I spent my Winter Term interviewing Oberlin alumni at Kendal, a local retirement home that has a high population of former Obies and Oberlin professors, as part of an oral history project. Talking to so many alumni was fascinating, because while some aspects of the school have remained the same since the 1950s and 60s when most of the people I talked to went to college, a lot has also obviously changed. From weird traditions, to much stricter rules, hearing about Oberlin of the past was endlessly interesting to me, so I’ve decided to share some of the most surprising things I learned.
“Mom will wait up for you!”
Dorms in the past were far from our current all-gender floors, rooms, and bathrooms that first made the cover of Life magazine when they were introduced in the 1970s. Back in the day, men and women had separate dorms. Men weren’t allowed to be in a woman’s room at all, and definitely not alone with a woman. People of different genders could hang out with each other in the common rooms and open lounges of dorms, but only until 10 PM. All of this was under the watchful eye of a housemother, an adult who lived in the dorm to supervise its residents and make sure they adhered to the rules.
After 10 PM, not only did men and women have to remain in separate dorms, but women weren’t allowed to leave the dorm at all. Yep, female students had a strict 10 PM curfew on weekdays. That being said, I had multiple alumni tell me that by the time they were seniors, most students “found a way around the curfew” by learning the best ways to sneak in and out of their dorms.
Black tie not optional
Meals were nothing like the lazy lunches we now eat buffet style at Stevie in sweatpants. Instead, male students were required to wear a coat, button down, and tie to every dinner, or, as one Kendal resident told me “a coat, tie, and nothing else if you were feeling rebellious.” Students sat in assigned seats at tables and ate family style, served by waiters. The housemother would be escorted to dinner by a male student and it was custom for students to socialize with her in her living room before dinner each night.
In a Time Before Tinder…
I asked all the alumni where they hung out with friends, and was surprised to find that almost everyone said they spent most of their time in the library. Without computers, students relied on checking books out to do homework, so the library was the place to be. And I got some insights into a common pickup technique. Apparently, there were often only a few copies of a book needed for a given class, so you could always ask the person you were crushing on if they wanted to share a book with you and study in the library-- you know, out of “necessity.” In fact, library dates were pretty common because as one of my interviewees told me, “it was really hard to find a place on campus where two people could be alone together. And if you found one, you probably weren’t supposed to be there.”
Auf Wiedersehen, Ohio
Several of the people I interviewed went to the conservatory, and in their time, the entire junior class of Oberlin’s conservatory studied abroad in Salzburg, Austria, for the year. Many of them said it was their strongest and best memory of Oberlin. While we still have tons of opportunities to study abroad here, nothing on this scale exists now.
One of my interviewees told me there used to be a tradition that all of the freshmen men would have a battle against the sophomore men in which everyone tried to pants each other. According to him, things usually got very competitive and duct tape was often involved in an attempt to keep pants on. Afterwards, the freshmen were “officially” welcomed into the Oberlin community. I have no idea what to make of this one, but I can tell you that while Oberlin still has some weird traditions, we have nothing like this now.
And one thing that hasn’t changed
Everyone I talked to elected to live at Kendal because they loved Oberlin so much that they wanted to come back to spend their retirement here. At pretty much any given concert, performance, or lecture here, you can almost always spot a few heads of white hair among those of students as residents of Kendal enjoy events in the same places they did when they were our age.
If you want to listen to the podcasts I made from interviews with Kendal residents, follow this link!