Home for the – Victorian – Holidays

Adults and children playing Snapdragon, wiht a large platter aflame in the middle of the table and participants reaching into the flames

A family playing Snapdragon. See footnote for further information on the game.

This year, many of us are struggling with unfamiliar versions of our celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Year. Affordable transportation, flexible schedules, and leisure for the middle class (comparable to that available only to the wealthy during Victoria’s reign) have made vacation travel to join family in December an annual pleasure – and obligation – for many of us. As we choose to stay apart this year to protect our loved ones, we may think bitterly of the ideal gatherings depicted in movies and stories, and blame the Victorians for inventing the Christmases we think of as traditional, with a lighted tree, a roast goose (more modernly a turkey), gifts, happy children, and the entire family brought together under one roof.

Of course, we all know that most holiday gatherings fall short of that ideal, no matter how much effort Mother expends. Uncle Harry tells jokes that offend everyone, the turkey takes seven hours to cook instead of five, the children are over-excited and loud, and no one can forget that Grandma died in June. I felt better about the Victorians after finding in the Ellery Yale Wood Collection the 1885 children’s gift book Aunt Louisa’s Holiday Guest, which embodies a far more nuanced depiction of homecomings than one might have predicted.

Large party in a domestic interior. Boys and girls dance together while adults look on. A woman plays the pianoforte in the background and a maid brings in refershmentsThe publisher’s introduction suggests that the book contains a random assortment of four interesting stories, finishing with one that is topical:
“Again the Publishers offer a new Picture Book to their little friends. The story
of Dame Trot.and her Cat is revived with entertaining Pictures; and, in Good Children,
kindness to the afflicted is the subject. Hector the Dog shows his brave adventures on the
mountains; and Home for the Holidays is what all good boys and girls hope for, in order
that they may enjoy in quiet “Aunt Louisa’s Holiday Guest.”

Dame Trot takes tea with her cat In fact, all four stories are about homecoming and, whether the editor thought about them in this way or not, they illuminate a variety of facets of that uncertain pursuit. Dame Trot and Her Cat was an anonymous work first printed between 1800 and 1805, perhaps as a knockoff of the new popular poem Old Mother Hubbard. The text of Dame Trot is always about the old lady’s cat, but the language and events vary wildly from edition to edition. The narrative, though, has a stable pattern: Dame Trot comes in and discovers the cat doing something unexpected. It has died, or revived, or is making tea, or cleaning the kitchen, or teaching the dog to dance, and so on. Sometimes she has been in the house all along, perhaps coming downstairs after waking up. Frequently she has gone out to shop or pay calls, and she returns home to novel feline behavior.

Dame Trot returns and find the cat teaching the dog to danceThis is a very light-hearted take on homecoming, focusing on mostly pleasant surprises. It accepts that things change, and that you may find your life altered when you return to your home, but most of the changes are neutral or beneficial.

The blind man and his dog approach the children playing on the pathThe Good Children is less cheery, focusing on hardships suffered by those who are poor and disabled, especially those whose burden is increased by the absence of family. A tired and hungry blind man, walking with his dog, is welcomed at the cottage where the good children of the title live, and they promptly enlist their mother’s and aunt’s aid to offer him food and drink. The man tells the children about his son, a soldier, whom he has not seen for years because he had been stationed in a foreign country, and who he fears is dead.

The blind man blesses the children and his sonMiraculously, as he finishes speaking and gets up to leave, his son appears on the road, looking for him. The soldier’s return guarantees the old man’s comfort and support, and sets this small part of the world to right. A homecoming after suffering, and with challenges to come, but an uplifting narrative of family love and filial piety.

The traveller struggles in the blizzardThe third story, Hector the Dog, recounts the outcome of an imprudent decision. On Christmas Eve a traveler is in Martigny, Switzerland, intending to go through the Great St. Bernard Pass to get to his family’s home by the next day. An innkeeper, who is familiar with the terrain and the weather predicts a storm and urges him to stay the night. He insists that he knows the pass and that he will go ahead. Of course, the weather is as bad as the innkeeper said it would be, and the traveler is overcome.

The monks and dogs return with the injured traveler, but without Hector. The monks look solemn and the dogs depressed.Fortunately for him, the monks of the Great St. Bernard Hospice make their routine rounds, searching with their dogs for those who need their aid. In recovering the traveler, one of the dogs – the heroic Hector – is buried in an avalanche, but the stubborn traveler survives. The original child readers may have focused sentimentally on the heroism and loss of the dog, but this is also an account of a homecoming gone wrong, where the man’s self-centered and rash insistence on returning on schedule when it was not safe to do so nearly led to his death – and did cost the life of a useful and noble animal who had saved others.

Schoolboys on a railway platform talk with guardsThe final story, Home for the Holidays, is a happy version of homecoming, exemplifying the ideal Victorian Christmas that shapes our own expectations. The narrator is a boy, returning to London from boarding school by train with his friends. No archaic nonsense poems or foreign customs here – the poem is entirely up to date with the boy addressing his requests for speed to the guard and the engineer on the train.

Boys and girls, with two adults, watch a pantomime performance in a theaterHe is as pleased as any student by the prospect of a break from studies, and looks forward to family parties and merrymaking. He mentions Christmas, but he expects the fun to go on through Twelfth Night, and plans to go to the pantomime and an equestrian show, and to see Punch and Judy.

The boys rush from the train to embrace their familiesThe trip is over at last, and the boys rush out of the train to be embraced by their parents and siblings. Here is the homecoming everyone desires – your friends and family together, good food, your favorite entertainments, and nothing to worry about – and it is this homecoming the publisher ends with.

I know, as the publisher did, that this is a fantasy, and that for most of us “home for the holidays” is very different. But there is value in optimistic enthusiasm and being willing to be pleased, even this season. I wish you every happiness as you find ways to celebrate the return of light and warmth in the darkness. And we will look forward to a better year to come.
– Marianne Hansen, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts

 Aunt Louisa’s Holiday Guest: Comprising Dame Trot and her Cat, Good Children, Hector the Dog, Home for the Holidays. Laura Valentine., Kronheim & Co., engraver. London: Frederick Warne and Co., c. 1884. Read our copy on the Internet Archive.

Footnote on Snapdragon
* Snapdragon, the game shown in the first illustration, was defined succinctly in Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1823: “A Christmas gambol: raisins and almonds being put into a bowl of brandy, and the candles extinguished, the spirit is set on fire, and the company scramble for the raisins.”  Read more about it on Wikipedia. Should you choose to play, here are a few useful tips:

Protect yourself – hair pulled back; no clothing hanging into the flames; natural fibers; a fire extinguisher next to the door
Protect your table – nothing flammable; protect finishes from damage by alcohol drips; a hot pad under the platter
Most ordinary ceramic dishes will work. The ideal platter is easy to reach into, with a low, slanting rim.
Warm the brandy gently (~100-110° F) before pouring in the dish, or you may have trouble lighting it. The flames of 40% alcohol are relatively cool. Do not use overproof, which burns hotter.

Happy Holidays!

New Year shown as a fashionable young man, beofre a depiction of the zodiac

In January 1823 the London Magazine published Charles Lamb‘s humorous three-page essay “Rejoicing Upon the New Year’s Coming of Age.” It imagined the feast given by the New Year, and attended by 365 guests: April’s Fool, May Day, Christmas, Lord Mayor’s Day, and all the rest. By 1824, Lamb had recast his work as a poem for children, and it was printed with six pages of engravings as The New Year’s Feast on His Coming of Age. In honor of the holidays, we are sharing the copy that come to the Library as part of the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature. It begins:

The Old Year being dead, the young Lord, New Year’s Day,
Determined on giving, for once and away,
A treat to his friends; and that none might be slighted,
All the days in the year to the Feast were invited.

After some squabbling about whether the sad, depressing fast days should be included, Christmas Day prevails and they are invited. It turns out Christmas is not just being kind – he intends to get Ash Wednesday drunk and see what happens.

Twelfth Day (usually called Twelfth Night) is the epitome of style, and May Day and St. Valentine cozy up on a sofa.

New Year’s speech of welcome is rudely interrupted by November 5 (the anniversary of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, Bonfire Day), and the guests take it upon themselves to kick the malcontent out into the street.

April Fool, who appears in many of these engravings, serves as chief jester and master of ceremonies for the feast. He seats the distant solstices together at the table:

The twenty-first day of June, I remember,
He sat next the twenty-first day of December;
The former the latter contemptuously eyed,
Like a May-pole a[nd] marrow-bone placed side by side.

Fortunately for the modern reader, an appendix is provided “designed to assist the juvenile capacity in understanding the allusions in the Poem.” These notes explain, for example, why August the Twelfth and St. George’s Day quarrel over who is to propose the King’s health – George IV’s birthday had come to be celebrated not on his natal day, but on St. George’s feast day, April 23. Other notes are equally useful, explaining Quarter Days, Ember Days, Rogation Day, Septuagesima, and the Greek Kalends (which turn out not to exist).

Once Christmas has plied Ash Wednesday with wassail, both entertain the company with song.

Music and conversation follow, and after further revels, the guests depart for their homes. Watchmen (the Vigils) accompany those who needed assistance.

Another old Vigil, a stout-made patrol.
Called the Eve of St. Christopher’s, jolly old soul,
Perceiving Ash Wednesday inclining to roam,
Took him up on his shoulders and carried him home.

You can read the book for yourself (and find out what Christmas and Ash Wednesday sang, and who went scandalously home with whom) on the Internet Archive. We have digitized our handsome, hand-colored copy, and loaded it into this vast public library at https://archive.org/details/NewYearsFeastOnHisComingOfAge1824. The original essay is also available at https://archive.org/details/londonmagazine11taylgoog/page/n16.

We wish you and yours the happiest of holidays and a very happy, healthy new year!

Bryn Mawr completes $260,000 NEH grant project to digitize letters and diaries of students at the 7 Sisters Colleges

Students in a Bryn Mawr classroom, 1947

Students in a Bryn Mawr classroom, 1947

The Bryn Mawr Special Collections Department has just completed a two-year $260,000 grant project funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. College Women: Documenting the History of Women in Higher Education funded the digitization of a wealth of student letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photographs, which are now publicly accessible through the online portal www.collegewomen.org.  In addition to Bryn Mawr, which was the lead institution on the grant, the project included the other schools in the old Seven Sisters group:  Barnard, Mount Holyoke, Smith, Vassar and Wellesley Colleges, and the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University. As a result of the project, the institutions digitized more than 75,000 pages of documents from over 100 collections of student writings from the middle of the nineteenth century to World War II.

Field hockey players at Bryn Mawr, 1919

Field hockey players at Bryn Mawr, 1919

The seven partner institutions, historically regarded as the equivalent of the Ivy League before those schools admitted women, have long stood at the forefront of women’s higher education in the United States, educating many of the most ambitious, socially conscious, and intellectually curious women in the country. Going to college offered women new academic and social experiences, which many of them chronicled in extensive letter writing, diary-keeping, scrapbooking, and photography that preserved their impressions, experiences, and ambitions during those first years of independence from home. A treasure trove of these letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photographs have been preserved in the libraries of the seven schools, where they serve as a rich resource for understanding a wide range of issues in women’s history and beyond. College Women makes these collections available online, searchable together for the first time, making it possible for researchers to consider these materials in the larger context of movements for women’s education and expanded opportunities for women in general, and critical concerns experienced by young women growing into maturity in a changing world.

Students at tea in Wyndham, ca.1945

Students at tea in Wyndham, ca.1945

Among the writings found in College Women are the diaries of Bryn Mawr suffrage activist Mary Whitall Worthington, class of 1920; diaries of pioneer women archaeologists Dorothy Burr Thompson, class of 1923, and Lucy Shoe Merrit, class of 1927; letters of Marie Litzinger, class of 1920, who later taught Mathematics at Mt. Holyoke; and letters of Susan Walker Fitzgerald, class of 1893, who founded the Self-Government Association.

The College Women site also includes a blog with entries discussing interesting collections found through the project, guides to the use of the site, and ways in which the site can be used for teaching.  The project team welcomes blog posts from anyone who finds the site useful.


This project began in the spring of 2014 with a Foundations Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the development of an online portal capable of searching the institutions’ digital collections of student letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photographs.  A $260,000 implementation grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in the spring of 2016 allowed the partners to digitize and create metadata for thousands of documents, and those documents are now accessible through the Collegewomen.org site.

Interactive Mechanics LLC of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania has been responsible for site design and development. The project was advised by leading scholars in the fields of women’s history, history of education, women’s archives, and the digital humanities–Ellen Gruber Garvey (New Jersey City University), Helen Horowitz (Smith College), Mary Kelley (University of Michigan), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M University), Monica Mercado (Colgate University), Katherine Rowe (Smith College – and the incoming President of the College of William and Mary), Susan N. Tucker (Tulane University), and Nancy Woloch (Barnard College).

The project “College Women: Documenting the Student Experience at the Seven Sisters Colleges” is being supported by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Celebrating 50 Years of Excellence.   Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.


Eric Pumroy, Seymour Adelman Director of Special Collections, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA  19010. Tel: 610-526-5272; epumroy@brynmawr.edu


Eclipses! – from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature

I Have been very anxious about the Weather To-day, how it might chance to fall out, on Account of the Eclipse of the Sun that is to be this afternoon; but it is at present fine, and I hope the Clouds will forbear, and permit us the extraordinary Sight…

Diagram of solar and lunar eclipses from The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy

Thus begins the chapter on solar eclipses in The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy (second edition, London: 1772). The book is written in the form of  conversations between Cleonicus, home from College for the summer, and his sister, Euphrosyne, whose lively interest in the natural sciences (“philosophy”) is impeded by her lack of access to instruction on the topic. She has formed the plan of getting her brother to help her, and in a series of dialogues, Cleonicus introduces her to astronomy and physics, using sketches, models, and experiments. Although she frequently suggests that a new subject may be too difficult for her, her intelligence and his organized and factual instruction consistently produce firmly rooted understanding on which she builds. The work speaks strongly for women’s education, arguing that if they were given the opportunity to study the sciences, they could excel.

Euphrosyne and Cleonicus are fortunate to have the opportunity to observe a total solar eclipse together, and following an explanation of why eclipses occur, he sets up two viewing stations –  a telescope with darkened lenses* and an adjacent room which acts as a camera obscura – a pinhole projector on a large scale. Here are highlights of their conversation during a solar eclipse:

Euphros. But see, the Time is at Hand for the Eclipse to begin — It wants 5 1/2 Minutes by my Watch.

Cleon. Well, we are prepared for it, happen as soon as it will; I have fixed the Telescope in a proper Position for viewing it; and thereby you will see it in me Heavens. I have also darkened the Chamber, wherein you will see the Eclipse in Miniature very perfectly; and have so ordered it that you only need to step out of one Room into another to see both.

Euphros. Dear Cleonicus, I am greatly obliged to you; but let me seat myself at the Telescope to observe the Beginning.

Cleon. Do so immediately; there is a Piece of dark Glass before the Eye-Glass in the Telescope, through which you may view the Sun without hurting your Eyes.

Euphros. Very good, Cleonicus; let me view him — I see his glorious Face, and the several Spots which beautify it — there is yet no Appearance of an Eclipse.

Cleon. In half a Minute you’ll see it.

Euphros. I do: — The Moon just touches him on the right Side and covers a very small Part — let me see it in the Chamber —

Cleon. Look in.

Euphros. ‘Tis just as I saw it at large in the Telescope; how beautiful it appears in that small Picture! But here it begins on the left Side, how is that?

Cleon. That is, because the Image of the Sun is inverted by the single Glass in the Scioptric Ball — See, there is a large Spot, which the Moon will presently hide, — view it in the Telescope —


Euphros.  I never observed an Eclipse with so much Pleasure and Exactness before — But see, methinks it begins to appear somewhat darkish, or else ’tis my Fancy —

Cleon. The Sun is now about two thirds Eclipsed, and the Day-light begins to be sensibly diminished, and will be so in a few Minutes.

Euphros. ‘Tis darker than it was — I’ll view the Sun again —- he appears horned like the Moon in her last Quarter;

Cleon. The Darkness increases very sensibly — the Air seems obscured, you will quickly see the Stars —

Euphros. The Stars! Will it be so dark as to make them visible?

Cleon. Visible! Yes, for a considerable Time; you will see Day converted into Night

Euphros. Bless me, you make me shudder at the Thought.

Cleon. It will be much darker by- and by in about three or four Minutes the Sun will be totally eclipsed —


Cleon. The Sun is now totally eclipsed.

Euphros. Look, see how the Beasts run under the Trees — what do the poor Creatures think!

Cleon. Think! They can’t tell what the Matter is, — they know ’tis something very extraordinary — There has been many a Night not so dark as it is now.

Euphros. That I am sure of — well ’tis very surprising —-

Cleon. So it is, to see the two great Lights of Heaven in a Manner both extinguished!


Euphros. The Eclipse, I see, is nearly at an End; I do assure you, Cleonicus, I never spent 2 1/4 Hours with more Pleasure and agreeable Surprize than now. — If you please, we will now go to drink Tea, and then I shall trouble you with a few more Questions about an Eclipse of the Moon.

Cleon. With all my Heart, my Euphrosyne; you know nothing gives me a greater Pleasure than to satisfy your Enquiries about natural Things.


The brother and sister at the telescope.

The book is part of the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books and Young Adult Literature. To see the original pages: Eclipses_from_The_Young_Gentleman_and_Ladys_Philosophy_1772a.

*It is not safe to look through a telescope at a solar eclipse without specialized equipment. Please follow NASA’s recommendations for viewing at https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov/safety

Marianne Hansen, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts




New Features on TriArte!


There have been a few upgrades to TriArte this summer that provide more information about individual objects and enable new ways for users to interact with the collections.



Provenience, Bibliography, Comparanda, and Catalogue Raisonné

1. Expanded Bibliographic Information

First, more information has been made available that expands upon the existing general information about the object itself in four new sections added to an item’s page. The history of ownership for the object leading up to its arrival at Bryn Mawr College is under Provenance History. Sources that have published about the object are included in the Bibliography List and the Catalogue Raisonné notes the authoritative publication. A Comparanda List provides references to objects that are considered similar to our examples. These new sections present some of the ongoing research to the general public that students, faculty, scholars, and staff have completed over the years.


Mapped Creation and Findspot Locations for P.93

2. Additional Map Features


Attic Black-Figure Kylix (Drinking Cup) Fragment (P.93)

Second, TriArte now maps data on both the creation and find spots for objects. On a map within the record, visitors can trace the journeys of exported vases or coins in circulation. For example, on the map above the Creation Location (Athens) and its eventual Findspot (Egypt) for the Attic Black-Figure Kylix Fragment with a Gorgoneion (P.93)  is indicated.

**It is exciting to note that these two sections are continuing to expand on a daily basis with additions and corrections.**

3. New Feature: Portfolios


A Portfolio of our favorites! Portraits of Bryn Mawr College Presidents.


Tagged: A wreath was once visible in the figure’s hand. It was likely removed during an aggressive cleaning prior to 1905.

Third, Students and Professors can now create their own “Portfolios” on TriArte. Similar to the existing portfolios under the Featured Collections tab, one can save a collection of objects that are of interest for a class or for a project. A quick email to collections (artandartifacts@brynmawr.edu) will provide you with a username with which you can login to your own version of TriArte and start creating portfolios. Students can collect a group of objects in a portfolio to examine for a paper on Byzantine coins or Daguerreotypes. Professors can plan out visits for their classes to collections or store objects of interest together for future research. Furthermore, portfolio users can “tag” part of an object with notes, such as on P.95 here.




So check out our new features on TriArte!

Identification and Preservation of Prints

Location: Bryn Mawr College

Speaker: Samantha Sheesley, Paper Conservator, CCAHA

Date: June 2, 2015

Time: 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Fee: $60

Major funding for this program was generously provided by the William Penn Foundation, with additional support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Philadelphia Cultural Fund, the Independence Foundation, and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

For more information: http://www.cvent.com/events/collections-care-training-2015/event-summary-766a6ad1daff429bafde4b6fd6d65485.aspx


Friday Finds on Halloween–The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Sleepy Hollow - PlateHang on to your hat—and your head—for the next preview of the upcoming Halloween-themed “Friday Finds” talk!

Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has it all: romance, the supernatural, and a healthy dose of biting satire, all this from one of the pillars of the first generation of great American authors. Irving, who spent many years abroad in Europe, was deeply affected by stories and traditions of the old world. However, he brought a distinctly American flair to these stories, both in setting and wry, satirical tone.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow, where traditional European tales of headless riders and huntsmen are reinterpreted in the Hudson Valley, where the exoticism of the New York Dutch heritage met the eerie upstate wilderness of America. While the monstrous encounter between Ichabod Crane and the phantom horseman is ambivalent, what is certain is the enduring humor in the description of the calculating and manipulative, yet irrationally superstitious, schoolteacher who likely deserves his comeuppance.

Bryn Mawr’s illustrated copy of Washington Irving’s best-known and most-adapted work will be available for your perusal at “Eerie Books: A Halloween Selection from Special Collections,” on Friday, October 31st, from 3:00-4:00 pm in Room 205 of Canaday Library. Come and page through it and other spooky selections yourself—if you dare!

Sleepy Hollow - Cover trimmed Trick or treat at Special Collections! Come to the talk in costume, and you may win a gift certificate to Main Point Books. Everyone will be welcome to treats to follow the talk!

Personal Digital Archiving Day

Remember these?

Remember these?

As new technologies appear, older ones become obsolete, making it difficult to access older content. Traditional information sources such as books, photos and sculptures can easily survive for years, decades or even centuries but digital items are fragile and require special care to keep them useable.

• Digital items are fragile and require special care to preserve them and keep them usable.

• Digital items depend on technology to make them available.

• Digital content requires active management to ensure its ongoing accessibility.

• Online programs (Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, etc.) have no guarantees to last forever.

Come to Personal Digital Archiving Day to learn how to save your digital materials long-term on October 23rd from 3-5 in Canaday 205.

Adapted from: http://digitalpreservation.gov/multimedia/videos/personalarchiving.html

Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918 and 1919

mh_pic1 “There has never been anything real about my life over here. I can’t believe that it is I who am seeing it with my eyes, living in something that is a reality and not a dream. It worries me sometimes for I am afraid it will disappear out of my memory like a dream and I just don’t know what to do to hold on to it” (84-5). This is one of Margaret Hall’s more poignant moments as she reflects on her service for the Red Cross during World War I. Her experience so strongly affected her that she compiled her correspondence and photographs into a typed bound manuscript: Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918 and 1919 . I had the opportunity to read an original copy. As a recently graduated history major/nerd, I was excited to actually hold the historic manuscript and learn about WWI through the eyes of Margaret Hall.


July 28, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War, so it is appropriate that the Massachusetts Historical Society currently has an exhibition, “Letters and Photographs From the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War,” featuring Hall’s writings. There are only four known copies of Margaret Hall’s book. Bryn Mawr College Special Collections, the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Cohasset Historical Society each own one. World War I does not occupy a particularly large space in US popular culture, especially when compared to World War II. Movies like Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List or Patton are widely considered classic American films. Speaking for my generation, our little knowledge of World War I comes from the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, primarily because it is required reading in many high schools. I have always thought WWI fascinating as its own historical moment, not just simply a precursor to WWII.


Margaret Hall graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1899 with a degree in history. She came from a relatively well-to-do family in Boston, Massachusetts. In 1915, she helped organize nationwide marches for women’s suffrage. In 1917, according to Bryn Mawr’s Alumnae Quarterly, she traveled to Cuba and the Isle of Pines and later that year started her own farm. Then, on August 23, 1918 Hall sailed across the submarine strewn Atlantic Ocean into the deadly combat zone of Marne, France. I was curious to know why she did this but unfortunately, she does not expand upon what precisely influenced her decision. Perhaps she felt a sense of duty or wanted adventure. Of course, we will never know but it is certain that she was a strong-willed woman who was not intimidated by the unknown.


Once Margaret arrived in Paris, she was assigned to a desk job that required her to read casualty reports and letters. Then she would have to write families “about the boys’ last words, what they did and said, their funerals, etc.” (18). Hall found this incredibly depressing and desired to work at a canteen near the frontlines: “I have no hopes of getting near the front. The Red Cross does not send women near, they tell me…Salvation Army is what I want and I wish to goodness I had tried for it.” (17) But, like a true Mawrter, she persisted and ultimately was assigned to the Chalons-sur-Marne, “Cantine des Deux Drapeaux.” This Red Cross canteen in the St. Mihiel sector was literally on the front lines of World War 1 and Hall arrived just in time for the last major battle of the war. She and others at the canteen often had to take cover in the local abris, underground caves. Near the end of the war, Hall writes on November 1, 1918: “The guns are banging away at the front. It is much farther away, but we can still hear them, and they always disturb one’s nervous system. We’ve got the hardest part of the line near us, where there is terrific fighting and terrific mortality. Everyone from the front says the same thing, that it is awful up there. Think of being so near to it that we can hear it thundering on!” (83-4). The fighting was not the only peril – disease ran rampant in the canteen. Margaret was ill several times but luckily survived while many other women died from the Spanish flu.


While reading her letters, I asked myself if I could do what she did and honestly, I’m still unsure. For a year, she lived a life completely different than anything she had ever known and for the first time, she encountered Algerians, “Anamites” (Vietnamese), Poles, “a real American Indian”, among others. There were food rations, she had little sleep or privacy, and saw countless dead and wounded soldiers. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been to adjust to this environment. But, as Margaret points out, the four-year war made miserable conditions the norm and the end brought anything but peace: “Discontent is rampant in all branches of the service and among all nations. It’s a most deplorable ending to the four-years of agony. Not one definite thing accomplished, Allies loving each other less than ever” (178).


As an amateur photographer myself, I was particularly taken with Margaret’s pictures throughout her narrative. She snuck her camera past Paris customs, allowing her to capture hundreds of scenes from the Western front. Visually documenting the war was clearly very important to her: “One of the things most wearing to me is the desire to get out to take pictures, and the impossibility of doing it. I know I could get such wonderful things” (160). Keep in mind; she was using an ‘old-fashioned’ film camera. I can’t know for sure, but it is highly likely she used a Vest Pocket Kodak camera, which was introduced in 1912. As the name suggests, it was small enough to fit in a pocket, which might explain how she managed to smuggle her camera past customs. One roll of film, at maximum, could take sixteen pictures and she took many more than that. This means that Margaret would have had to find a pitch black area to change film rolls or else the negatives would be ruined. Speaking from experience, removing film is not the easiest thing to do and it definitely takes practice. Or, she could have had someone else do it for her. Regardless, it is interesting to really think about the physical process of photography in 1917 and the thought that was put into each picture she took.


I learned a lot about Margaret by looking at her pictures; they show what and who she thought was worth photographing. Hall was both fascinated and horrified by the amount of destruction due to the fighting: “In the afternoon we walked to the little town of Courteau, all shelled up and as picturesque as the dickens” (129). The majority of her photographs are scenes of desolate land, abandoned weapons, destroyed buildings and graves. Many of her photos are artistically well composed and there are also candid shots of Allie solders and German prisoners. Margaret looked at the war from all angles and it is amazing to have such a dynamic collection of photographs all in one book.


I was quite struck by her response to corpses and demolished towns or buildings. She often described these scenes as “picturesque,” which I understand as there is allure in the grotesque. But, her description of the looting she did with other women from the canteen and the treatment of German bodies show a level of desensitization. “On our way down, found a dugout in which were ten or twelve Germans who had been gassed…It seemed only musty down there, not really disagreeable at all…Their hands were mummified, but you could almost see the muscles in their broad shoulders. Probably the gas, and being so far down away from the air, had preserved them. Don’t know how I ever could have gone into such a place. The only reason must be because they were our enemies and you don’t feel the same about them as you do about anything else in the world” (223). I think Margaret was surprised by her actions as well but accepted them rather than changed them. I thought that this looting expedition was particularly disturbing: “I am going to find a Boche prisoner now to fix up my souvenirs. Two women of the canteen are taking skulls as ‘souvenirs,’ and some of the nurses pull belts and boots off of dead Germans. Sometimes the feet come off in the boots, but that seems to be no objection!” (178). Not only was looting disrespectful to the dead, it was also extremely perilous: “People are killed and injured all the time for hunting souvenirs” because the abandoned trenches and battlefields were littered with hand grenades and other explosives. Plus, these women were traveling into foreign lands with people they met along the way. But, Hall maintained this mentality: “But why be here in the midst of it and not see it, even if it kills you in the end!” (135). Or as we would say today, #YOLO.


Hall describes a conversation with a German prisoner that is an eerily accurate prediction for the future: “The Germans say, ‘Just wait six years.’ I think they have no intention of remaining a conquered nation longer than that” (153). He [German boy] is convinced that he will go home in a month or two at most, or else the war will begin again. Germany will have her prisoners back, he says. He’s a nice, industrious boy, but German, and they can never be changed; they will always wish to push their Kultur onto others. He told us their government was the best, and we’d all have to come to it sooner or later. I really felt quite hopeless after I’d talked to him” (158). This anecdote sent chills down my spine because we now know this solder’s declarations soon became a reality. Seven years after the war ended, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf and then became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. The rest, as they say, is history.

mh_pic13Elizabeth Reilly, Class of 2014