Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hot Chocolate Walk, January 22, 4-5 pm: Rediscovering Mary Lyon’s Seminary

Being a seminary student at Mount Holyoke in the 1800s was no easy task. Rigorous examinations were required for entrance, the wake up call was at 4:30 a.m., chores were performed for an hour every day, speaking was often limited to a whisper, over 70 rules were followed to the letter, and final exams were recited to a public audience!
    Subjects including grammar, physiology, botany, natural philosophy (now known as physics), history, religion, chemistry, geology, astronomy, algebra, Euclidean geometry, and philosophy were taught as requirements, and nearly all classes necessitated memorization and recitation. Weekly compositions were written, often becoming twenty pages or more in the process, on subjects such as women’s education, virtuous behavior, or the beauty of nature. These compositions were then read aloud, much to the dismay of many students. This challenging level of academics much more closely matched the Ivy Leagues than the typical female education of the day, which focused on refined talents such as watercoloring and conversational French.
     Seminary dining hall, 1876
Breakfast at the seminary consisted of “cushion toast,” dry graham bread crumbled with molasses, until a petition was circulated by several girls to diversify the meal. After that, a typical breakfast consisted of a warm dish of either rice, hominy, toast, or potatoes. Student Nancy Everett wrote that the noon dinner “is made up of roasted beef, codfish, and the like, and always a second course of dumplings, pies, or puddings.” Supper, the evening meal, was simple: bread and butter and cake or gingerbread. Some students very much enjoyed the food provided at Mount Holyoke while others thought it too plain. No doubt they were also distressed that Mary Lyon forbade tea and coffee! Some students took matters into their own hands and began sneaking food from the pantries at night or bringing back sumptuous snacks from home. However, Emily Dickinson wrote that “One thing is certain and that is that Miss Lyon and all the teachers seem to consult our comfort and happiness in everything they do and you know that is pleasant.” Many other students wrote home to say that they enjoyed the food and were well taken care of.
    Social activity was restricted to certain periods in the daily schedule, including exercise time. A daily one-mile walk was required of all students to promote physical fitness. Mary Lyon was a firm believer in exercise as part of a well-rounded education, as well as a necessity of Christian life. She wrote, “Exercise is part of the very constitution of man. It is as certain that we must labor as any truth of the bible.” If the weather was disagreeable, the walk was shortened to ¾ mile or however far students could walk in half an hour. While a mile may not seem too long to most of us, imagine waking it on uneven or uncleared terrain in an ankle-length dress with petticoats! Student frequently took this opportunity to walk up Prospect Hill (located behind 1837 and the Mandelles). A bridge was not constructed to cross Stony Brook until 1849 for easier access to the hill. Calisthenics were also introduced into the daily regimen of the students, originally as group exercises designed to instill grace and balance. Traditional Protestants prohibited dancing, and there was much concern that the quadrille-style exercises were too scandalous. Mention exists of students quickly reforming their calisthenic positions after a lapse into more frivolous frolics, upon the approach of an instructor. Under the study of Dr. Mary Homer in 1862 (who also increased the walking requirement to two miles daily), calisthenics took on a more gymnastic exercise with added props of dumbbells and hoops. A new gym outfit was introduced, which included a flannel top and voluminous trousers underneath a skirt that was six inches from the ground.

    Although the seminary building burned down in 1896 and our lives today at Mount Holyoke may be very different, Mary Lyon’s legacy lives on. Join Professor Martha Ackmann at 4 p.m. this Wednesday in the library atrium (next to the Chihuly statue) for a tour around campus in the spirit of Mary Lyon’s daily walks. Learn fascinating facts about Mount Holyoke history to impress your friends, and then enjoy hot chocolate, cookies, and conversation in the library.


  1. Hi there; this says it is on Tuesday, but on the 22nd; is this a Tuesday or Wednesday event? Also, what a cool story!

  2. Hi! It is on Wednesday the 22nd -- thank you so much for catching the typo!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks, KJL! The hot chocolate walk will be on Wednesday, 1/22. Hope you can join us!

  4. It was really interesting for me to hear about Hot Chocolate Walk first time on 19 Jan 2014. But i want to say that i really crazy about the hot chocolate cookies. Check out online writing services for the factors to consider before hiring dissertation writing services uk supplying company, now. To read more visit


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