Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Painting Dragons and Performing as Pierrots

Nestled at the top of the Williston & Miles-Smith Library on the 7th floor is the Digital Assets and Preservations Services (DAPS) department. DAPS works in conjunction with Archives & Special Collections (ASC) located on the ground floor of Dwight Hall. This summer I worked in DAPS as the Digital Collections Assistant and have come to see DAPS and ASC as integral parts of the library, framing the present day operations with the past and future. ASC is where the past is housed and accessed – a place to learn about the rich history and great legacies of Mount Holyoke. DAPS works to digitally archive that history and make it accessible online in the present and into the future – for students, researchers, the community and beyond. DAPS is a small space where big things happen.
Mount Holyoke students on May Day,
1929 dressed as Pierrot characters
(Photo by Asa Kinney)
One of the projects I assisted with was the creation of an Omeka site ( to exhibit a digital collection of work dating back to the 1900s. Photographer and former Mount Holyoke Botany professor, Asa Kinney (1873-1961), originally captured the images on glass plates. The heavy, glass plates in negative form were largely inaccessible and relatively unseen, until now. James Gehrt, DAPS Digitization Coordinator, is in the process of making them available through digitization. He found that the images within the plates depicted a wide range of campus life and landscapes, including intriguing terse descriptions of the negatives. These descriptions were similar to those written on the back of a photograph, or more recently, hash-tagged: the occasion, or theme, or perhaps a name or two.
French film actress Sarah Bernhardt as Pierrot,
 1883  (photo by nadar)

I experienced these works as a glimpse into the past, a window into a slice of life on the Mount Holyoke College campus. The collection includes students participating in theatre, clubs, traditions and outdoor games. My contribution to the project consisted primarily of uploading the images and adding tags that would be part of the metadata used for searching the online collection. In working on this collection and identifying the images I had the opportunity to delve into what was sometimes the inspiration or focus of events on campus over 100 years ago. My exploration allowed me to uncover symbolism in the clothes, props and identifiable characters. These themes and symbols informed the process of recognizing with more specificity what was being depicted in the image and what the students were creating and expressing.
"Little's Peerless Pierrots" postcard circa 1928
 (photograph by A.M. Breach ) 

The “May Day” collection includes depictions of a day filled with theatrical performances and elaborate costumes and props. The images capture the process of students preparing and acting out theatrical performances and celebratory events that made up the May Day tradition. One example of this is the image of students dressed as Pierrot figures, which dates back to the early 18th century. The name “Pierrot,” a hypocorism of “Pierre,” was a stock character in an Italian troupe of mimes and players performing in Paris. Pierrot was originally and most often depicted as a sad clown pining for love, strumming a mandolin. With a melancholy expression, whitened face wearing a loose white blouse with large buttons and pantaloons, he is most often a naïve and endearing character.
The photos Asa Kinney captured often included students wearing elaborate costumes. Although we cannot be entirely certain that these students participated as actors in a production on May Day, the details of their costumes appear authentic to that of the beloved Pierrot.
"Ashes to Ashes" 

In the post-Revolution era Pierrot became a symbol of struggle in an imposing world. He has been depicted in many countries and in many artistic expressions, including: operas, plays, pantomimes, circuses, films, television, anime, literature, films, rock music and visual art. Examples of mainstream pop icons portraying Pierrot include David Bowie and Lady Gaga.
Mount Holyoke students working together to paint a
large dragon prop for a 1922 May Day
theatrical performance (photo by Asa Kinney)

Asa Kinney’s photographs often capture the drama club, including their performances and props. This includes posed and candid portraits--both singular and groups, often in character.
Mount Holyoke students using their
self styled dragon prop in a
1922 May Day performance (photo by Asa Kinney)

The Asa Kinney collection includes students depicting a wide array of characters, from plays by Molière to Greek myths of Faeries and Fauna, wearing crowns of flowers and paper wings. When the digital collection is published, 200 of the images will be available for viewing, and the collection can be expected to expand as additional plates are digitized. Every photo gives us a glimpse into the lives of students years ago, and allows us to witness a unique moment of their experience, as they expressed themselves and participated in the rich traditions of Mount Holyoke campus life.

To read more about Asa Kinney:
Asa Kinney Project at Blogspot

Asa Kinney Re-Photography

Asa Kinney Exhibit

To read more about Pierrot:

Monday, November 3, 2014

"In their hands rests the greatest power for good and evil!": Women Voters and Mount Holyoke in 1920

With midterm elections tomorrow, I would like to take you back to a very special race almost 100 years ago. The year was 1920. Children could no longer be sent as parcels via the U.S. postal service; Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested on charges of robbery and murder amidst the post war Red Scare; Babe Ruth was traded to the Yankees; and on November 2, for the first time in United States history, women voted in national elections.

As an article printed in the Mount Holyoke News noted, “There are 23,000,000 new voters – the largest body of new voters the world has ever known – and in their hands rests the greatest power for good and evil.” With that said, by the start of fall semester 1920, the elections were in full swing and the candidates for each party had been selected. For the Republicans: Warren G. Harding; for the Democrats: James M. Cox; and (lest we subscribe to a two party system) Eugene V. Debs for the Socialists and Parley P. Christensen for the Farmer-Labor Party.

Front page of The Mount Holyoke News: October 15, 1920
Other articles in the News that fall also mirrored the excitement on campus, and columns throughout October and November were dedicated to the election. In the edition published on October 15, the first pages were given over to answering in detail the question of which candidate should you vote for. Among the student opinions we have are: “Harding of the Level Head,” “Don’t Waste your Vote on Harding or Cox,” “Debs Versus Dubs,” and “Cox and the College Citizen,” in favor of Harding, the Farmer-Labor Party, Eugene Debs, and Cox respectively. Each informs its readers of the valor of their chosen candidate and the misdeeds of his opponents. With all this information available, a column published in the following week’s paper speaks the truth when it says, “if any student fails to vote on Election Day because she did not know anything about the candidates, it will be entirely her own fault. Information is to be had for the looking—in any direction.” 

Student Ruth Walton, Class of 1922, wrote a letter home on November 7, 1920, describing in detail to her parents the excitement felt during the weeks leading up to and on Election Day:
My dearest family,
… We had quite an exciting time over the election. You know we were to have a big parade and bonfire for election night, but it rained, so we all gathered in S.A.H. and they brought in our results. They had the college wire connected with western union so we got all the news as it came in. It was the most exciting meeting really. I never heard so much noise in my life! Of course not every report favored Harding… there seemed to be quite a few for Cox, from the fourteen states etc. and when we were told, we were still rather doubtful because we thought about the [previous election]. We were allowed to stay up until 12 o’clock, which I think was really good of the dean and so after the meeting we had a fudge party. The college straw vote went for Harding… Among the faculty… they were for Cox and the League… Only a small majority of the faculty who could have voted did and I think that it is awfully [feeble] of them not to vote if they had a chance. 
After this, her handwriting gets progressively worse and conversation turns to the beautiful weather. 

Today while the weather might not be as beautiful as Ruth describes it, as we go into this election I ask only that you remember the words of the October 15, 1920, Mount Holyoke News: “Don’t forget that progress is the purpose of education and we, being educated women, should do everything in our power to foster it. The greatest thing that has been accomplished in the last year has been the extension of the right to vote to women.” So, in the name of our fore-sisters and the right they were so excited to exercise all those decades ago, go forth and vote! 

Lily Corman Penzel, Class of 2015, is a volunteer in the Mount Holyoke Archives and Special Collections.