Wellesley College Scandal: Women in Men’s Clothes!

Looking through old newspapers reminds you of how different that world can be. In this case, it was a Wellesley College scandal in 1910 about some women students who were too big for their britches.

wellesley college scandal

Illustration from “The Tired Businessman” humor column about the Wellesley College scandal.

I was following up on a Sherlock parody that appeared in the Wellesley, Mass., Townsman. The story complained about the amount of littering on campus, and I spent the day happily looking up Mecca cigarettes, Page and Shaw’s confections (mentioned in the movie Meet Me in St. Louis as a way to court young ladies in those more innocent pre-Tindr days), and even a mention of Fletcherism, a health fad that involved chewing your food 32 times and then spitting it out. I don’t know what it did for your stomach and liver, but I guarantee that it would lose you many friends (and it made Fletcher a millionaire). (The parody, by the way, is called “Sherlock Holmes Redivivus” and can be found in the first Great War volume.)

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about. It was an unrelated news item that I came across while looking for news about Wellesley. This appeared in the New York Sun in 1910:

PHOTOGRAPHS CUT TO WAIST

wellesley women in tightsWellesley Girls in Male Attire Can Have No Full Lengths Taken.

In accordance with a new faculty edict no photographs of Wellesley College students who take part in college plays in male costume may be made. So far as is possible the faculty will attempt to have all existing photographs of girls playing masculine characters cut off at the waist.

The action was taken because of the recent publication of the pictures of two Wellesley girls in full male regalia, trousers and all. The photographs were made after the senior play May 10, and when they came to the attention of the faculty and the administrative board the members waxed extremely indignant.

As a result whenever plays occur in the future no photographer will be admitted except an official photographer to be chosen by the faculty, and any picture he may make of the cast or of the individuals will be cut off at the waist.

Unfortunately, Google Images refused to display the picture that caused such a ruckus. They certainly didn’t appear in The Townsman, which published no pictures at all back then. Elsewhere, there was a mention that it was one of Shakespeare’s plays that caused the problem. As Wellesley is a women-only college, some of the girls had to play the male roles. We’ll have to assume that the implication of cross-dressing was salacious to the indignantly waxing faculty.

wellesley college scandalThere was little else news I can find on the matter. There was a humor column by Walter A. Sinclair from the New York Evening Telegram. “The Tired Business Man” it was called, in which TTBM would discuss the news of the day with “Friend Wife.” As you’ll see, it’s chief source of humor was the constant wordplay.

“I see that the faculty of Wellesley ordered all photographs of girls in male costume to be limited to half lengths,” said Friend Wife. “I’m glad they were so positive.”

“Positive about the negatives,” suggested the Tired Business Man. “Well why not order half lengths for half tones. Half a length is better than none and some girls will go to any lengths, even half lengths, to have their pictures published. I suppose that the faculty in designating the waist as the photographic dead line, didn’t want the photographs to be overexposed.”

Much as I’d like to laugh that this, I also feel a little wistful for a time when, faced with girls in male tights in a Shakespearian play, there was so much ado about nothing.