Topic Identification: Collegiate student life: Cooperative housing efforts in the 1950s at Smith
Beginning in the year 1912, Smith College began an “experiment” by converting one of its houses into a cooperative at a discounted rate for students in need of financial assistance. Students in Lawrence House would be discounted $100 from their tuition (paying $200 instead of the usual $300) in exchange for performing housekeeping and kitchen tasks throughout the week.
The notebook from which these pages are excerpted served as a guide for the Head of House at Lawrence House in 1952, whose responsibility it was to oversee student assignments and monitor the students’ work. Leather bound and containing around 150 numbered handwritten pages, the notebook contains detailed descriptions about how each job is to be performed, procedures for requesting substitutes, and how many students were assigned to a given task. With the exception of individual requests for substitutes by the students in the back of the notebook, the rules are all written in blue ink in the same hand, minus some addenda. The tidiness of the writing and the organization of the notebook both imply a regularity and efficiency of routine, which is not surprising considering that by 1952 Lawrence House had been operating as a cooperative for forty years, far past the scope of the projected “experiment.”
Aside from the information it provides about the life of students receiving financial support through cooperative housing, the job descriptions in the book offer insight into the routine life of Smith College students in the 1950s. The page describing breakfast duty, much like the pages describing “luncheon” and “dinner” preparations, cites punctual and specific times during which to prepare meals, dine with the servers, set out plates, and call the housemates to the dining room. Housemates in Lawrence not working in dining still dined together all at the same time, much as it would be in other houses. Students were required to wear skirts.
Especially as Lawrence House was the only cooperative for many years, there would have been some discussion around the College about socioeconomic divide. Were there tensions between students who received aid and others who did not? Was the phenomenon of the cooperative widespread among other contemporary institutions?
Surrounding the Head of House book in the Lawrence House boxes are several newspaper articles published in the 1910s and 1920s capturing the reactions of students and outsiders to Smith’s latest “experiment,” as it was frequently called. These can be found, among other Lawrence House documents, in two boxes from the Buildings and Grounds Collections in the Smith College Archives. (Lawrence House, Smith College Archives, Buildings and Grounds, Box 51, 52)
Background on Lawrence House can also be found online at Smithipedia, the digital encyclopedia of Smith College.
A early book on cooperative living in the university setting is also available free through Google Books. Wellesley College and Northwestern University are cited as two examples of institutions who have instituted cooperative dormitories.
Rosenberry, Lois Kimball Mathews, “4. The Coöperative Dormitory.” The Dean of Women. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915 – 275 pages. Available on Google Books.
1. Cutter, Laura E. “The aristocrats and the plebes”: student life and experience in cooperative living at Smith College. Thesis. 2004.
An excellent study of the Lawrence House cooperative, using interviews with alumnae as primary source material. Cited in the bibliography of Ms. Cutter’s work are many other potentially relevant studies. For class divisions within women, the following may apply:
2. Duffy, Elizabeth A., Crafting a Class: College Admissions and Financial Aid, 1955-1994. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
3. Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz, “Smith College and Changing Conceptions of Educated Women,” in Five Colleges: Five Histories, ed. Ronald Story. Amherst: Five Colleges, Inc., and Historic Deerfield, Inc. 1992.