first major fire at Mount Holyoke College
occurred September 27, 1896 when the original
Seminary Building burned to the ground.
fire began in the gymnasium and soon spread
to the rest of the building, destroying
all student and faculty living quarters,
classrooms, exercise areas, and dining
facilities. Many local and regional newspapers
documented the fire. However, the most
telling accounts come from students and
faculty who directly experienced the fire
and the aftermath it left behind.
examining Elizabeth Storrs Mead’s
President’s Report for 1896-97 in
contrast to a student’s letter ,
which recounts her personal experience
of the fire, it appears that the reactions
of the students and faculty were quite
similar. The two documents, however, are
each directed to a different audience.
Mead was writing to the Board of Trustees,
a formal and somewhat external audience.
The student, whose identity is unknown,
is most likely writing to a friend or family
this, both letters share a common message.
Both Mead and the student strongly state
that the women of Mount Holyoke were courageous,
calm, and determined in the face of tragedy.
Both responses also seem to be conditioned
by a negative stereotype of women during
the late 1800s. Mead's report and the student's
letter aim to devalue this stereotype and
prove differently, that women were strong
and could maintain their wits and dignity
in times of destruction and upheaval.
may say what they like about girls loosing
their wits in times of great excitement,
but I never saw four hundred people behave
utmost calmness and order prevailed among
the students. They were self-possessed
Mead's President's Report
About the Fire