What Students Write Home About, Then and Now

125 years of letters from the Farm.

In her book Letters Home from Stanford, Alison Carpenter Davis, ’79, assembled correspondence sent by students to friends and family members that spans the entire history of the university.* The letters — by turns earnest and sober or playful and irreverent — are a snapshot of student life from various eras. They reveal ground-level observations about historical events and convey the often similar emotions students felt as they passed through the Farm, regardless of their generation. It’s all here — anxiety, hope, exuberance, resignation. These excerpts from Letters Home are, in their own way, a brief history of Stanford.

Lucy Allabach to her sister, commenting on Big Game
December 18, 1892
Professor Swain read a letter from Dr. Jordan which expressed the sentiment of Sen. Stanford to the effect that whether we were defeated or not, all would conduct themselves with due propriety, and not visit the saloons etc.

Students camped outside Encina Hall. (University Archives)

Babe (Mabel) Bartlett to her parents 
April 18, 1906
The earthquake could not have been at a better time — light, yet all in bed — just before the fires were started for breakfast, because the stoves & chimneys are all to pieces. We finally had some coffee & bread for breakfast — cook[ed] things on a campfire in the backyard. Just think if folks had been on the Quad; 100’s would have been killed. It is perfectly miraculous that any of us are alive. We are all planning to sleep outdoors tonight. Heavens I’ll live in mortal terror of another. . . . They say the earth is apt to open.

Tex Allen to his parents
January 15, 1930
Well, I hashed tonite. I didn’t hash much last week or the week before, but I’ve got about $5 earned this month, anyway. I had $10 in checks waiting for me when I came back after Xmas vacation. . . . And I’ve got some more good news. I just found [out] that I can get what is called deferred tuition. I must pay my tuition the first quarter of each year, but the second & third quarters I can defer it for 7 years with no interest to pay. I guess that’s what I’ll do all right. Then I won’t have to quit school. . . . I’ve seen enough of Stanford to know that I’m going thru here — if it takes 6 years or forever.

Professor Clelia Mosher (University Archives)

Julia Hamilton Conkling to her mother
October 11, 1911
Dr. [Clelia] Mosher gave us a long talk, very pathetic indeed, this a.m. on how ashamed we, the educated part of the population, should be that the suffrage for women did not go thru. We have not done our duty, she says. She wept between speeches. She is so ashamed of herself, poor thing. She asked me about a couple of weeks ago if I was not for suffrage of women, & I said, “Oh of course.” I knew it would save lots of time & trouble for both of us if I said that, so she gave me a little yellow vote for women button which I never once wore. . . .

’92 Quad

Natasha Pratap to her mother
October 1, 1991
When I got here I was really happy to be back on campus. . . . I’m definitely better off than I was last year — more “at home” but I still have some similar problems. I’m an AA (advising associate) and I had/have a slight problem striking a rapport with a few of my advisees (six in all). The American sense of humour is a little difficult to adjust to. Sometimes (a little more often than that!) I feel pressure to be “cool,” i.e. funny and entertaining. (Excerpt courtesy Natasha Pratap)

’61 Quad

George Green to his parents from Stanford in Germany
April 28, 1960
We have spent both morning and afternoon in seeing the refugee situation. We began the morning at the main reception center here in West Berlin, where the refugees come first of all after crossing the border into East Berlin and then crossing again into West Berlin. First we had a very informative lecture from the director of the center, himself a refugee in 1951. After the background speech we split up into groups of 10 to sit in on the actual interviews given to all new refugees. . . . We got to listen to four cases, were permitted to ask questions when we didn’t understand something — this was, I think, the most informative experience of the day, giving a unique insight into how communism goes about its slow relentless job of taking over the lives of the common people in service of the state.

Freshmen wearing gauze masks during 1918 flu epidemic. (University Archives)

Hope Snedden to her father
October 24, 1918
I think the influenza is on the wane here. There are only 109 [Student Army Training Corps] men in the hospital. We have only had one girl & eight men die. . . . Just tonight the campus has suddenly blossomed forth in white gauze masks. Ruling from headquarters. You have to tie them on below your eyes, & the girls look as if they had just escaped from a Turkish harem, or an advertisement for Fatima cigarettes. And you can’t imagine the ludicrous appearance of a tall S.A.T.C. man sneaking into the library with one of them on, with the look of a highwayman. And you can’t recognize your friends by their eyes. We’re waiting for tomorrow to see our professors try to lecture in them.

New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Elaine Lavis to her family during the Cuban missile crisis
October 25, 1962
I don’t know how coherent this letter will be — I’m sitting here listening to the radio, trying to hear the noontime news, and see what has happened in the world since this morning. (It’s a rather strange feeling going to class at nine, and not hearing anything for three hours, while knowing that so much can be going on.) . . . The dinner conversations for the past few nights actually have been serious, but now I think we’ll probably be back to the usual inane banalities — the next fraternity party, etc. Of course, the major concern of many girls the past few days was, unbelievably, that: “wouldn’t it be awful if something happened, and all the boys had to go into the service, and we were here at Stanford without any boys? What would our social life be like then!”

Email from Vanessa Hua to her parents
May 2, 1995
So, is mom becoming less afraid of computers? Now you guys can do email at home. Soon, our entire family will be on the Internet. I just wrote an article for the paper about World Wide Web.

’65 Quad

Peter King to his father
May 15, 1965
Dad’s comment that Stanford was a lot easier in the old days is very true,
and in fact the old days for me may extend only four years back! The latest entering class had an application-acceptance ratio of 6 ½ to 1, according to Time. Since it’s tougher to get in, the grades will come harder, also. But Dad shouldn’t feel too inferior. After all, intelligence is relative in any group.

Francis Batchelder to his parents
February 10, 1892
Here it is half past ten and I am . . . reduced from thirty-two candle power electric light to one single tallow dip. It is like going back a hundred years.

1935 Football Team (University Archives)

Alice Louise Clark to her mother
November 5, 1935
I have been trying to think of the easiest way to break this startling news, however I guess the best way is just to tell it. I have an opportunity to drive down to the U.S.C.-Stanford game if I pay my share of the gas. It is a small car and supposedly will not cost more than a dollar for each of us. . . . If you think it is alright, please write immediately and also send me a signed note that I can give to the housemother saying that it will be all right. . . . I can do it all, including a ticket to the game for less than five dollars. Midterms are all over, so the studies will not be a problem.

’45 Quad

Mary (Allie) Lesnett to her parents
November 15, 1944
Last weekend was a big success. The formal dance was just wonderful. I think the main reason why I had such a good time was the fact that I had spent four hours in the library and had accomplished a lot of work. Since it was Armistice Day the dance was a Paris Victory dance and they threw confetti. When I came home my dress absolutely dripped with colored confetti.

Rose Payne to an older relative
December 15, 1895
There has been great excitement over cheating. Through the very bold dishonesty of one girl and several boys in the Economics Department, it was discovered that cheating was a very general practice among the students. . . . There was a meeting of the student body last Wednesday when it was decided that a committee of seven students be appointed to be inferior to that of the faculty on student affairs. When anyone was reported as being seen cheating the name of the accuser and the accused was to be brought up. . . . The meeting was a very stormy one and quite an experience in college life, but finally the vote was in majority for such a cooperation with the faculty in eradicating so grave an evil. We were opposed to it on the grounds of its narrow, spying foundation but we were in the minority.

University Archives

Herbert Hoover to a friend
August 30, 1892
Got the encouraging news from my guardian that he has not a — cent & consequently am out with just $46.23 to get through the year. Dr. B. says I can swim it if not he will throw in a cork.

Halls open tomorrow. All white labor. No Chinese around anywhere. Am working awful hard. Have considerable business worked up & 300000000000 schemes for making more.

May the Gods use you better than I.

(Excerpt courtesy University of Oregon Special Collections)

Julia Hamilton Conkling to her mother
September 5, 1911
I never did so much cramming in all my life for such punk marks.
I have forgotten what a 100 looks like; 80 looks mighty, mighty good. . . . Do you know that at Berkeley they have over 30,000 students & here about 1,700? They make you hike from here if you don’t keep your grades up to a certain standard.

P.S. I may be at Berkeley next year.

Fred Jewell Perry to his mother
March 19, 1899
Outside the rain drizzles down drowsily, inside it is pleasant and warm. The clouds are one vast expanse of mist, the landscape is partly hidden by the drizzle, and all nature is taking a day off to enjoy the moisture and quench its parched throat. All California has been sighing for rain and last Wednesday it came. Every farmer in California was rejoicing at the downpour and every farmer’s son at Stanford took part in the general jollification. Said one rustic young friend of mine to me, as we watched the great drops form streams in the quadrangle, “Every drop means a dollar.” His father runs a prime ranch. Said another rural individual to an agricultural acquaintance, “Let’s shake, old boy, and give thanks.” . . . An Oregonian remarked in a tone of condescension, “You can tell the Californians on the campus, they’re all smiling.”

University Archives

M.C. to her parents
February 5, 1976
This has been a truly exciting day today. Just about every girl on my floor was out in the hall yelling, “It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” And yes, folks, it was snowing. Not so much that I thought it warranted yelling at 6 a.m., however. It was amazing how wild people went. The Californians were especially crazy.

’55 Quad

Carol Hodge to her family
May 5, 1955
Excitement today with a slightly humorous side. On Monday afternoon, Hugh and I happened to climb up and look into the fountain in front of the library. It was a slimy mess. Jokingly, Hugh said, “What a bio demonstration this would make!” Well, later in the day, he told his friend Roger about it, and the idea got rolling. Soon they had made a very professional-looking sign which read: ATTENTION ALL BIOLOGY 34 STUDENTS, DEMONSTRATION OF MOSQUITO LARVAE IN ALL STAGES OF DEVELOPMENT. That night at 11:00, Hugh and I met Roger with the sign and proceeded to erect it on top of the fountain. (Excerpt courtesy Carol Hodge)

Email from Anonymous to her aunt
May 1, 2013
My class is working to create language-learning materials to send to elementary schools on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. In addition to Lakota, this semester I’m taking psychology, imaging (learning about how cameras, microscopes, telescopes, MRIs, CAT scans work and the like), and a class on designing social interventions (essentially a class on how to create and run an NGO). So it’s a pretty eclectic bunch but I’m finding that Lakota is teaching me the most. . . . I love you or chante mitawa ekta ochignaka (which roughly translates to “into my heart I have put you”). •

*All material courtesy Stanford University Archives unless otherwise noted.