In the Archives: Normal for Girls to Smoke?

"... bobbed hair [is] no indication of perverse moral character."

Editor’s Note: Eastern Michigan University first opened in 1853 as Michigan State Normal School, later becoming the Michigan State Normal College. In days gone by a “normal school” was a teacher training college. The inaugural edition of a new Chronicle column by David Erik Nelson describes his schoolteacher wife as a “greedy, terrible, pregnant, unionized public servant.” It makes one wonder how she would have fared among the women students at the normal school in the early 1920s. Laura Bien sketches a picture of their travails in this week’s edition of her local history column.

Dean: “Miss MacArthur, I hope that Ann Arbor fellow you met at the dance never kisses you by surprise.”
Gladys: “No Mrs. Priddy he doesn’t; he only thinks he does.”

[From joke section of 1923 Aurora yearbook]


Normal College’s formidable Dean of Women, Bessie Leach Priddy, knew about the growing problem. If things continued along the current course, the entire college could be disgraced. Boards of Education across the state might refuse to hire the graduating young teachers. The institution’s reputation could suffer. The situation was intolerable and it was time to act – forcefully.

Smoker Headline

The local paper uncovered the expulsions and gave the story a front-page, above-the-fold placement.

So forcefully, it turned out, that in the fallout from the result, no less a paper than the New York Times said in so many words that the Ypsi school was staffed by meddlesome, old-fashioned fuddy-duddies.

Some weeks prior in the spring of 1922, Dean Priddy had met with college president Charles McKenny, who shared her concern. After discussion, the two decided to immediately expel 17 female students and place 13 more on probation for the spring term. Dean Priddy and President McKenny drafted a letter explaining their action and sent it to the matrons of the boarding houses around town where female students lived before the era of dorms.

The 17 prospective teachers packed their things, said goodbyes, and had their trunks delivered to the train depot. The whistle blew. Their career at the Normal was over.

And all for smoking cigarettes.

Dean Priddy resumed her duties and President McKenny left town to attend an educational conference. The matter had been settled with hushed discretion.

Until the local paper caught the story.

Dean of Women Bessie Leach Priddy kept a sharp eye on female Normal College students.

“17 GIRL SMOKERS ARE OUSTED FROM NORMAL,” blared a huge headline on the front page of the April 12, 1922 edition of the Daily Ypsilantian-Press. The paper printed most of the letter that President McKenny and Dean Priddy had sent to the boarding houses. It revealed that the expelled female students had committed other infractions in addition to smoking.

The official reasons for the dismissals according to the letter were “undesirable attitude toward work, inability to do the work, class absences … dishonesty in work, in school work, and in financial matters, and smoking.”

“Regarding smoking,” continued the letter, “[t]he college does not enter into the discussion of the question of whether it is any worse for a woman to smoke than it is for a man.” The same was true, it said, for coming in at 2 in the morning or getting drunk. The college, claimed the letter, held male and female students to exactly the same standards.

No male students, however, had been dismissed.

The next day, the New York Times published its take on the Ypsi story. “The members of the Faculty … say that misdemeanors are harmful because they result in poor class work. But many made it plain that they believed bobbed hair, cigarettes, and strolling in gardens under the moon did not fall short of being actually sinful …”

Students felt treated like children, said the story. “‘We are old enough to look out for our own morals,’ is a common expression these days among both men and women students.”

Normal College president Charles McKenny thought himself progressive on the issue of women's hairstyles.

The Times story stung. “The claim that girls are discredited because of bobbed hair has no foundation,” President McKenny insisted in a special statement printed in the following issue of the Normal College News. “Some of the best students on the campus have bobbed hair, and … in an address quoted far and wide in Michigan, [I have] said that bobbed hair was no indication of perverse moral character.”

That bold declaration, from a gentleman born before the Civil War, must have caused much eye-rolling among his 45 female faculty members, just over half of whom had the stylish new cut.

But it hadn’t just been a skipped class or two that had flustered McKenny and the Dean of Women and led to the expulsions. It was the liberated behavior of some of the Jazz Era women students.

Buried further in the boarding house letter, McKenny’s other concerns come to light. What worried him and the Dean, aside from playing hooky, was what he called “social indiscretion.”

Some female students couldn’t handle the freedom of college life, said the letter. Additional reasons the women had been dismissed included “attentions from many and sometimes strange men, allowing undue familiarities from men who were casual acquaintances – sometimes from several men in one term,” and “constant week night dates with evasion of [boarding house] closing hours [10 p.m. according to a citywide rule].”


“The rule concerning week night dates is one of the most insipid in our curriculum, as every Ypsi girl will testify … numerous devices and schemes for deceiving your landlady are given in very complete detail and therein lies the book’s great value and interest.”
[Blurb for “Easiest Way to Have Week Night Dates and Get Away with Them,” an imaginary book “reviewed” in the joke section of the 1920 Aurora yearbook.]


Another expulsion offense McKenny listed was “auto riding without permission, and sometimes by street pickup.” Yet another was “walking in parks and gardens by night” (moonlight canoe rides were popular too), not to mention “gaining access to rooming houses by way of windows.”

However, times, hemlines, and hairstyles were changing. The day soon came when female students did not have to secure permission for an auto ride, or face dismissal for a nocturnal stroll, a stolen kiss, or a cigarette.

Prof. Richardson: Name some other food besides fish, beef, and pork that is smoked.
E. Curtis: Camels.

[From joke section of 1922 Aurora yearbook]


Mystery Artifact

Last column’s reader-submitted Mystery Artifact was a true stumper – perhaps in part as it comes from overseas.

Mystery Artifact

Its owner describes it thus: “It’s a traditional Japanese paper folding fan, except that it’s made of cast iron. A disguised weapon a samurai would sneak around with if he had to relinquish his swords!” Yikes! Thank you to the reader who shared his remarkable and fascinating artifact.

[Editor's note: For readers who didn't notice the 3D version of the mystery artifact from last time, it's under that link. Readers who lack the red/blue specs required to view it properly might earn some of these magical cardboard/plastic eyeglasses from The Chronicle's limited stash by guessing a mystery artifact correctly, or sending in an image of a mystery artifact (3D or otherwise), and asking for a pair.]

Sticking with a cast-iron theme this week, let’s take a look at this odd object. Like the iron fan, it has an unexpected function; what might it be? Good luck!

Laura Bien is the author of “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives” and “Hidden History of Ypsilanti,” which was released Oct. 6, 2011. Contact her at

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  1. October 20, 2011 at 11:40 am | permalink

    Looks like a nutcracker to me.

  2. By Joan Lowenstein
    October 20, 2011 at 12:12 pm | permalink

    It may be a door-stop. I have one from my grandmother, also cast-iron, in the shape of a frog.

    Re smoking college girls: My mother says that when she was in college (in the 50′s), it was considered permissible for young women to smoke, but not while walking. You could be kicked out of the dorm for that.

  3. By abc
    October 20, 2011 at 12:55 pm | permalink

    It looks too big to be a weight for a tablecloth (do those things have names) but I think that hooked tail is the key to its “unexpected function”.

  4. By Laura Bien
    October 20, 2011 at 2:52 pm | permalink

    Sorry about the delay in responding and for poor-quality Mystery Artifact photo (taken via candlelight!); our power was out last night. Some interesting guesses!

    cmadler: We certainly have enough of the real thing in the backyard and they do love our long-leftover Xmas nuts!

    Joan, that is fascinating to learn that there was still some degree of stigma to women smoking as late as the 1950s! But I wonder what it was about *walking* that was so offensive (as opposed to smoking on the Diag, say). Hmm…

    ABC: Now you are stumping me. I have never heard of a weight for a tablecloth. I’ve only seen those clippy things that you put around the edges of picnic tables to keep a tablecloth on. Are the weights you’re thinking of similar?

  5. By abc
    October 20, 2011 at 5:00 pm | permalink

    Yes the clippy things. I have seen them used inside on tablecloths (to hide wrinkles or fold marks?). I thought that maybe they had a long history and were once some kind of chipmonk or squirrel or other rodent with a curly tail hanging from a loop. OK, so I made it up.

    All I can say is I look at that thing and I see (functionally) weight and a hook; I see no moving parts. I assume that ‘rodent paperweight’ or a ‘rodent decoy’ are not the correct answer as those functions would NOT fit with this being a ‘mystery object’ nor would they fulfill your tease that this has an ‘unexpected function’.

  6. October 20, 2011 at 5:07 pm | permalink

    I don’t get credit for getting the artifact right last time?

  7. October 20, 2011 at 7:58 pm | permalink

    No doubt you mentioned “fan” Jim; the idea of samurai’s going around hitting each other with fans though, kind of brings to mind some old comic in drag acting silly, like Milton Berle or Benny Hill.

    The squirrel does look to have some mechanical parts, at least there appears to be a slotted screw head near the shoulder blade. That is, if it is a squirrel, looks a lot like a cat to me, licking it’s paw; skinny tail for a squirrel. The base of the tail too, looks flat, like it can slide between the haunches, in the action of a lever. Maybe it’s the trigger for a “Mousetrap” game, or a nutcracker, waves a flag or plays the ukelele? Can’t say I know.

  8. October 20, 2011 at 8:39 pm | permalink

    The tail looks like it should hook over something. Maybe you hook it over the top of a door to provide a place to hang your hat.

    But it could also be mechanical. The front paws could go up and down, maybe to crack nuts as cmadler suggests. Or maybe it’s a doorbell. You hang it over your fence, and when visitors pull down the paws it makes a squirrely (or cat-like) sound.

  9. By Laura Bien
    October 21, 2011 at 5:40 pm | permalink

    Jim: Oops. That is my mistake. I usually list the last-column winners in the M.A. section, but I overlooked that. I apologize–you did indeed guess that the artifact might be a fan. Please excuse my oversight–it was an inspired guess for a very puzzling object!

  10. By Laura Bien
    October 21, 2011 at 5:41 pm | permalink

    p.s. A squirrel doorbell would be cute. Would it make that rackety scolding chattering that squirrels make when they are indignant? :)

  11. November 2, 2011 at 11:44 am | permalink

    I am going to take a wild guess that it has something to do with smoking. Could it hold a cigarette so that the girls did not get the nicotine stain on their fingers? The tail could loop over the fingers & the cigarette be placed in the paws. Or maybe it is a cigarette lighter? I do think it looks more like a cat than a squirrel.

    Irene Hieber

  12. November 10, 2011 at 8:32 pm | permalink

    I have a Godzilla lighter that you pull down the tail and flames shoot out of its mouth. But I don’t think that’s what this is. Novelty lighters are a fairly recent invention.