Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Discovering Mount Holyoke: A Bag for Every Occasion

Today is November 8th, which here at Mount Holyoke means Founder’s Day! On this day one hundred and eighty years ago the first students set foot on the grounds of Mount Holyoke Seminary and made Mary Lyon’s vision of women's education a reality. In honor of this special occasion, we are kicking off the new Archives and Special Collections blog series, Discovering Mount Holyoke, with a nod to a couple of items that have played an interesting role in Mount Holyoke's history.

The Green Velvet Bag

In 1834, Mary Lyon set off on a mission to found an institution for educating women and traveled New England in search of supporters who would fund her dream. For three years she raised money, advertised plans for the school, and prepared the school itself for the grand opening. All this time she carried a small green velvet bag and in it she gathered the donations that would fund the school. 

The green velvet bag Mary Lyon used to collect donations

To this day Mary Lyon's bag survives in the Mount Holyoke Archives. Made of green velvet with two decorative tassels, this bag has become not only an interesting artifact from the past, but also a symbol of Mary's perseverance. 

The Mount Holyoke Mystery Bag and Mary Lyon's Six Cent Bag

Years later another bag entered Mount Holyoke history. During the Three Million Dollar Endowment Fund of 1919, one Mount Holyoke alum followed Mary Lyon's example and decided to raise money for the college. The idea for the "Mount Holyoke Mystery Bag" was introduced by Mary Ella Spooner, Class of 1872. Instead of simply asking for money, which she disliked, Spooner came up with a plan to invite curiosity and thus encourage donations. The idea was to hide a "treasure" in a black bag attached to what she called "Mary Lyon's Six Cent Bag" and six streamers that each contained their own message tempting donors to reveal the mystery inside. The streamer messages were as follows:

1. This is my secret. It is yours for six cents.
2. Thereby hangs a tale; two, a tale and a tail.
3. This tail/tale is not for you to tell; for Holyoke's Fund 'tis made to sell.
4. You never saw the like before, you never will again.
5. Curiosity is developed in women; it is born in men.
6. Isn't it worth six cents to gratify your curiosity?

Mary Ella Spooner's "Mystery Bag" and the opium scales it held.

The "treasure" and its tale came from Spooner's time as assistant to the president of Oahu College in Honolulu, Hawaii. Inside the bag hid a Chinese opium scale that was given to her by a friend who was also a sheriff. At the time, Hawaii was extirpating opium from the islands, which made it illegal to be in possession of any utensils connected with opium. Seeing its value, the sheriff gave her the opium scale, which had been recently confiscated, as long as she promised to leave it in the bottom of her trunk until she left the Hawaii Islands a short time later in 1891.

Unsurprisingly, Mary's "Mystery Bag" was not a very successful fundraiser, netting only $36. However it did spur a good deal of interest from the Mount Holyoke community. After making its first appearance, students began adding their own notes and even created songs for the bag as a way of encouraging donations. Many of these songs and slogans were inspired by Mary Lyon's original bag and also, as Mary Ella Spooner later wrote in a letter, honored "the achievements of Mary Lyon in founding the institution,"

There is still a lot to uncover about Mary Ella Spooner's "Mystery Bag" and many other materials waiting for you in Archives and Special Collections. Come visit and make discoveries of your own!

Author Brittnee Worthy '17 is a student Archives Assistant in Archives and Special Collections. 

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