Historical Item Analysis: Student Life in the 1870s

In a letter recently donated to the University Archives, a student describes what life was like in the early years of the college after its inception. The letter will make students happy to live in an era where healthy food is taken for granted as opposed to 1871 (when the letter was written) which describes the meals as “hardly fit to eat”.

Davidson letter p1If the content of the letter almost seems unreal, the story how the University Archives obtained the letter will also seem unreal. Anne Turkos, of University Archives, received a call from a man who said that he was watching the bidding on an old document on eBay, the 1865 diary of Maryland Agricultural College student Charles Berry, and wanted to know if the University Archives would be interested in purchasing it,  With his help, the Archives was able to purchase the diary, and when Turkos went to pick it up, the Archives’ benefactor gave her this letter from Percy Davidson to add to the Archives’ collections. That is how the letter is in the University Archives. A generous man wanted to help the University Archives grow.

In addition to giving us clues on the struggles of the college in 1871, the letter also shows what familial dynamics were like back then. It sounds like Davidson is not close with his mother because he writes that the letter contains the “plain truth,” implying that in previous letters Davidson’s mother did not fully trust the words of her son. In addition, Davidson portrays himself as an overly righteous and moral person, so perhaps Davidson’s mother suspected Davidson of having bad morals. Certainly, that is not how students behave in 2017.

You can find more information about the letter, images of all four pages, and a complete transcription of this document at  https://umdarchives.wordpress.com/2016/11/17/student-life-in-the-1870s-new-acquisition/.

Written by Benjamin Douek, this is the fifth in a series of blog posts prepared by students in the current HIST 429F: History of the University of Maryland class taught by University Archivist Anne Turkos and Assistant University Archivist Jason Speck. Each of the students was assigned an historical item to analyze by responding to a series of six questions. They were also required to submit a brief blog post as the concluding portion of their assignment. We will be featuring some of these blog posts and the items the students reviewed for the remainder of the semester, so check back frequently for more of the HIST 429F student projects.


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