Goucher letters a 50-year tapestry

History: The Class of 1903 kept in touch - and their `Dear Girls' correspondence provides a window into the past.

November 29, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Stained and tattered, the letters came from young women from as far away as China. They touched on suffrage, Prohibition, world wars and world travels.

Stuffed in a worn black binder and discovered in a cardboard box in Des Moines, the letters are part of a chain of correspondence spanning almost five decades. They provide snapshots of the lives of Goucher College's Class of 1903 and a compelling glimpse of history.

The letters were written because the Class of '03 did one thing most people only promise to do: They kept in touch. Using a chain-letter format called a Round Robin, one graduate wrote a letter to another, who wrote a letter to a third. Each time a new letter was added to the Robin, its predecessors were tucked in the envelope, too.

It is unclear which Goucher graduate initiated the process, but the first letter was written in 1907. It moved around the class until it reached the original writer. Then the volume was retired, and a new Round Robin begun.

Nineteen years of those letters have found their way back to the verdant Towson campus. Now Goucher officials are on a crusade to find the rest.

"This is a small collection, but really special to have because it is our history," says Nancy Magnuson, Goucher's head librarian who brokered the deal to buy the historic letters for $1,300. "It is a connection between the present and the past. Our students have the chance to see that it has always been a tradition that our college graduates really do make a difference in the world."

In the early part of the century, only a few women went to college. Each Goucher student paid $375 a year for tuition, room, board and laundry. After graduation, they scattered throughout the world -- becoming teachers, newspaper reporters, hospital workers and politicians.

And correspondents.

"Dear Girls," each one wrote when it was her turn -- with the exception of Jane A. Hyde, a missionary in China who started one of her letters, "Dear Comrades of 1903."

Each writer paid $1.14 -- about $11 in today's dollars -- to mail the Robin, as they referred to it. It made at least seven rounds before ending in 1953.

The women wove their daily lives into narratives about the drama of war, the thrill of peace, childhood memories, hope for the future and family adventures.

"In the fall of 1918, I left Panama on the American transport for New Orleans because the submarine offensive in the Atlantic was even worse," wrote Lottie P. Magee, who worked for the American Red Cross in Panama during World War I.

Goucher has four volumes, starting with a Feb. 1, 1919, letter from Alice Dunning Flick, an Iowa resident, and ending with a letter in 1938. It is not clear whether each volume contains all the letters written during that time.

One volume was burned in a fire; others have not been found. Flick is believed to have been the last person to possess the set.

Goucher learned of the letters' existence more than a year ago through a phone call from Bruce Scapecchi, 50, an Iowa antique dealer who discovered the notebook in a secondhand shop. Some of the letters were typed, but most were handwritten. They included black-and-white photos of children and Model T cars, as well as newspaper clippings.

"At first I thought they were just interesting letters," says Scapecchi, who purchased the binder for $15. "Then I realized it was one wonderful glimpse into American history."

After a year of keeping the letters, Scapecchi set out to find the school mentioned so lovingly in almost every letter.

That school was Goucher, a respected liberal arts and science college once known as the Woman's College of Baltimore.

After several telephone conversations with Scapecchi, Magnuson last year went to Friends of the Library, a group made up mostly of alumnae, and raised money to purchase the letters.

Dozens of colorful stories unfold, even though the collection is not complete.

Emilie A. Doetsch served as managing editor of a national feminist weekly and was the first woman to run for the Baltimore City Council, an election she lost in 1923.

Millie Benson Bielaski wrote of a run-in with bandits in Mexico City in 1928 when her husband, then the chief of the Bureau of Investigation in the Department of Justice, was held for ransom.

"There is a lot of human nature beneath the feathers and under the wings of Robin," wrote Florence Carmine Bankard, the class globetrotter who prayed in Jerusalem, stood in the temples of Japan and had her fortune told in Calcutta.

"What you have achieved and in such a variety! Whatever else I am convinced at least Goucher did not turn out a cut and ready to wear pattern," she wrote.

Many of the writers spoke about volunteering in World War I. Others talked about corresponding with the boys overseas and organizing groups to send packages to soldiers.

Louise L. Miller declared in a 1919 letter, "With the armistice, my work with Suffrage began. Not that I had not been a suffragist before that!"

Often, the letters reflected the writers' joy.

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