Food for Thought: Food and the Smith Culture

9 May

Food is a huge part of Smith College culture—lectures, club meetings, concerts, and celebrations are advertised with treats, offering ice cream, pizza, cookies and more. Dining services takes student’s dietary needs and requests seriously (you can read more about that here!), and tea & snacks are served weekly in Smith houses. Looking at the college today, it is hard to imagine that at one time it was against the rules for students to have food outside the dining rooms. Food history at Smith, and other women’s colleges, is complicated—diet trends, health concerns, and external pressure have all played a role in deciding what the women at these institutions were consuming, especially in the late 1800s, when women were finally being given greater access to higher education.

Despite the opening of many women’s colleges during this time (Mount Holyoke was given its collegiate charter in 1888, Wellesley opened in 1870, and Smith in 1875) many did not believe that college was a place for women. In 1867, Dr. Edward H. Clarke of Harvard insisted that the colligate environment was not fit for females, saying that the “educational methods of our schools and colleges for girls are, to a large extent, the cause of ‘the thousand ills’ that beset American woman”. He claimed that these institutions caused “irrational cooking”, “indigestible diet”, and “unassailable abominations”. In order to “protect a woman’s future”, he asserted that you must control her food, as this was the basis for “safeguarding her crucial contributions to both family and society”(Brewer).

Although institutions of higher education for women persisted, at least early on, the health of the students remained a top concern of college officials. In 1877, for example, officials at Wellesley College decided that, because of “the prevailing delicacy of health in American girls”, dietary restrictions would be put in place. Students were not allowed to buy or receive any food other than that which was served by the college, and ultimately, eating was not allowed between meals. Women who broke these rules faced suspension, and, in some cases, expulsion. Similar restrictions were not uncommon at other women’s colleges—although the strictness of the rules around food varied from place to place.

As one might expect, the students at Wellesley had mixed responses to the new rules. Some followed them strictly so as to avoid the possible consequences. Student Louise Edwards wrote home to say that “so much has been said on the subject of eating between meals that most of the girls would as soon almost take poison”. Students hid packages from home, some so afraid of being caught that they kept them wrapped and hidden until the end of the year. But there were also those who bent the rules and those who disregarded them altogether. Clara Capron, a first year at Wellesley, complained to the college physician, claiming headaches and requesting to be allowed to eat fruit between meals. Francis Robinson, a sophomore, had a bit more disdain for the regulations. She told her mother, “Mr. Durant said that if a girl ate any fruit in her room they would expel her. I have some grapes, peaches and pears in my room and what is more I’m going to eat them.” Other stories echo this sentiment—girls having fudge sent to them from home wrapped carefully under clothes, or hiding cakes in the attic to avoid being caught red (velvet)-handed.

Image “A Memorial of exams, essays, metrical travilations [sic] and the like.”
Tea party with Bertha Allen and Helen Lambert, 12 March 1892.
Smith College Archives

By the 1880’s, especially at places like Vassar where consequences were less harsh, “Chafing dish clubs” appeared—late night meetings at which students would gather “with blinds shut and curtains drawn, and a gossamer water-proof draped carefully over the transom”. These “spreads” became almost gluttonous for some—oysters on silver platters and fudge parties drew crowds of friends. Dorthy Firman wrote home in 1906 from Wellesley to say that “a girl might as well not come to college if she hasn’t a good digestion. She can’t have any fun.” 

As spreads became more popular, students began to disregard the rules with abandon, publicizing their consumption-based gatherings. Spreads were used to celebrate—sometimes specific events like engagements and birthdays—and also used simply as a way to gather together with one’s friends. As the secret gatherings spread, faculty became more lenient about enforcing the rules, often purposely ignoring the “telltale aroma of fudge or hot chocolate” which could betray a party. Eventually, students felt so comfortable with their spreads that they were reported to have begun stealing ingredients (like milk) from the school kitchens. Judging from my Smith experience, late night kitchen raids are still common—hence locks being placed on the fridges in the dining halls during my first year.

By the turn of the century, colleges had begun to sanction the spreads, although many still questioned their “dangers”, especially as they became more extravagant. In 1901, Wellesley president Caroline Hazard voiced her concerns about spreads distracting students from their studies, and noted that perhaps the time spent entertaining (and cleaning up) was causing the women to “hurry to [their] necessary duties”. And she was not alone. Mount Holyoke student Amy Roberts wrote home in 1898 to tell her mother of the time constraints she and her roommate faced. “Carrie and I are beginning to think that our social duties are quite oppressive…We could get along quite nicely if it wasn’t for our studies.”

Today, women’s colleges are far different from what they were in the past, yet students still engage in joyous, celebratory eating, especially at Smith. Northampton is home to many wonderful cafés in which Smithies often do their work and socialize. Alumna Julia Child is remembered with a feast of sorts in the fall, and the college never falls short on providing cheese and desserts for weekly tea. It seems safe to say that if it were not for the determination of the alumnae who refused to follow the dietary guidelines forced upon them, Smith, and the other seven sisters, would not have become the schools they are today.

Image Zoe Sperber ’13, making snacks for the Smith College Vibes

You can read more about chafing dish clubs in Pricilla Brewer’s essay, The Chafing Dish and the College Girl that is included in Eating in Eden: Food and American Utopias, edited by Madden and Finch. Looking Good, by Margaret A. Lowe, also offers an in-depth look at diet culture in the early 20th century. Interestingly, Ms. Lowe used a lot of material from the Smith College Archives in doing her research. But, if you would rather see actual pictures, read letters, and delve into alumna’s thoughts and lives, check out the Smith College Archives (located in the Alumnae Gym) yourself!

-Eva McNamara, ’13

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