Have a Spot of Tea and a Bit of History
by Jan McCoy Ebbets
The sounds of a front door slamming and rain boots squishing across the entryway announce the arrival of yet another resident to the Friday afternoon tea in Washburn House.
The newcomer makes a beeline for the living room, just off the front hall, unzips her wet green rain jacket and sinks to the carpeted floor. Sitting cross–legged, she joins about a dozen of her housemates already sprawled on couches and chairs and sipping tea in ceramic mugs. They are strategically gathered around several trays of food—small sandwiches of turkey with cranberry mayonnaise, or black bean hummus with vegetables, brownies and spice cake squares, and of course, pots of tea.
However, the main attraction on this rainy spring afternoon is not the food. It is invited guest Nanci Young, Smith College archivist.
Young is here to talk about the history of the old red–brick "cottage," one of three original residential houses built by the college in 1878 for the incoming class of 1882 and now home to some 43 students. The house was named for William Barren Washburn, appointed by Sophia Smith herself to be one of Smith's first trustees.
"There are two things Washburn women were known for–tennis and theatre," Young says and launches into tales of the antics of an early house drama club whose first performance was given in September 1878 to welcome arriving new residents. From that play evolved an ongoing series of Saturday night one–acts, burlesques and some serious plays.
"Apparently, original dramaturgy became quite popular on campus," says Young. "It even started getting in the way of studying until President Laurenus Clark Seelye stepped in and reprimanded the students. He also announced in a chapel service that from now on, new limits would be set on these little productions."
Meanwhile, tennis was first played around 1883 on the lawn between Dewey and Washburn after a student received rackets, net and balls from her brother attending Harvard.
For Friday afternoon tea at a newer residence, Lamont House, Young recounts the excitement generated when the house was built in 1955 and named for alumna Florence Corliss Lamont, class of 1893. The house, now home to 83 residents, was considered "very high tech" at the time, she says, because it featured a public announcement system. When an off–campus visitor arrived to see a resident, the person "on watch" would announce it over the PA. "And if she used the words 'a gentleman is here to see so–and–so,'" Young says laughing, "it was a code that this was someone everyone might want to get a look at because he was as handsome as Adonis."
Telling stories never seems to get old for Young, and she has plenty of archival material to draw from—a treasure trove of institutional and archival records, early photographs, scrapbooks, letters and journals documenting the life of the college and its students since Smith’s opening in 1875. She gets invitations to the house teas year after year because she has a knack for delivering, with good humor, both the lore and the little-known facts about house life and traditions.
Young assumed her post at Smith in 1998 and has been giving her House History tea talks on Fridays ever since, scheduling about 10 of them each semester. Her colleague Deborah Richards, archives specialist, also presents tea talks. Young welcomes all invitations. “It’s wonderful that so many women care about the history of Smith–and are a part of the history of Smith as well!” Young notes.
“I never turn the invitations down,” she says. “The nice thing about being asked to return [to a house] is that every year there’s a new crop of first-year and transfer students, as well as those returning students who’ve just moved into the house.
“I always find something new to take away from each of my visits. It’s a great way to get to know the students. And,” Young quips, “the rest is history.”