As the archives of Amherst College, one of our missions is to document student life. We have vast collections that document athletics, musical groups, dramatic activities, student publications, and other organized activities from the nearly 200 years of Amherst College history. One collection that provides a unique glimpse into the lives of individual students is The Scrapbooks Collection — 140 scrapbooks maintained by individual students between 1853 and 1967. These books contain a wide array of ephemera and include everything from report cards to ticket stubs to dance cards to newspaper clippings and photos.
William Belcher Whitney (AC 1887) compiled what I believe to be the greatest scrapbook in our collection.
This is a fairly typical spread from a student scrapbook with a mix of ephemera and manuscript material that gives a real sense of what life at college was like in the 1880s. I’m curious whether the time limits on the Bath Rooms were strictly enforced. I’m also surprised to see such a well-regulated Billiard Room.
Whitney’s scrapbook is not the only one to include objects along with paper ephemera, though his may be the most beautifully laid out.
This opening includes a handkerchief, a pair of glasses, pressed leaves, a clothespin and a fraternity pin along with the expected paper ephemera. Whitney’s book is also one of the more thoroughly annotated ones — nearly every item has some note next to it with names and dates. If one took the time, you could practically reconstruct Whitney’s entire college career through his scrapbooks.
I chose to blog about Whitney’s scrapbook today because I recently stumbled across a particularly interesting item while showing this book to a class. Back in August, I blogged about a recently acquired copy of the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Annual Catalog in which one of Emily Dickinson’s friends had made notes about Dickinson and her teachers and classmates. At the time I wondered if it was a common practice for students to annotate copies of their college catalogs and the frequency of literary allusions in such a practice. Here is another piece of evidence that suggests this was, indeed, a regular practice:
We’ll get to the question of why a Mount Holyoke Catalog is in the scrapbook of an Amherst man in a moment, but imagine my delight when I peeled back the front cover of this 1885-86 catalog to discover this:
The line written across the middle of the page — “a habitation giddy and unsure” — is a line from William Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 2” Act One, Scene Three. The complete sentence, spoken by the Archbishop of York is “A habitation giddy and unsure hath he that buildeth on the vulgar heart.”
Another turn of the page revealed more of the same:
After a few minutes of deciphering these manuscript notes and plugging them into Google, it was clear that every one of them is either a direct quotation from literature (mostly Shakespeare), or a clever play on a literary quotation. I ended my research at this point, but there is plenty here for someone to work with if they want to delve further into the practices of college students in the 19th century. One could track down the sources of all of the quotations then compare that to the known reading students were assigned to learn something of their reading habits. Are they only quotations from works assigned in class, or do students range more broadly in their literary knowledge?
Then there’s the question of why a Mount Holyoke catalog appears in an Amherst student’s scrapbook. While that may not appear to be all that mysterious or surprising, Whitney’s scrapbook does provide ample fodder for someone interested in exploring relationships between college men and women during the mid-1880s. Whitney’s scrapbook is filled with evidence of social outings with Mount Holyoke students.
And then there’s this page:
An entire page of hairpins neatly arranged in the shape of a heart with initials and dates next to each. I leave it to a future scholar of late nineteenth-century social history to unravel exactly what is going on in the life of William Belcher Whitney, but it is definitely worth a closer look. Even within the scrapbook itself, one could check the initials associated with those hairpins against the Mount Holyoke catalog to attempt to determine who these pins might have come from. The student newspapers and publications could be consulted for information about dances or other events on the dates noted, and so on. With a bit of investigation, one could develop a rich portrait of social life at two New England colleges. Possibly three colleges — Smith was founded in 1871, though there appears to be far more Mount Holyoke material in this particular scrapbook.
Anyone interested in conducting this kind of research should make their way to the Archives & Special Collections to dig in. You’ll need to set aside quite a bit of time just to work through Whitney’s scrapbook — this volume is just one of four that he compiled.