“Everything Is Wholesome and Abundant”: A Culinary Chronicle of Mount Holyoke College, 1837- today

A Library Exhibition
in Williston Library Court

November 1 – December 15, 2010


Celebrating an MHC Thanksgiving
in the 1800's
A video by the Office of communications with archives librarian Patricia Albright.


If Mary Lyon’s new school for young women was to be permanent, she thought, there had to be a building where teachers and students would live and work – and eat – together.  A major challenge was providing healthful and nutritious food at modest cost for as many as 300 at each meal. Only hospitals, mental asylums, and utopian communities suggested possible but not quite appropriate models.  Though Emily Dickinson was homesick at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary during her year in residence, she reported being quite content with the food: “Everything is wholesome and abundant and much nicer than I should imagine could be provided for almost 300 girls. We have also a great variety upon our tables and frequent changes.” This exhibit uses materials from the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections to show how this tradition of good food has been achieved for almost 200 years.

The Seminary Building Era

The Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, ca. 1886

Though choices at any one meal were limited, the Seminary diet was varied.  Breakfast might offer “cushion toast,” a hot cereal made from whole wheat bread and milk and eaten with molasses for sweetening, as well as warm biscuits, rice, hominy, toast or bread and butter, “creamy potatoes,” sometimes pie or pudding, and meat on the days when students would put in extra work hours cleaning floors and ironing. Dinner was served at noon and included a first course of meat, which might be roasted or corned beef, ham or mutton; fish either fresh or salted; fresh vegetables in season, in winter probably cabbage or root vegetables such as parsnips, beets, and carrots; and a second course of dumplings, pies, or puddings.  Oysters, abundant and cheap, appeared on the menu often.  Around six in the evening, students had a light supper that often included cake or gingerbread. Food was plentiful, but Miss Lyon always preached restraint, for eating too much was not healthful.

One reason for locating the Seminary in South Hadley was to assure convenient sources for food supply, namely local farmers, who surely provided produce as well as meat and dairy products.  Unlike Vassar, founded in 1867 with a working farm as part of its landscape, early Mount Holyoke had only a small garden that provided some fresh vegetables and from the earliest days the school’s food supply was to an extent globalized and by no means exclusively local.  Letters from founding trustee Daniel Safford to Mary Lyon (1844) alert her to the arrival in Wilbraham from Boston (via the Upper Post Road) of shipments of molasses, rice, raisins, fish, and “dried beef in a bag.”  A favorite non-local food was citrus fruits, oranges and lemons, savored by both students and teachers.  Among packing slips remaining from the 1870’s the most expensive item, frequently shipped, was sugar of various refinements, including so-called San Jorge sugar which probably came from Cuba.

Securing reliable sources of safe drinking water was a constant concern, and how it was achieved between 1837 and 1852 remains something of a mystery. Building the pump house on Stony Brook in 1852 was a great triumph, for it brought not only a good supply of filterable water for drinking but the force pump made possible indoor plumbing with water for bathtubs, heated by a newly installed boiler. No more carrying buckets up and down flights of stairs! In 1879, an artesian well was sunk to the depth of 450 feet.

The Pump House in about 1880 with Prospect Hill in the background. Before Mount Holyoke acquired the property in 1884, the land was used for orchards and pastures.

Kitchen Layout

One student writing home in 1856 described the Domestic Hall as “a very large room fitted with every contrivance for baking, boiling, etc. upon a large scale.” It was arranged so that various cooking projects could be carried on simultaneously with a minimum of confusion. Daniel Safford, one of the founding trustees, had provided the Seminary with the most up-to-date kitchen equipment, no doubt similar to that in the 1830 Brick Dwelling House at Hancock Shaker Village.  Built-in boiling kettles and ovens each with its own firebox offered a safer and more fuel-efficient way of cooking than the open hearth method still used in most homes in 1837.

Plan for the dining and kitchen facilities on the lower level of the Seminary Building, based on a drawing by Lucy T. Goodale (1841).

Pies, Bread, and Doughnuts

Sugar would have been used not just for sweetening but for preserving foods. Before the days of automatic refrigeration, a central concern of any food provider had to be making sure there would be food through the winter.  One strategy was to cut blocks of ice from the surface of a local pond – such as Upper Lake – that would be kept frozen over time by packing in sawdust in an icehouse that would serve as a freezer during cold weather. In addition, meat and fish were often preserved by salting; some vegetables and fruits were dried, some preserved by pickling, some by storage in a root cellar. Canning in glass jars was not common until the late 19th century. Pies, made at harvest time and filled with meat, fruit, vegetables, or pudding of some kind, would keep for varying lengths of time depending on the contents of the crust.

Pie Circle 1877

Domestic Work System

For savings, for the beneficial exercise housework provided, and for the knowledge of how to do things that students would bring with them, Mary Lyon instituted Domestic Circles, groups of students organized to accomplish an array of housekeeping tasks, including cooking.  Early letters suggest that students greatly enjoyed working together, but making sure that everything was accomplished in a timely way without requiring more than an hour each day of student labor was a complex and demanding task.  In the end, Mary Lyon herself had to supervise until the system was running smoothly enough for student leaders and teachers to act as superintendents.  From the earliest days, a male Steward, who lived in the Seminary building or on the grounds, often with wife and children, was in charge of ordering and picking up provisions and overseeing heavier tasks such as bringing in wood for fires or working the force pump to supply water.  By the mid-1860s, a professional cook was added to the staff, and catalogs for the 1880s mention “matrons” probably engaged in domestic  supervision. 

Baking bread was a significant undertaking in 1837.  Wheat flour was expensive and had to be imported to New England; corn meal, rye, and barley were locally grown, more readily available, and so often used, usually in combination with some measure of wheat flour.  Until mid-century at least, leavening had to be made; choices included yeasts made by fermentation; pearlash, made from wood ash; and saleratus, or aerated salt, a kind of primitive baking soda, which had to be used with sour milk or molasses  to activate its leavening properties.  A great leap forward, especially for home cooks, occurred when John Dwight – South Hadley resident and friend of the College (donor of Dwight Hall, built in memory of his first wife) – began marketing Arm & Hammer Baking Soda in the 1840s.

Students kneading bread in 1892.

Students making doughnuts in 1877.


Rules about food in students rooms were from the earliest days quite stern, in part no doubt because of concerns about spoilage and odor or, worse, attracting rodents.  Student letters from time to time mention damage to possessions by rats!  No cooked food was to be sent from home, only fresh fruit and nuts; students were not to purchase foods outside the Seminary building, though they were welcome to gather apples and walnuts from trees on the grounds.  But also from the earliest days, students found ways around the rules, as when several members of the Class of 1862 out for their required daily walk purchased cider in a “new oil can” not yet “dedicated to its intended use” and shared it with friends in a “jolly party.”  The 1880s era regulations displayed here, a list much reduced from the early days, were the result of ongoing discussions among students, teachers, and board members.  Students wanted relief especially from the self-reporting system that continued in force for yet a while longer.

List of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Regulations, ca. 1880.

Private parties called "spreads" became popular after the Civil War.  Some of these events were held with the permission of administrators and teachers, while others were not.

Changing Times...

Though it is tempting from a 21st century vantage point to think of the Seminary Building Era as all of a piece, over the course of sixty years customs and perspectives naturally shifted.  The Puritan sense of mission that had fired Mary Lyon faded to a more secular world-view.  Advancing technology has brought steam heat and steam cooking to the Seminary as well as gas lighting.  In addition, the shift to Seminary and College in 1888, then to College only in 1893, meant a more intense focus on the academic lives of students who would now earn baccalaureate degrees on completion of a four year course of study.  The catalog for 1893/94 says only this about domestic work: “Every student is expected to share in the care of the family.  The time necessary for this service does not exceed fifty minutes daily.”  Students were still organized into work circles, but tasks assigned were fewer and easier.  In consideration of arrangements at newly founded Smith, Vassar, and Wellesley Colleges, by 1896 Mount Holyoke was already raising funds to construct “cottages” for student residence.

The Seminary Building was destroyed by a wind-blown fire that began in the laundry room on Sunday, September 27, 1896, ten days after classes had started.  Teachers and students found shelter with relatives and friends in neighboring towns, with South Hadley residents, and in the town hotel.  Miraculously, no one was injured.  Classes resumed on the following Tuesday.

Ruins of the Seminary Building.

After the Fire and Through the World Wars

Mount Holyoke College recovered rapidly after fire destroyed the Seminary building in 1896 thanks to stout hearts and generous gifts.  During the 96/97 academic year, students boarded with families in South Hadley.  By the fall of 1897, Pearsons, Brigham, Safford, and Porter, as well as several smaller buildings, were ready to receive students, each with its own kitchen, modern equipment, and professional cooks for preparing meals.  The original Rockefeller Hall (destroyed by fire in 1922 and replaced with the present double dorm), Wilder, and Mead – as well as Mary Lyon Hall and Abbey Chapel – were completed a year later.  Hillside, later called the Mandelles, was built in 1923, and several small student residences (Cowles, Woodbridge, Mountain View, Bridgman – all now razed) offered a more intimate living style.  By 1907, students were no longer allowed in the kitchens.  Tasks for the work circles included clearing off tables in the dining rooms and various kinds of “light housekeeping” or work in academic departments in addition to care of their own rooms.  Some students waited tables for family style meals, a practice which continued until 1989.  Students took all meals in the dorm where they lived unless they had signed out to eat elsewhere.  Housemothers, or matrons, were responsible for keeping track of numbers and special permissions.

The Commissary, now the Ciruti Center for Language Study, was built in 1918 as the Temporary Science Building to house departments displaced by a fire that destroyed Williston Hall.  When Clapp Laboratory was built, the building was returned to its originally intended use as the College bakery and central storage depot for food supplies.  Careful analysis of costs and benefits in the 1930s resulted in a centralized organization of food preparation with the Commissary its physical core.  The College Steward, working closely with a consultant from the Treadway Inns, oversaw operations, assisted by a Chief Dietician and supervising Housekeepers (later called Dieticians) in each dorm.

In 1913 the Board of Trustees formally abolished the domestic work system, though students were offered the option of living in one of four cooperative dorms where work was shared and costs reduced, or of taking up various jobs on campus.

Board of Trustees written announcement abolishing student domestic service, November 26, 1913.


Spreads, Halloween parties, suppers hosted by teachers for groups of students, picnics known as “bats”, and other kinds of student entertainments involving food flourished after the Seminary Building fire thanks to the relative privacy of dormitory room, the end of most regulations concerning food, and a new emphasis on the importance of social activities as a part of a woman’s education.

Students on a "bat" (picnic) in 1926.

Outing Club

Students enjoying a supper at the Outing Club Cabin on the slope of Mt. Holyoke in 1945. The Outing Club was established in 1921 to provide students and teachers with opportunities to engage in a variety of outdoor activities.

Victory Garden

During World War I and World War II, when there was anxiety about national food supplies and a farm labor shortage, students were inspired to turn their hands to farm labor both on and off campus. President Mary Woolley led the effort during World War I by chairing a student/faculty committee which recruited volunteers for work in what was eventually 28 acres of vegetable gardens; these were profitable and productive, supplying produce enough to feed the campus through December in both years they existed. During World War II, student efforts focused more on assisting area farmers through the Rural Service Committee organized by Fellowship of Faiths, but a twelve-acre victory garden produced fresh vegetables enough to feed both the volunteer gardeners and women military training on campus through the summer and eventually raised a respectable sum for a college swimming pool to be built after the war.

Students harvesting tomatoes on the College farm to support the war effort in 1917.

Virginia Pratt (1947, driving the tractor) and other students doing farm work in 1943

Post-World War II to the Present

When in 1987 the former Commissary was transformed to the Ciruti Center for Language Study, support services of all kinds moved across Morgan Street to the new Otto Kohler building. Today, Dining Services centers baking, purchasing, storage, and operations oversight in the Kohler building while daily meal preparation has returned to individual locations. Numbers for present baking of cakes, pies, and breads to serve nearly 2300 students would astonish Mary Lyon’s pie circles! After abolition of the Domestic Circles in 1913, universal student work was brought back in 1951 as a cost-saving measure, with all students assisting with dish washing and “sitting bells,” a requirement that disappeared along with waitressing in the 1980s.  Today the custom is back, as all first year students on any kind of work study grant are required to assist in kitchens.  Gone are sit-down family-style meals with limited choices of food; now students may choose where they want to eat, when, how, and what. Vegan and vegetarian options are available at all locations; kosher and halal meals are available at all meals in Wilder, with halal only available in Abbey-Buckland at Tuesday and Thursday dinners.

Waitresses on duty in Wilder Hall during the 1950's.

Student happily buses her tray and dirty dishes, ca. 1980.

Eating somewhere besides in the dorms has always had appeal for Mount Holyoke students. The Student Alumnae Hall, now Mary Woolley, was built with a dining hall, later called tearoom, in the basement that could be used for special official occasions.  This space was later converted to a more informal dining facility that students called simply “Wilbur.” The same space was renovated several times over the years, updating its food offerings and ambiance to what was popular at the time.  When Blanchard – built as a gymnasium in 1901 – was renovated in 1988 to become the Student Center, Wilbur was converted to office space. Willits-Hallowell Center, envisioned as a new student-alumnae facility and dedicated in 1975, originally offered a snack bar on the lower level and a meals-to-order restaurant upstairs. Today eating at the various new venues in the Village Commons has become easier for students by using one of several special cards available through Dining Services.

Nancy Burton (1951), Phyllis Greenlaw (1952), Patricia Pickett (1952), and Jean Bacon at the Wilbur Snack Bar in Mary Woolley Hall, 1951.

Continued Traditions

Food traditions create among members of an institution both an awareness of history and sense of unity in the midst of variation.  At Mount Holyoke some food traditions that began in the 1800s continue today – such as individually made picnic lunches to be eaten out of doors on Mountain Day, ice cream at dawn by Mary Lyon’s grave on Founder’s Day, and a fruity steamed pudding called Deacon Porter’s Hat on Mary Lyon’s birthday.  Some have faded away, such as the elaborate Thanksgiving meals that were an important element of Seminary custom.  Some such as Senior Mountain Day have flowered briefly and then disappeared.  Present day traditions include an all-college cookout on the day before Commencement and boxed lunches on Skinner Green after the graduation ceremony.

Deacon Porter's Hat: a rich and dense cake with a hard sauce. Named because it resembles the stovepipe hat worn by founding trustee Andrew Porter, the dessert is usually served on Mary Lyon's birthday and on Founder's Day.

Gracious Living, nowadays referred to simply as “Gracious,” may have begun with dressing up for elaborate private “spreads.”  By the 1950s students were expected to be dressed up for Wednesday night and Sunday noon dinners, to linger over the meal in a leisurely way and to gather in their dorm living room for coffee from a silver service.  Today Gracious still involves tablecloths, candles, and a sense of specialness, but it happens in any given location no more than once a month and usually expresses a theme or celebrates an unusual occasion.  Often organizations plan a gracious to call attention to projects or to make their particular coming together over a meal more festive.   Weekly gatherings of new learners and native speakers of Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian, Spanish occur over evening meals and each group annually celebrates a special language “gracious.”

Gracious Living Tea.

Gracious Living Tea

In the 19th century, days of fasting and prayer were the milieu for thinking beyond the self to the world at large and its needs.  Later, “cause dinners” provided occasions when the Food Service department would donate proceeds of simpler meals – soup or stew, for example, instead of chops or roast – to good works projects chosen by the students.  In 1898, for example, the seniors skipped their annual Commencement banquet and donated the resulting savings to a girls college at San Sebastian, Spain, where a former Principal at Mount Holyoke was serving as head.  In 1939, before the United States had been drawn into World War II, regularly scheduled stew dinners saved money to be donated, for example, to aid “some helpless victim of dictatorial wrath,” to assist a Jewish refugee student, to provide medical aid in China, to feed children in “war-torn Spain.”  Such efforts have continued in varied forms to the present day.  For a period after 1934, the Fellowship of Faiths, which had come into existence after long discussions about how to honor the now varied faith traditions within the student body, coordinated a wide array of outreach initiatives.

The present Student Garden began with a gift to the College by the Class of 2007 to be used for whatever might be needed to launch a small student-run garden that would build on awareness of and participation in the burgeoning national food movement.  Food in the United States has, at least perhaps since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, been largely invisible; the Student Garden project, together with curricular initiatives by the Miller Worley Center for the Environment and the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, seeks to make the invisible – and the complex political and social issues surrounding it – highly visible to all on campus.  Drawing on the 20th century Mount Holyoke tradition of victory gardens on campus, service to local farmers during times of crisis, and collaboration with Dining Services and other student organizations such as the Food Justice Society, today’s gardeners are ambitious about making a difference in the world at large and in life at Mount Holyoke.

Exhibition Credits:

Online exhibition text by curator Sara Dolmas Jonsberg. Support for the online exhibition was generously given from the following individuals: Patricia Albright, Lori Satter, Martha Brundage, Lily Hoot, and Jennifer Gunter King

Curated by Sara Dalmas Jonsberg (1960) and Patricia J. Albright. With special thanks to John Fortini, Katie Gay, and Dale Hennessey, MHC Dining Services; Rick Bigelow, MHC Facilities Management; Donna Van Handle, MHC Dean of International Students; Annie Arbuthnot (2012) and Ariel Kagan (2011), MHC Student Garden Project; Todd Burdick and Laura Wolf, Hancock Shaker Village, and Thomas Jonsberg, Paradise Copies.