An Iowa State Student’s Letters from 1899

What was life like for students in 1960?  At the turn of the 20th century?  Answers to these questions can be found in a variety of sources, but one of these might be in our collections of former students and alumni, which are listed here.

We recently added a former student’s papers to our collections, and the finding aid has been made available online.  The Robert Jack Sharps Letters (RS 21/7/219) contains letters written by Robert Jack Sharps, and includes a few letters from his family.  All of the letter were written in the fall of 1899 when Sharps entered his freshman year at Iowa State College (now University). The letters range from August, when Sharps first arrived on campus, to November, when Sharps was preparing to finish up his coursework and return home.  Even though the last letters do not indicate whether or not he planned to return to Iowa State, they hint that the family was struggling to finance his education and it is unlikely that he returned.

A photograph from 1899 when Sharps attended Iowa State, showing the Mechanical Engineering Lab (located in the Lab of Mechanics).  Although we do not know if Sharps was ever in the lab, it might be fun to wonder to what extent, or whether, he knew the person in the photograph.

The Lab of Mechanics (in 1902), where the Mechanical Engineering Lab (pictured above) was located.

Although an incomplete set of letters, these letters provide a wonderful window into the life of a first year student here at Iowa State right before the beginning of the 20th century.  In his letters Sharps recounts experiences and concerns which are probably familiar to many current college students, such as anxiety about passing examinations and requests for money from home.  In fact, worries about money and finances run throughout his letters.  A number of the items Sharps describes are unique to the time including the military drills, the banquet he attended in which the freshman class was dubbed the “Erehas” by the sophomores, and Sunday chapel services that students were required to attend at the time.

A page from the 1900 Bomb (student yearbook) which lists the class officers, yell, motto, and colors.

Sharps writes his sister in an August 10, 1899 letter:

“Everyone seems to come here to learn so they all have their lessons. I like it very much here and I dont have such hard studying yet except in german, but things are getting harder every day.”  His concern about money and the costs of college are again revealed near the end of the letter “I believe as you say I can’t get something from nothing so I will stay a while any way and see how it goes here…Please hand Pa’s and Ma’s letter to them and it will save two cents.  Write soon, as I am in a hurry I dont expect you can read this.”

As an archivist who has struggled to decipher the written work of numerous handwritten letters, I was extremely surprised to read that last sentence!  His letters might are very clear and neat examples of penmanship – although as the term continues his handwriting becomes less and less clear!

The 1899 Freshman Class.  If this was taken in the fall of 1899, Sharps may be one of the students pictured here (from the 1900 Bomb, page 62).

From his letters, one sees firsthand how someone from 1899 viewed and described their current student experiences.  For instance, in an August 13 letter Sharps writes his parents about a Y.M.C.A reception for freshmen he attended in which Henry Wallace “of the ‘Des Moines Wallaces Farmer’ gave a short speech.”  This is all he says about Henry Wallace – the Henry Wallace to which he refers was the father of Henry A. Wallace, future Secretary of Agriculture and Vice-President under Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

And, finally, one last passage from an undated letter I found particularly fun to read (especially considering the similarities and differences from our current campus over 110 years later!):

“The campus is a fine place with the short grass and big shade trees the grass is kept about 2 inches high and it is just liking walking on a carpet the college is just like a town with out stores, with big buildings and barns and shops and other buildings then there is a water tower higher than any of the buildings and the main hall is six stories hall.”

The Iowa State campus (circa 1897) as it looked around the time former student Robert Jack Sharps was here.  Old Main can be seen to the left, and Morrill Hall to the right.  The Marston Water Tower, which Sharps mentions in at least one of his letters, can be seen in the background.

If you would like to read more of these letters, please visit the Special Collections Department.  In addition to this collection, other materials in our Department might provide additional information to his descriptions.  For instance, the 1898-1899 catalog includes brief descriptions of the military drills, entrance examinations, courses and other general information about the college.  For information related to the military drills Sharps participated in on campus see the Department of Military Science Records, RS 13/16/1.  The Bomb is also a great resource on student life and activities.

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