In the Archives at Maryville College

Last year I spotted a garment with an unusual label. It said that the piece, which appeared to be a pajama top, was made by a girl at Maryville College, and that the purchase of it was helping this girl work her way through college. Of course I was intrigued. The college was somewhat local to me, being just over the mountains in Maryville, Tennessee. I started collecting information, but I knew what I really needed was a visit to the college archives.

Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t able to make the trip until last month. I made an appointment with Amy, the archivist, who was ready for my visit by assembling all the material related to the College Maid program. When thinking of archives, paper usually comes to mind. But the Maryville collection also contains a selection of garments made by the girls, as well as some of the equipment used in the sewing project.

I’ve already written about College Maid, so I’ll not repeat all the information here. The program started in 1921 and continued until 1959. The girls sewed products to sell, and they also made uniforms of all kinds for the college itself. All the gymsuits and gym shorts were student made, as well as uniforms for the cafeteria staff and other workers. They made the graduation gowns for the school. A major product was nursing uniforms, especially during World War II.

They also made simple dresses that were designed for women who worked in the South’s textile mills. Ironically, the education paid for by these dresses helped keep the girl sewers out of mill work.

The college still has some of the original equipment, including this heavy duty iron. I could not believe young women were manipulating this thing. It must weight ten pounds.

After the sewing program was disbanded in 1959, one might think that all the old equipment would have been discarded. But some of it was evidently stored away. Amy told me that whenever a room at the college was cleaned out due to moving and retirements, things like this would be located.

This is a 1920s cafeteria worker’s dress. The college has two examples, one blue and the other pink. These were worn by student workers.

The archives also has this sample nurse’s uniform.

In the middle photo you can see a similar sample dress being modeled on a doll. And notice the Life magazine cover. The program got some free publicity in a 1942 Life feature.

The college also has a small selection of catalogs and sales brochures.

This is a 1950s Ted (or Teddy) shirt, which was popular for gym class because the shirt did not come untucked.

Because the shirt still has her name label, Amy was able to track Dorothy Anne down.

Here she is in the 1954 Maryville College yearbook.

My research into the College Maid project continues. I recently spotted a gymsuit, much like the black one in the top photo, on Instagram. Hopefully I will have a full report on the program within the next year.


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10 responses to “In the Archives at Maryville College


    This was a very cool article. Thanks for sharing.Georgia Suchocki


  2. So fascinating! I see an article in your future.


  3. Christine Seid

    I went to a women’s college in a later era so we didn’t have a program like this but Home Economics was still a Major degree program. I love the practicality of the Maryville education and the ability to contribute to the college and war effort. Great post. Thanks for the great photos and text. Who knew?


  4. Very interesting, Lizzie. Thanks for your diligent research.


  5. Nann

    P.S. I was not familiar with this college. The Wikipedia entry says that after it reopened post-Civil War it enrolled students “regardless of race.” In 1901 the state of Tennessee forced the college to segregate “so the college gave $25,000—a little more than a tenth of its endowment at the time—to Swift Memorial Institute, the college’s sister school. Swift was founded by William Henderson Franklin, the first African American to graduate from Maryville College (1880). His institute educated black students during the era of imposed segregation…..After the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, Maryville College immediately re-enrolled African Americans.”

    Also from Wikipedia:
    In 1875, Maryville College conferred the first college degree to a woman in the state of Tennessee. The recipient was Mary T. Wilson, the older sister of Samuel T. Wilson, who later served as president of the college from 1901 until 1930.[citation needed]


  6. Wendell Dalton

    I have a pair of gym shorts with this label. I had guessed them to be from the 1940/50s….Your dating of the program helps me to feel that is correct. Great article!


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