Our Helpful Handbook
by Meredith Minter, class of 1984
Freshman orientation! To us, it means a week before classes begin, a time of heat and strangeness and confusion. But for the past generations of R-M students, at least till the thirties, most orientation was carried out by the R-M Student Handbook.
A strange mixture of sententiousness, understanding, and irreverent advice, the handbooks sought to cushion the shock of adjustment. Early editions--it was first published in 1910—bore a quote from Rudyard Kipling.
"I wish myself could talk to myself as I left 'im a year ago. I could tell 'im a lot that would save 'im a lot of the things 'e ought to know."
With this in mind, the editors addressed themselves to matters of general concern.
"If you have not seen your roommate before," one book suggested, "give her a ten-days' trial. And that doesn't mean for you to be a trial to her for ten days!"
"Be careful, too," the 1914 edition advised, "in the colors of the things you bring. Try to be moderate in your tastes. Do not inflict your roommate, your friends, and yourself with glaring reds and purples. Such hues work harm, not only to one's aesthetic sensibilities, but also to one's good disposition. Even so small a thing as a pincushion may cause a rupture, if it exhibits a red background, embroidered in purple pansies."
Many books attacked the custom of decorating a room with posters. As the 1915 handbook observed, "Do not cover your walls with posters and pennants. They are not artistic, and a room with a few good pictures is far more pleasing than one whose walls look like a small child's scrapbook." "We have bequeathed our pennants," another stated haughtily, "to those in high school."
And then there was dress. After recommending a dark silk for dinner, the 1914 book went on to say:
"A one-piece dress of some woolen material is a very comfortable garment to possess in the wintertime. The readiness with which it allows itself to be put on constitutes its chief charm. You will fully understand the power of its attraction only when you get to college and are experiencing for the first time the feat of getting to breakfast after the first bell has rung." Juniors and seniors will surely sympathize.
Moving farther afield, there was the subject of the library. "There really is no peculiar odor in the library caused by the dead silence," one book hinted. "Speaking of the silence around the library," another requested, "award it the respect due all dead things. Honor it, and speak not."
And of course, there was Lynchburg itself. "Lynchburg," a 1937 copy remarked, "is full of cheap—sorry, we mean reasonably-priced—stores." More conventional data was also given: two streetcars ran every twelve minutes, and one took Peakland to the College.
Some advice was unintentionally ominous. "It's easy to develop College spirit here at R-M—you can't escape it." "There are fire bells located on all the corridors. You are . . . not supposed to ring them;" and "Don't be afraid to speak to the old girls on the train. You need all the friends you can make."
Probably, however, the most helpful advice that was given was a short paragraph fitted neatly between a reminder to observe busy signs and a condemnation of gossip: "The old girls aren't half so dignified as they look. Ask them anything you like."
Originally published in The Sundial on February 12, 1982 (Vol. 66, no. 16, p. 3)
This article is taken from "The Past Master," a column written by Meredith Minter Dixon, class of 1984, for the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College student newspaper, The Sundial. It is published here with her permission.
Mrs. Dixon has written an invaluable multi-volume set, Maconiana: A Social History of Randolph-Macon Woman's College. For additional information, please visit her author's page on Amazon.
Please contact Mrs. Dixon (dixonm at pobox dot com) if you have comments or questions about her articles.