Back to School: Queen’s Edition

Fun fact: Arts '10 donated the gate at the Arch St. entrance to Summerhill. You can't miss it because it says

Fun fact: Arts ’10 donated the gate at the Arch St. entrance to Summerhill. You can’t miss it because it says “Arts 1910” in big letters. (click image to go to source)

I generally don’t keep this blog according to any kind of schedule (I just write what I want when I feel like it) but this week I thought I’d put something together for the back-to-school season. I recently bought a trio of KCVI yearbooks (1931-32, 1940-41, 1944-45) but haven’t had a chance to get a good look through them yet. Instead, I’ve gathered together a few interesting items from editions of the Queen’s Journal and I’ll get to the KCVI yearbooks soon.

This post is going to be a bit disjointed because I’ve selected three different items from the Journal mostly at random, but in doing so I’m attempting to highlight a few interesting events and problems Queen’s students would have encountered from the years 1880-1910.

I’d imagine one of the proudest moments in Queen’s history was the opening of the first major building to be constructed on campus, the building we today call Theological Hall. To the students and faculty of Queen’s in 1880, however, it was called the Arts Building, and they were very excited about it. The cornerstone had been laid in 1879 by Princess Louise, and by the beginning of the next school year it was ready for use. To celebrate its opening and the 40th session of Queen’s University, a reception was held there from 1-6 p.m. on Thursday, October 14, 1880. Principal Grant, Chancellor Sandford Fleming, and many other professors and people associated with Queen’s gave addresses in Convocation Hall.

This was all very nice, but the next evening saw “the affair of the inaugural ceremonies” take place: the Conversazione. “Conversazione” was (is?) a term for a large party usually held at a school or other similar place, incorporating scholarly discussion with socializing. It sounds delightfully old-fashioned and pretentious, which is appropriate considering this was, according to the Journal, “one of the most brilliant affairs ever given in the city.”

Campus was decorated with Chinese lanterns as guests arrived at 7 p.m. and proceeded to the library (the semi-circular portion of Theological Hall) where Chancellor Fleming was host. “The handsome appointments of the room mingling with the rich and varied dresses of the ladies, produced as pretty an effect as is ever seen,” it was said. Later, in Convocation Hall, the string band of “B” battery “executed some capital music.” There was no dancing, however:

Though this was strictly a conversazione and opportunities for dancing were not furnished, it is whispered that when the band would strike up a valse an empty classroom was found to suit the devotees of Terpsichore admirably.

Then followed “lecturettes” on various subjects, supper, and another round of speeches, although they couldn’t have been very long because the party was over by midnight. The celebration continued over the next few days with tree planting, sports, and a concert. Until about two decades years later when Kingston, Grant, and Ontario Halls were built, Theological was the most substantial building on campus and photographs of Queen’s were shown from this viewpoint.

Theological Hall c. 1900 (click image to go to source)

Theological Hall c. 1900. Those may be the trees that the students of 1880 planted twenty years earlier. (click image to go to source)

Female students had their own section in the Queen’s Journal called “Ladies,” and the impression is that women students at Queen’s stuck together. In the October 26, 1900 Journal, Miss U. Macallister, MA, and Miss Smirle, the editors of the Ladies section, described the incoming Class of 1904 along the lines of the late-nineteenth century “New Woman“:

The old time seen-and-not-heard damsel   . . . is a thing of the past. The last member of the genius [sic] expired some three years ago. In her place comes the self-assured, on-for-the-front girl […] There is not an atom of servility about her, and we admire her independence.

With more and more girls attending university, some rather staccato advice was given by Macallister and Smirle on how to be an “all-round College-girl”:

Will you let us say a few words, not a homily, merely a few suggestions. A girl of Queen’s has many privileges. Avail yourself of these. Be an all-round College-girl. The girl’s society, the Levana, will be glad to enrol you as a member, and only those who have been there know how really jolly and instructive its Wednesday evenings are . . . And don’t forget your year meetings. After all there is nothing so stimulating as a year meeting. And you can take the College Journal. Everyone does. It’s thoroughly good form. To be an all-round College-girl you must take the Journal.

The next piece of advice sounds strangely pessimistic to modern ears, but as I like to say, back in the day people knew how to tell it like it is. Considering how the twentieth century turned out, this likely became the reality for many students:

You’ve heard a great deal, read more, and probably dreamt about going to college. “College days” – what a halo of romance hangs over those words. This is the stern reality. It may not be up to your ideal. You’ll have to do away with a lot of the little sentimental notions you brought with you. But when the mists of years again gather round, all the little roughnesses will be smoothed out, the dark patches obliterated, and your “college days” will be back to the old youthful ideal – the brightest, sunniest spot in a life where, perchance, the sunny stretches are few and far between.

Note the typo

Note the typo “Lavana.” Incidentally, Miss Smirle is the tall girl in the back row, second from left. (click image to go to source)

Housing problems were often encountered by students at Queen’s in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Students from out-of-town either had to room with a Kingston family or live in a boarding house. Women eventually got their own residence, although I’m afraid I can’t remember when it started or how long it was in operation for – possibly until Ban Righ was built in 1925. It was on William St. for a time (I’m not specifying only because I don’t want to give incorrect information) and was also in a building on Earl St. which still stands between West and Clergy. It was referred to politically incorrectly as “the Hencoop.” However, it wasn’t big enough to hold all the female students, so many of them still had to find accommodation elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the men didn’t have a residence and Queen’s didn’t have a dining hall. The October 20, 1910 edition of the Queen’s Journal published this diatribe, proposing the shocking possibility that due to lack of housing, students – God forbid – are forsaking Queen’s for U of T:

The beginning of each session at Queen’s reveals the growing necessity of a men’s residence, where comfortable and sanitary lodging could be secured, and also the more urgent necessity of a dining hall. The custom in vogue at Queen’s in regard to board and lodging is intolerable. It is a sordid business, this annual search, from house to house, for decent lodging and board, and all the petty vexations which the relationship of lodger and landlady implies. The unsanitary and disagreeable surroundings which prevail in the typical boarding house are but poor incentives to study. The ill-health of many students can be traced to “the boarding house.” Moreover with a system of University residences the social side of the students’ life at Queen’s would receive much needed emphasis. The “boarding house evil” has given rise in American universities to the fraternity and sorority.

The authorities of the University of Toronto have moved in this matter and something should be done at Queen’s and that quickly. There are instances of students choosing ‘Varsity rather than Queen’s for their Alma Mater, because of the advantages offered at Toronto, in the shape of residence and dining hall. The students should see to it that the “powers that be” at Queen’s appreciate the seriousness of the situation.

Lack of space is still an issue at Queen’s, which you will have noticed if you’ve spent any time in the city centre where it seems like houses are being torn down daily for student apartments. At the start of the twentieth century Queen’s enrollment was increasing every year, but I wonder if anyone could have foreseen how large it’s grown.

A Queen’s student’s room in 1917. Clifford M. Johnston/Library and Archives Canada/PA-056158. (click image to go to source)

It’s clear from going through the Queen’s Journal that many things about the university experience haven’t changed since the days of conversaziones and the Hencoop. There were still frosh week-type activities, debates over how suitable university was for career preparation, students getting into trouble over their antics, skipping class, and the like.

However, obviously a lot more has changed. Much of this has to do with the fact that over one hundred years have passed since then. But in my opinion, another major facet of change is the size of the university, as I hinted at above. In vintage copies of the Journal you’ll often find items such as (a made-up example) “Who’s taken all the magazines out of the library reading room?” and people referenced just by their name. You could do this, because as the October 20, 1910 edition proudly reported, “There are one hundred and fifty-nine students in first-year Arts – the largest freshman year in the history of Queen’s.” Today a first-year ArtSci student taking a single class with 159 people might consider themselves lucky.

Indeed, although most of the Queen’s of 1910 is still standing and being regularly used, I – despite an overactive imagination and many old photos – often find it hard to connect then and now. However, that’s why I find it an interesting contrast to make, and such a fun area to research.

Companion post: Back to School: KCVI Edition


Digitized copies of the Queen’s Journal complete for the years 1879-1911 can be found on the site Early Canadiana Online. A subscription is required to view all pages.

Queen’s College Journal Vol. 8 No. 1 (October 30, 1880)

Queen’s University Journal Vol. 28 No. 1 (October 26, 1900)

Queen’s University Journal Vol. 38 No. 1 (October 20, 1910)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s