As WKU freshmen settle in and tackle the challenges of higher education, consider this letter from Miss Bertha Ashley to her former schoolmate, Mary Martin, in Sunnyside, Kentucky (halfway between Bowling Green and Smiths Grove). It was November 1893, and Bertha had just enrolled at the University of California-Berkeley.
“I am getting along very well at the University,” Bertha told her friend, despite being harried by her teachers’ endless demands for compositions on subjects such as “Charlemagne in Legend and History,” “Aesthetic Value of the World’s Fair,” and the “Scientific Value of Arctic Explorations.” If their work failed to satisfy the “lordly instructor,” she wrote, “we are ‘cinched'”–college slang, Bertha explained, for being required to do it over. Even worse, she complained, “the teacher has so many to correct it takes him a long time to finish them so we are all trembling in our boots lest we get ‘cinched.'”
Bertha also noted the customs of some of her upper-year classmates. “A great many of the girls wear mortar boards,” she observed, drawing a sketch for Mary of an 1890s college girl sporting a shirtwaist, tennis racquet, and scholarly headgear. Thinking about her old friends back in Kentucky, Bertha admitted that the news of their impending marriages left her feeling “quite old maidy”; nevertheless, in the company of the “very bright people” at Berkeley she was confident that she could “jog along comfortably enough in life and ‘paddle my own canoe.'”
Bertha Ashley’s letter is part of a collection of correspondence from assorted families in the Jane Hines Morningstar Collection at WKU’s Special Collections Library. Click here to download a finding aid. For other collections on schools and student life, search TopScholar and KenCat.