Checkout: Where MHC History Meets High Tech

by Emily Harrison Weir

Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2000



She didn't take even one history course as an MHC student. But today Donna Albino '83 spends much of her free time tracking down and preserving pieces of the College's past: postcards and letters sent by and to MHC students, to be precise. "Postcards are a perfect collectible. They were enormously popular in the early 1900s so there must be an infinite variety for me to find, and they usually aren't expensive," she explains. "I have well over 1,000 in my collection, and I'm nowhere near having one of every variety."

Most of her "finds" are viewable on a Website she created. "I love sharing my Mount Holyoke collection," Donna says. "I answer all e-mail about the site and love hearing from people wanting to know more about their Mount Holyoke relatives. I was able to give one man a postcard his mother sent over seventy years earlier to his grandfather, and I felt like Cinderella pulling out her glass slipper!"

The site features a variety of postcard styles, including some that are hand-colored and a series in which campus views are visible through a "frame" of peeled-back birch bark. Some cards immortalize long-gone MHC traditions, such as junior top-spinning and senior rope day. Others reveal buildings now put to other uses, such as the gymnasium that became Blanchard Campus Center, or Dwight Hall, which was once the art museum. Her oldest postcard was written by Cornelia Clapp 1871, for whom Clapp Laboratory is named.

"What I appreciate about a postcard even more than the Mount Holyoke image on the front is the inscription that the sender wrote so many years ago," Donna says. "She opens a tiny window into the past and gives this tantalizing view of what her life was like back then. Sometimes they make me laugh. One says, 'There has [sic] been no street cars running out here [and] no mail has come and the telephone wires are down. We might just as well be in Europe.' It's not too often today that South Hadley is compared to Europe! Some cards are timeless; one says, 'Wish you were here, Ruth. We are trying to kill ourselves eating.' I can't help but think about the time my 'little sister' challenged me to an ice-cream-eating contest in the Mandelles and we nearly burst!"

Such inscriptions spur Donna to research the sender's name and life story. "Although most cards are signed only with a first name, sometimes they contain clues that make it possible to identify the writer. Maybe she wrote to a family member with the same last name, or mentioned what dorm she lived in or her roommate's name. The postmark supplies the date," Donna says. "A few years ago, I started going to the Mount Holyoke archives every month or so with my postcard clues to figure out who my correspondents were. If I am able to, I added a Web link to her biographical sketch and photo. I want these women's voices and experiences to continue to be heard and enjoyed."

A computer programmer by profession, Donna learned to create Web pages specifically for this project. And with the help of alumnae and College archivists, the site gets more extensive by the month. "A year ago, I bought a group of letters and ephemera related to Carrie Gowing x1908. Carrie had been a mystery; she had attended Mount Holyoke for two years, then suddenly dropped out. As I read her letters, it became clear that Carrie had diabetes and her health was failing. She loved MHC and begged her friends for campus news. They sent her stories and gossip in long sprawling letters that barely fit in their envelopes. In what should have been her senior year, Carrie lapsed into a diabetic coma and died a few days before Christmas in 1907. She was only twenty-one."

What started in 1985 with a single postcard found at random in a Cape Cod antique store now encompasses letters, diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums too. Although she deals with twenty-first-century technology at work all day every day, to Donna the nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries are only a few mouse clicks away.

You too can "time travel" through her collection; visit