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Centennial Exhibit in Library's Historic Lobby
by Julia Merkel and Ashley Spencer

Over Spring Break, a small group of JMU Library exhibit team members installed the first centennial exhibit on campus honoring James Madison University’s 100th anniversary.  Located in the historic lobby of the original Madison Memorial Library (the section of Carrier Library that was built in 1939), the exhibit Dressing for Education: JMU in the Founding Years 1909-1929 opened on James Madison Day, March 14, 2007.  The exhibit will remain through the Centennial Celebrations in 2008.


Dress for Education Exhibit 2007Library assistants Jody Hess, Sean Crowley and Julia Merkel met with Professor of Theatre & Dance, Pam Johnson two years ago to discuss an exhibit that would fill the museum cases vacated when the JMU Foundation’s Fine Art Collection (now the Madison Collection) Study Center for Art & World Culture moved to the Festival Center.  They planned an exhibit featuring selections from the Theatre Department’s historic clothing collection that would be based primarily on Johnson’s text with Sabrina Claire Chapman, Dressing for Education the First Fifty Years : Highlights of the JMU Historic Clothing Collection 1908-1959—a grant project funded through Special Collections’ Burruss Endowment. 


With the help of two student interns, Ashley Spencer ’07 and Anna Neubert ‘09, financial assistance from the JMU Libraries & Educational Technologies, the Centennial Commission Office, the School of Theatre & Dance, and numerous other individual contributions of technical assistance and physical labor—the discussion in 2005 became a reality for the Centennial kick-off.


Dressing for Education focuses on campus fashion from just the 1910’s and 1920’s, featuring photographs and ephemera from JMU Libraries’ Special Collections.  Many images were scanned and enlarged for ease of viewing.  A particularly relevant image from a silver gelatin print circa 1910 shows the first three campus buildings: Maury, Jackson, and Ashby Halls.  The treacherous boardwalk is clearly visible and is indicative of a muddy quadrangle under construction.  Viewers who look closely will even see a horse and cart.  An actual section of the boardwalk found in the Library’s storage “cage” decades ago is on view.


Articles of clothing donated by alumnae of the college are juxtaposed with images of students and faculty culled from the pages of the early yearbooks, The SchoolMa’am, (predecessor to the Bluestone).  Visitors to the exhibit will see styles change from the uniformity of “a sea of white garments” to the more colorful clothing of the “Roaring Twenties” as hairstyles and hem lengths altered dramatically.


Some of the campus personalities given special attribution are: Instructor of Mathematics and Dean of Women, Natalie Lancaster; Instructor of Music, Lida Cleveland; the first student accepted, Eleanor Beatrice Marable; Director of the Glee Club, Edna T. Schaeffer; fashion trendsetter and Dean of Women, Bernice “Ruth” Varner; and Grace Kerr, “Prettiest” class superlative winner of 1929, who embodied the glamour of the age.


Joan D'Arc Stutue 2007
A current shot of the Jeanne D'Arc statue in Carrier Library's historic lobby.

Complementing the Centennial exhibit is a small display centered on the statue of Joan of Arc, also located in the historic lobby.  The statue was presented to the school by President and Mrs. Julian Burruss in 1917 as a symbol of inspiration for the students and quickly became a part of campus life.  She is featured in a photographs for the French Club which held Joan of Arc as their patron saint. Another image in the display shows “Joan” in residence in the Madison Memorial Library’s entrance hall circa 1939. 


The university’s founding documents were on display in the main lobby for the week of March 12th, and exhibits coordinator Jody Hess, plans to show them again next semester.  In addition, a Founding Documents website will soon be made available.  Patrons will be able to take a virtual tour of the institution’s earliest documentation including Faculty minutes and Board of Trustees minutes among others once the site goes live.  Particularly fascinating is how quickly the first president, Julian A. Burruss, was able to hire the faculty and staff, recruit students, and raise buildings worthy of a great institution.


The 1910’s: On September 27, 1909, the State Normal and Industrial School for Women in Harrisonburg, Virginia under the leadership of President Julian A. Burruss, welcomed 209 students.  The students arrived carefully attired in suits and hats to begin their educational journeys and thus began a history of campus fashion at the fledgling school that became James Madison University.


Pools of white fill the photographs from the 1910’s.  According to historian, Raymond Dingledine, “They [students] were instructed to bring table napkins…at least one white dress and not to forget an umbrella.”  The white blouse or “waist” was another vital garment in the collegiate wardrobe. 


Natalie Lancaster and Lida Cleveland, instructors, on quad boardwalk c. 1910

Instructors Natalie Lancaster (Mathematics) and

Lida Cleveland (Music) on the boardwalk c. 1911

Note the thick mud of a campus under construction.

Keeping these white garments in pristine condition was a daunting task given the muddy environs of a campus under construction.  The first buildings were Science Hall (renamed Maury in 1917) and Dormitory No.1 (renamed Jackson in 1918).  Wooden planks connected the structures.  Dingledine recounts:  “No student of the early years would ever forget the boardwalk that ran diagonally across campus…The unevenness of the ground made many dips and rises in the walk…Many a student took at least one tumble on the boardwalk during her stay at the Normal.” 

Proper appearance was stressed on campus but especially when Normal students were in the public eye.  Hems were routinely measured and dress codes strictly enforced.  Miss Natalie Lancaster served as Dean of Women and is remembered fondly as a diligent enforcer of the dress code.  The “Normal Line” a procession of students walking two across, was a familiar sight in town.  The formation was employed for all special occasions ranging from Sunday services to the county fair. 


The Roaring Twenties:  While the first ten years of the school’s history were marked by the high ideals of the Victorian era; World War I; and the Suffrage Movement—the second decade marks a clear departure.  Among the many changes the “Normal” would embrace during its second decade were a new president, a student newspaper, a new name, and a fashion conscious student body sporting “bobs” and raised hemlines.  Following President Burruss’ departure for Virginia Polytechnic Institute in 1919, Samuel P. Duke was appointed the school’s second president.  The Breeze was launched in 1922, and the State Normal School for Women would become the “State Teachers College” in 1924. 


An influential faculty member and distinctive role model in the Duke administration was Bernice “Ruth” Varner who became Dean of Women in 1924.  Varner set a dynamic example on more than one occasion.  Dingledine recounts an incident in which Varner refused to allow a student to ride in an airplane—but then took the ride herself:  “The young aviator ‘buzzed’ the campus just at a time when Duke was on the campus golf course.” He was indignant.  Another defining moment for the campus was when Varner returned from a conference in Atlantic City sporting a “bob.”  Normal School students were forbidden to cut their hair in the new style, and professors with short hair were expected to disguise the length with hair pins.  President Duke’s fight against the bob was lost as countless students rushed to embrace the popular hairstyle.


Social regulations of the day remained quite conservative.  According to the 1928-29 Student Handbook, riding in an automobile required authorization from the Dean of Women, hats were mandatory for town visits, students were to be back on campus by 6:00pm, and tobacco was strictly forbidden.  Many a game of bridge was curtailed by a 10 o’clock curfew.  The Handbook advised “simple dark dresses for school wear, light dresses for warm weather…a suit or coat for church,” thus providing a foil to the image of the carefree “flapper” of the “Roaring Twenties.”


Joan of Arc statue in 1939 Memorial Library lobby

Jeanne d’Arc in Madison Memorial Library’s main entrance circa 1939.

Joan of Arc:  The “Maid of Orleans” has a long and storied history at James Madison University.  The cast of Henri Chapu’s statue was presented to the campus in 1917 by President and Mrs. Julian Burruss said that she should serve as an “inspiration to all womankind.”  The United States formally entered the First World War that year, and the gift of a larger than life-size statue of our ally’s patron saint, Joan of Arc, synthesized the patriotism and industry sweeping through the campus in support of the war.  Students were organized into battalions (with President Burruss himself commanding,) economy was admired to provide for the war effort, and at least one student, a Miss Julia McCorkle, served heroically in the hospitals of France.


Jeanne d’Arc is shown seated in the entrance of Harrison Hall (formerly the Student’s Building) in 1917 and gracing Madison Memorial Library’s main entrance circa 1939 where she resides today after a semi-nomadic life on campus.  She took up residence in Alumnae, Converse, Duke and Wilson Halls as well as a short appearance at the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Historical Society.


The patron saint of France also served as patron saint of the French Club and is shown seated among Le Cercle Francais in the 1919 Schoolma’am.  For the club’s previous yearbook picture, Miss Pauline Callender personified the saint on her snow-white steed.   “Joan” was pressed into service again for Harrisonburg’s May 1918 Liberty Loan Parade and is shown flanked by cadets who “marched in splendid array” from Augusta Military Academy.  The day spent with compatriots at the AMA was evidently a memorable one as the yearbook devoted two full pages to the event.

To visit the Dressing for Education exhibit, enter through Carrier Library's main entrance, then head west through the building to the historic lobby.

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