Exhibition on women’s colleges opens Monday with discussion of Bryn Mawr campus life through the decades

Posted February 27th, 2009 at 10:52 am.

Photograph of Parade Night, 1911, from the Bryn Mawr College Special Collections

Parade Night, c. 1911

Please note new date: A snowstorm prevented the panel discussion scheduled for Monday, March 2, from taking place. The event has been rescheduled for Monday, March 23.

Going to college was a strange and adventuresome act for young women in the early years of Bryn Mawr. What they thought about the experience is the subject of the exhibition “The Very Best Thing in a Girl’s Life”: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Fact, now open in the Class of 1912 Rare Book Room in Canaday Library.

Book cover

Margaret Warde. Betty Wales, Freshman. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co., 1904.

The exhibition draws on the library’s large collection of turn-of-the-century fiction about college girls, and on scrapbooks, diaries, and correspondence from some of Bryn Mawr’s earliest graduates. It explores what people thought about college girls when women’s colleges were a new idea—and whether what they thought was true.

To mark the opening of the exhibition, the Friends of the Library are sponsoring a public program, “Student Life at Bryn Mawr Since World War II: Reflections of Alumnae from the ’40s to the ’90s” on Monday, March 23, at 7:30 p.m. in Carpenter Library 21.


Thomas Library Psychology Study, c. 1900

The program will feature a panel discussion of alumnae from different eras discussing what life was like on campus during their times at Bryn Mawr. The panelists will be Peggy Oneil ’47, Jane Alavi ’62, Cindy Ayers ’68, Teresa Wallace ’79, and Michelle Mancini ’91. The discussion will be moderated by Elliott Shore, Professor of History and Chief Information Officer of the College, and questions and observations from the audience will be very welcome.

As soon as women’s colleges began to spring up in numbers in the late 19th century, the “college girl” became the subject of popular fiction,and especially of numerous series that followed their protagonists year by year through collegiate trials and triumphs. Important themes in the books include the creation of lifelong friendships, academic challenges, class unity and college traditions, and the role of college women as they move into the larger world after graduation.

Book cover

Margaret Warde. Betty Wales, Junior. Philadelphia: Penn Publishing Co., 1906

The exhibition is a show about these books, but also about Bryn Mawr. Many college women kept scrapbooks and albums into which they pasted photos, playbills, exam papers, invitations to teas, letters from home, dance cards, newspaper clippings, valentines, and the 101 other pieces of paper they valued. The library’s collection includes several dozen photo albums and scrapbooks from the early years of Bryn Mawr, and they are highlighted in the exhibition to illustrate and illuminate the fictional events and to help visitors compare the published stories to students’ own accounts.

“The Very Best Thing in a Girl’s Life”: Early Women’s Colleges in Fiction and Fact is sponsored by the Friends of the Library. The show is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., in the Rare Book Room in Canaday Library, through June 1.

For additional information, please contact the Library’s Special Collections Department: 610-526-6576 or SpecColl@brynmawr.edu.

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