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Davidson College in 1888

by | Aug 12, 2021

Chambers Dorm Room, circa 1895 (courtesy of Davidson College Archives)

In his book “Memories of Davidson College,” former college president Walter Lingle described what the college was like when he enrolled in 1888. Things on today’s large modern campus are quite different than what he remembered:

“Those were primitive days as we looked at the college and the town. They looked more primitive still when we went inside the college buildings. There was not a stick of furniture of any kind in the dormitory rooms…There were no electric lights. We used kerosene lamps…Practically all rooms had fireplaces or grates. A few had stoves. But we had to buy our own wood, chop it into right lengths, and make our own fires…In addition to all this we swept our own rooms and made our own beds, when they were made.

“There were no water works, nor hot or cold showers, in those days. When a student wanted water for any purpose he had to go to the well and draw it. They had a pump for students in the Old Chambers Building, but sometimes it refused to work and sometimes it ran dry. If a student in Oak Row wanted a bath, he had to build a fire, go to the well and draw some water, pour it into a kettle, and put in on the fire. Then he had to get another bucket of water to cool the boiling water to the right temperature…We had portable tin tubs, and they were none too large…There were no modern toilet facilities. Instead there was a row of wooden privies in the rear of the Old Chambers Building…When I first entered college there was no infirmary, but a little later in that year two rooms in the north end of Elm Row were set apart and furnished as an infirmary. But those two rooms were not a drop in the bucket when measles struck the college in the winter of my freshman year.

“So most of us just had measles in our own rooms. There were several cases of pneumonia and one death…The classrooms were just as primitive as the dormitories…they were dingy and not well lighted or ventilated…Nor can I recall a single classroom that had desks…For fear you will accuse me of exaggeration, let me quote a statement from the President’s Report to the Trustees in June, 1892: ‘We need to have the recitation rooms refurnished throughout. Their present condition is a shame to any school that pretends to decency’…Yes, those were primitive days, but we loved them, and even after the lapse of more than half a century they still form one of the brightest spots in our memories.

“If you are inclined to find fault with those who are responsible for the well-being of the college, remember that we were not far removed from the War Between the States, which had impoverished the college and the whole South. Remember, too, that we had a great faculty, and nothing else mattered much.”

Nancy Griffith

Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. After a career as an archives and special collections librarian, she retired to Davidson in 2015. She has published a number of books and articles on local history, and has just completed a history of the Ada Jenkins Center.

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