Evidence for queer life in the early days of Smith College exists throughout the archives, in the forms of diaries, letters, photographs, and even published writings. Smith students at the turn of the twentieth century took on traditionally masculine roles such as leadership and assertiveness, asking younger students to dances and sometimes mimicking heterosexual courtship. They also adopted masculine appearances through participation in sports and dramatics, often spending significant parts of their days in sports uniforms and costumes which were much less feminine than they were accustomed to (1).
In the late 1800s, Victorian women often acted out homoerotic desires through what historians now call “romantic friendships”, which occurred between single and married women alike, and were not particularly taboo (2). Smith students in the early 1900s expressed same-sex attraction using the term “crush,” which denoted a freshman who admired a senior, “extolling her virtues and singing her praises constantly; running her errands whenever possible; sending her flowers when she is going to some social function, and in short, being her willing slave” (3).
The practice of crushing was most popular in the 1890s and 1900s, with various college publications incorporating this aspect of college life. In the early 1910s, letters to college publications began to criticize the crush label, hinting at the idea that it could give a girl a bad reputation. This new stigma around crushes coincided with the rise of sexology in the U.S. Sexologists overturned the conventional Victorian wisdom that women’s sexuality lay dormant until awakened by a cis male husband.
The timeline below tracks Smith students’ perceptions of romantic friendships and crushes from 1882-1913, keeping an eye on the ways in which Smithies played with gender as well as sexuality. The exhibit features clips from Smith publications and items from individual students’ photograph albums and memorabilia books.
Eleanor Larrison, class of 1882 (left), wrote to her friend Cora while she was at Smith, both about her love for Cora and her love for a fellow Smith student, Helen. The letters are refreshingly free of shame or secrecy, as Eleanor saw her feelings as “God-given.”
Eleanor’s letters to Cora perfectly demonstrate the practice of romantic friendships in the late 1800s. Eleanor clearly saw Cora as a partner, and viewed them in some kind of relationship, but not as we understand relationships today. Cora married during their correspondence, and the one time Eleanor mentions her husband she says simply, “I give my love to ‘Teddy.’ I much love him too, since he is yours.” (Letter 10, April 28, 1881)
Here, Eleanor describes the nature of her and Cora’s relationship:
Now I feel capable of a deeper heartier love to all my friends, and I have often thought of late that I would like to be with you now, to show you how much more loving I am. O thank god for love! … Yes, I have many friends, but no one like Cora. I do not tell them the same things, I do not have toward them the same sort of feeling. And yet I am grateful and glad for all love….I am naturally exclusive- would like to give all of myself to a chosen few..but yet, I am so glad there was a Beloved Desciple [sic]- and that it is written ‘Now Jesus loved Mary, and Martha, and their brother.’
-Eleanor Larrison to Cora, October 18, 1881. Sophia Smith Collection, Eleanor Larrison papers, box 1397, letter 13.
In another letter to Cora, whose health was poor during their correspondence, Eleanor compares her relationship to Cora with her relationship to Helen:
Cora, what a comfort you are to me! To me, our friendship defies time and space, bodily weakness and suffering on your part, and a busy life making its never-ending demands on me. I fly to the thought of your faithful love as a refuge when cares oppress, and it contributes to make up the happiness of my bright hours. There is such a sense of rest in the thought of this friendship of ours. I have no jealous pangs. I know you love me; your loving sympathy surrounds me like the atmosphere. And I know I love you. I do not have to anxiously question myself about it.
I am led to think of this by the unrest which Helen causes me so often. I know but too well how much I love her….I did not seek or choose that it should be so. It came from God- and in His own exuding excellent way- a way which seems to the world blinded soul like chance. I came very gradually to love her as well….I could not help myself, so I know that it was sent to me. But I cannot feel sure of her….I find in her something of the same sort of charm that some women find in men. She is ‘manly, as a woman may be womanly’- passionately strong. I never would choose to make advances to her, but am unspeakably happy when she smooths my cheek with her hand, or lays it on my head, looking down at me with the dewy light of her dark grey eyes, and calls me by one of her many names for me….But I cannot be sure, you see. I have not known her long enough, I have not tested and tried her love….As much better is a long tried friendship where both parties have arrived at the love which if not yet perfect, is yet near enough it to cast out fear, as the settled steadfast love of its hearts on their golden wedding day is better than the jealous pangs, the doubts and fears, of the lover in the days of early courtship.
-Eleanor Larrison to Cora, September 17, 1881. Sophia Smith Collection, Eleanor Larrison papers, box 1397, letter 12.
Former Smith professor Susan Van Dyne has researched romantic friendships between members of Smith class of 1883. Van Dyne traces the “intimate friendship” between Mary Mather and Frona Brooks, which blossomed beyond the usual group sociability of visits to each other’s rooms and walks beyond campus into time spent alone and items exchanged. Mather and Brooks had a nickname for each other and themselves as a couple, A2G, and even celebrated an anniversary together. On that occasion, Mather wrote in her diary:
A year ago tonight—we talked of Logic and the appellation ‘A2G’— and now— tonight—A2G says —‘If you had not wanted me then, I should have missed much happiness and have been spared a great deal of pain.’ (4)
“My Freshman Crush”
A 1895 piece in the Smith College Monthly, called “My Freshman Crush,” tells the story of a sophomore who attends the Freshman Frolic, an event where sophomores would act as freshmen’s dates and dance partners. In the story, the narrator flirts with a freshman and thinks she has secured a “crush” – until someone informs her that she was actually talking to a senior! While this story ends in comedy and a foiled relationship, its plot and publication show that crushes were an ordinary and publicly acceptable part of college life. (Click photos to enlarge)
Mary Rawson Fuller, “My Freshman Crush.” Smith College Monthly, November 1895. Crush subject folder, Smith College Archives.
The sophomore is drawn in by the sarcastic speculation, “who knows but a Freshman crush may await you at the Gym.” She reflects that “A Freshman crush would be a novel and possibly interesting experience.”
The scene where the narrator flirts with someone she thinks is a freshman is particularly telling:
Then, mindful of the remarks that each successive girl had made to me the year before, I asked her if she had ever seen anything so pretty as the hundreds of light dresses gliding over the polished floor below, and speaking from the heights of my own experience, assured her that only a college course can make one realize how much black coats spoil the symmetry and effect of a ball room. My little friend turned away once or twice while I was talking, and it seemed to me that her dimples appeared somewhat oftener than my conversation warranted….the conviction swept over me that here were unmistakable symptoms of a crush.
Freed by the ultimate comedic reveal which nullifies the potentially romantic nature of this interaction, the writer feels comfortable asserting the superiority of a college experience without men, and exploring flirtation between two women.
“Unwritten Laws at Smith”
In 1900, an article in an unidentified Smith publication outlined several “unwritten laws” of the college. Several of these laws concerned crushes and crushing etiquette:
Woe to the freshman who calls on a senior before the upper class girl visits her. She may adore the senior at a distance or even become her “crush” but she must not take the initiative in calling.
While the seniors make a pretense of frowning upon the “crush habit” it is a well-known fact that they really approve of it and even enjoy it. To be a senior’s “crush” is to be her steadfast admirer, extolling her virtues and singing her praises constantly; running her errands whenever possible; sending her flowers when she is going to some social function, and in short, being her willing slave.
-“Unwritten Laws at Smith,” Social Regulations subject file, Smith College Archives.
This public acknowledgement and explanation of “the crush habit” demonstrates just how thoroughly it was ingrained into Smith culture at the turn of the century. The concept of the crush appears alongside paragraphs about class year rivalries, classroom etiquette, and formal and informal guidelines for inviting men to the college.
A 1904 “sketch” in the Smith College Monthly incorporated some Smith slang in a humorous second-person narrative, including “crush”:
The Freshman Next Door told you what a “crush” was. A “crush” was a person whom you could give flowers to, and whom you could tell your best friend how much you adored. Every Freshman must have one….There was a very nice girl, a junior, who called you “my dear”, so you told the Freshman next door that you had a “crush”.
The narrative is framed by several conversations with the main character’s aunt and uncle. The story begins by saying that “when your aunt said college life was unnatural, you wondered why. Then you were a Freshman; now you are a Junior, and you remember lots of things.” After a semester at Smith, when the protagonist gains a crush, she goes home for Christmas. “Then it was when you told your aunt about your ‘crush’, that she said that the life was unnatural. Then it was that you addressed a young man as ‘my dear,’ and were so mortified when you remembered he was not a girl.”
This story is not the first appearance of fears of “unnatural” happenings at women’s college, but it is an early instance of linking the “unnatural” to crushes. But the story itself takes no position, and the aunt and uncle characters could be interpreted as out of touch.
“Mannerisms”, Smith College Monthly, 1904.
Crush subject file, Smith College Archives.
(Click to enlarge)
“From a Freshman’s Diary”
A 1906 story in the Smith College Monthly tells the story of a first-year who develops a crush on an older student, Alice, who also happens to be romantically involved with the narrator’s older brother. In the first half of the story, the narrator slowly admits to herself that she has a crush on Alice:
Sunday the 5th….Alice–she insists I call her Alice, though I hardly dare–asked me to dinner again to-day….However, I don’t think she cares a straw for me. I am almost positive she is engaged to Brother, or could be if she wanted to….I almost wish she didn’t know Brother, and then I’d be sure she liked me for myself. As for my feelings toward her–well, I can only say that I don’t blame Brother. If I were one of those who were susceptible to such things, I suppose I’d have a “crush” by this time. Thank goodness I’m not.
Tuesday the 7th.–I met Alice downtown to-day. She is the nicest, dearest girl I ever saw….That sounds a little ‘dime-novelish’, but I mean it seriously. She’s my ideal of a girl.
If anyone should read this–any college girl I mean–she’d accuse me of having that which I consider so silly–something which begins with a ‘c’.
Monday, the 13th.–She kissed me to-day! Why is it people put down in their diaries the things they couldn’t forget if they tried?
Wednesday the 15th.–In spite of all I’ve said and felt and thought, I must admit it. I have what they call a ‘crush’. At least, I seem to show all the symptoms which distinguish one. If so, a real one is a much more serious affair than would appear to the casual observer….Altogether I think I must confess myself a victim of the freshman malady. In theory I do not approve, but practically I can’t help it. As I’ve said before, this feeling is not a silly one by any means. I do love Alice dearly, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t say so. She is the dearest, truest girl I’ve ever known.
The story takes a turn when the protagonist, standing next to an Amherst man who often comes to call on Alice, sees her kissing another man:
Wednesday, the 29th….I went over to Alice’s this evening, and as I was walking up the path Alice herself opened the door and stood in the light. There was a man standing by her and he was putting on his long coat. When he got it on, Alice put her hands on his shoulders and–kissed–him!
Alice! Who is engaged to my brother! I gave a cry and then I realized that there was someone beside me in the path who also saw. He said something too, for it was that Amherst man.
The conflicted protagonist expresses, “I feel so badly for Brother and I feel almost worse for myself.” After much internal debate, she writes her brother and tells him what happened, and decides to tell Alice that she did so. Yet somehow the story resolves comically:
Sunday, the 9th.–I shall never be able to look Alice in the face again, or Brother either! though Alice was dear to me.
She considers it the best joke she ever knew. I don’t.
I am too mortified to write down the details, but this is what I telegraphed Brother at once:
“Mistake. It was a girl dressed up for a play.”
This story holds several elements of great interest: First, the protagonist sees no moral conflict in having a crush on her brother’s fiancee, or with Alice kissing a girl; neither threatens Alice’s engagement. Second, throughout the story the protagonist places herself physically and metaphorically beside Alice’s romantic interests: she stands besides the Amherst man and reacts similarly to him; her feelings for Alice shadow her brother’s. And third, the story exposes the Smith habit of playing with gender and same-sex attraction through theatrics and male costumes.
“From a Freshman’s Diary” by Marian Elizabeth Edmands
Smith College Monthly, January 1906
Crush subject file, Smith College Archives
Eleanor Little, Class of 1907, kept many invitations and programs in her memorabilia book. With her dance card from the Freshman Frolic she could be a background character in “My Freshman Crush”. Many programs and event cards in her memorabilia book are accompanied by notes about who took or invited her. Her only direct mention of crushes, however, appears in a letter to her mother about her friends:
We are having such a queer time now with the girls. Several of our friends have gotten into entanglements which are causing both them and us a great deal of worry and annoyance. The heart to heart talks, and the good advice that we sane people have lavished on our temporarily insane friends yesterday would fill a volume. It is hard to explain in a letter, but it is about crushes (if you choose to look at them that way.) There is one case that I have prayed over, and what the end will be God only knows. It is not a crush, it is something far too serious and heart-rending for that.
-Eleanor Little to Mother, April 22, 1907. Box 1708, Smith College Archives.
Eleanor’s letter demonstrates the tendency to distance one’s self from students who got crushes – she defines herself as one of “we sane people” – but also the fact that students who were crushing were not social pariahs – simply “temporarily insane friends”. Her casual use of the word crush demonstrates that her mother already knows what it means. The letter also reveals the potential for an interpersonal “entanglement” to advance into something more “serious and heart-rending” than a crush.
Eleanor attended many student-run plays while at Smith, which were known as “Dramatics.” Smith students solved the issue of plays with male characters by dressing in male costumes. When President Seelye attempted to ban the practice in the 1870s, students compromised by dressing like men from the waist up and hiding their skirts behind various objects on stage. By 1907, students had thrown caution to the wind, and dressed in pants, beards mustaches when playing male characters. Dramatics served as an avenue to explore same-sex desire: in one letter to her sister Jo, Eleanor mused:
I went to the Hubbard House play last night. It was An American Citisen [sic] and was very funny. One of the girls, who took the part of the hero, was so good-looking that all the girls fell in love with him, or should I say her.
-Eleanor Little to Jo Little, April 28, 1907. Box 1708, Smith College Archives.
All photographs in slideshow from Eleanor Little’s Memorabilia book, Box 08983, Smith College Archives.
Photograph of Eleanor Larrison from 1907 Smith College yearbook, Smith College Archives.
Photograph of Vassar students from: Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz (1993). Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women’s Colleges from their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. ISBN 0-87023-869-8.
Baby’s Own Journal
A page of the “Baby’s Own Journal,” assembled by the class of 1908 as a sort of welcome manual for the incoming class, serves as a sort of how-to guide to crushes.
From the Crush subject file, Smith College Archives. (Click to enlarge)
According to the piece, crushing follows a strict etiquette:
Advances must be made from the crushed to the Object of Adoration. To demand or expect reciprocity is to commit a solecism.
As these advances are sometimes wearisome to the Object, pecuniary remuneration in floral or confectionery form must accompany each advance.
All one’s time should be devoted to the Object in order to effectively draw her attention to one’s self, away from her friends, social and academic functions.
The very presence of this how-to guide in a comedic orientation manual demonstrates the extent to which crushing was a part of Smith culture in the early 1900s.
Smith College Weekly letters
In 1911, several letters published in the Smith College Weekly critiqued the usage of the word “crush,” arguing that the careless application of the word could give a girl a bad reputation – although the specific nature of the reputation remained unnamed. (Click to enlarge articles)
Left: Smith College Weekly, November 15 1911. Crush subject file, Smith College Archives.
Right: Smith College Weekly, December 6 1911. Crush subject file, Smith College Archives.
Catherine Hooper, class of 1911, left no writings to the archives, but the photographs in her album provide glimpses into female intimacy at Smith in the early 1900s.
All photographs from Catherine Hooper’s photo album, Box 1784, Smith College Archives.
Like Catherine Hooper, Hart-Lester Harris’s photographs are a treasure trove of humorous and intimate photographs. Her memorabilia book showcases her sense of humor and mischief, from snarkily-captioned photos of Botany field trips, to “busy” signs hung on the door of her room (one of which was quickly vandalized by her friends to read “Boozy”), to valentines and teasing limericks given to her by friends.
One of Harris’s valentines includes a poem which reads, “I chose you for my Valentine / From all the pretty girls I know. / I’m sending you this little card, / Because I really love you so.” This sincere display of affection is placed next to a sarcastic one, a valentine which includes pictures of babies and reads “of course she wants her bottle.” This valentine reflects the practice of infantilizing freshmen and their crushes, also evident in “Babies’ Own Journal.”
Another poem given to Harris pokes fun at her cluelessness about etiquette surrounding inviting men to campus:
There was a young maid of Room 6
Who once asked a question like this:
“When prom comes again,
Do we send flowers to our men?”
This queer little maid of Room 6.
It is highly unlikely that the writer of this limerick meant “queer” in the way we use it today, since although the word was beginning to refer to sexual orientation, it was still directed almost exclusively at gay men at the time, in a very negative way. But regardless, the poem sheds light on gender relations at Smith in the early 1900s: Smith was a place where gender norms could be changed, and in this case even reversed.
In her photo album, Harris documents the occasion known as “Junior Frolic,” an event centered around Dramatics. Members of various houses would put on skits, known as “stunts,” for an evening of entertainment. For many, the Junior Frolic offered a valuable opportunity to dress in men’s clothing and take on male roles, if only for a night. A newspaper clipping describing Harris’s Junior Frolic includes “the juniors of Chapin House presenting among other things a group of amazing acrobats, a musical seal and a daring horseback rider” and “a gymnasium drill.” Harris’s photos of friends in costume include Ruth Lawrence, who looks quite comfortable in a full suit.
Photo of Hart-Lester Harris: 1913 Smith College yearbook, Smith College Archives.
Photographs, clippings and notes: Hart-Lester Harris photograph album and memorabilia book, Box 09159, Smith College Archives.
Citations for individual artifacts are at the bottom of timeline slides.
Heading photograph: The Amazons dramatics at Dickinson House, 1896. Photographer unknown. College Archives image gallery, Student Life file. Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA. https://www.smith.edu/libraries/libs/archives/gallery/studentlife.htm
(1) Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma mater : design and experience in the women’s colleges from their nineteenth-century beginnings to the 1930s. n.p.: Amherst : University of Massachuchusetts Press, 1993. 162
(2) Rupp, Leila J., and Susan K. Freeman. Romantic Friendship: Exploring Modern Categories of Sexuality, Love, and Desire between Women. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.
(3) “Unwritten Laws at Smith,” 1900. Sophia Smith Collection, College Archives Subject Files: “Social Regulations”
(4)Van Dyne, Susan. “‘Abracadabra’: Intimate Inventions by Early College Women in the United States.” Feminist Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2016, pp. 280–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.15767/feministstudies.42.2.0280. 296
Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.. ISBN 0-231-07488-3.
Harris, Hart-Lester. Photographs and Memorabilia Book. Boxes 1835 and 09159. Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Hooper, Catherine. Photographs. Box 1784, Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma mater : design and experience in the women’s colleges from their nineteenth-century beginnings to the 1930s. n.p.: Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.
Larrison, Eleanor. Letters. Box 1397, Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Little, Eleanor Johnson. Memorabilia book and letters. Boxes 08983 and 1708, Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Rupp, Leila J., and Susan K. Freeman. Romantic Friendship: Exploring Modern Categories of Sexuality, Love, and Desire between Women. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.
Sahli, Nancy Ann (1979). “Smashing: Women’s Relationships before the Fall,” Chrysalis, 8.
Subject file: Crush. Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Subject file: Social regulations. Smith College Archives, Northampton, MA.
Van Dyne, Susan. “‘Abracadabra’: Intimate Inventions by Early College Women in the United States.” Feminist Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2016, pp. 280–310. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.15767/feministstudies.42.2.0280.