature of a social gathering. Indeed, drinking at all was practically taboo among women in academic circles. It chanced that the hostess gave her in-

( 66) -vitation, in the presence of other students, to one of the most admired and outstanding young scholars of the new community, who forthwith declined. The word passed quickly from one to another that Helen Tunnicliff had refused her invitation. She was so greatly admired that doubts arose at once. Immediately the doubts were crystallized into certainty, and all the women involved as guests were eager to be released from the party. "Of course," was my reply, "it surely cannot be that a group of graduate women in the new University, who are already under rather severe inspection and criticism, will gather for the sole purpose of drinking. I will see Miss ———, and you may consider yourselves free from your pledge." I thought the interview would be easy; but when she entered the room, an imposing figure of some 175 pounds with height to correspond, I felt that my 93 pounds and short stature were at a disadvantage and that the strength of our determination would have to prove in inverse ratio to our size. When I told her that I thought it might prove very damaging to the University and the status of women scholars if it should be known that such a gathering as she proposed

( 67) were to take place and that I would like to have her help avoid such an outcome by recalling her invitations, she became very angry and said she had had wide experience in educational institutions and never had experienced such interference with personal liberty. I replied that the use of wine was not what I objected to, for I had been used to seeing it served on social occasions such as dinners, and that if the graduate women were to gather to hear a paper read or meet a distinguished scholar, no one could make up a discreditable story if a glass of wine were passed with other refreshments. The gathering for the sole purpose of "drinking up" wine left over from another function was quite a different matter and could not be allowed. She asked by what authority I thought I could stop it. I replied, "By the authority of the Dean of Women, responsible for the good name of the women of the University." She then said that German professors drank at their meetings, to which comment I replied that we were "talking about American ladies, not German professors," and that my decision must be considered final. It was with a sigh of relief that the proposed guests heard what

( 68) the outcome of our conference was, but none of them fully realized how grateful I was for being informed of the plan in time to avoid the hazard which was involved.

The changes time has wrought make it difficult to realize that even in the latter part of the nineteenth century many religious sects were still very strict in regard to social amusements. Theater-going, card-playing, and dancing were diversions calling for church discipline. It was difficult for those of us who were used to greater freedom to realize how distinctly the University was a Baptist institution, the President and a majority of the Trustees required by the charter to be Baptists. Courtesy and policy alike demanded consideration for their views, although no regulations embodying the restrictions observed generally by Baptists had been laid down by the Trustees. It was agreed quite early by the residents of the Women's Halls that there should be no card-playing in the public rooms, and consequently none at parties where men were guests. Dancing could not be made so private an affair, and almost at once it became the custom for the women students to dance together for a little

( 69) while after dinner in the large social rooms where there were pianos. Evidently news of this got bruited about, as well as rumors of projected dances for men and women. It was startling to have the matter brought up at a meeting of the University Council and to have the Dean of the Divinity School make a motion that no dancing should be permitted in any University, building. Fright is a mild term to apply to my reaction. I was still enough of a Puritan to have a horror of public dance halls; and yet those were the places to which students, men and women alike, who had no objection to dancing would have to resort, and the probability was that under the influence of the prohibition they would dance in season and out of season and much more frequently than they would actually desire. Ι summoned all my courage and described to the Council the situation as I saw it. I must have presented an impressive picture of the evils likely to attend the patronage of public places of amusement and the utter inability of the University to protect itself and its members from possible harm. I then moved that student organizations should hold no dances except in University build-

( 70) -ings. My arguments had been so effective that the motion was passed and remained in force for several years. Gradually, however, the rule was relaxed. Parties could be held in private houses, but even then under general regulations laid down by the Board of Student Organizations. Slowly, very slowly, a list of approved hotels and public halls was established. Their managers were eager for the patronage and seldom showed any reluctance to conform to the wishes of the University, fearing lest approval might be withdrawn. From hotels in the neighborhood the list grew; and the first large formal dance given in a leading downtown hotel created much excitement. Permission was withdrawn from a large and select social clubhouse because of the use of liquor contrary to agreement.

Such are some of the happenings at a time when the social standards of the new institution were taking form. The University was in the limelight because of its many adventurous and radical plans; and there were plenty of critics ready to ridicule, if not to condemn ruthlessly, its various activities. Those who believed that the University had a big contribution to make

( 71) toward fine scholarship had to be constantly on their guard lest some slight misstep might harm the whole undertaking. It was very remarkable how clearly the women of the University, older and younger, understood this and how loyally and intelligently they co-operated in every measure that was undertaken to strengthen their position as important factors in the success of the enterprise.


No notes

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2