Hair pins, circa early 1900s. From the Winthrop E. Stone papers.

112 Years of Bad Hair Days, by Liz Walker

Blog Entry One     //      Blog Entry Two     //     Blog Entry Three

To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 4th 2016
Discovering Significance in the Ordinary

Hundreds of grey boxes line the shelves of Purdue’s archives, cluttered with papers and artifacts from the past, waiting to be uncovered and resurrected. Everything collected and stashed away from the early 1900s had value of some sort to someone— why else would it remain over 100 years later? When I first visited the archives, I was unaware of this fact. I looked around skeptically at everything contained on the dusty shelves and reminded myself that I just had to survive one semester of digging through old scrapbooks until I would finally be free of my English prerequisites. Then I would be able to start taking classes for my major— hallelujah! While fumbling through many archival collections, scrambling to find something to write about in the midst of all of the seemingly insignificant objects, I saw a floral box. When I opened the box and discovered the thin, metal pins inside, I immediately knew I found my muse. Belonging to President Stone’s wife, this lone set of bobby pins hid in the Purdue archives for over one hundred years, and I wanted to discover why. As a woman of the 21st century and an actress (I’m minoring in theatre), I find bobby pins everywhere— under my bed, on my car floor, in my purse, in the shower, on my pillows, down my pants. Bobby pins are such a common place item today that it struck me odd that they even existed in the early 1900s, let alone that the Purdue archives thought them important enough to keep. I found my object because of an immediate emotional connection, making my choice both interesting and intriguing. I discovered significance in something that, at first glance, seems completely worthless. Because the bobby pin set encompasses the class’s over-arching goal (exploring student life in the early 1900s in order to tell Purdue’s story in a new way), I believe it adds much depth to the project and proves to be a great addition.


Hair pins, circa early 1900s. From the Winthrop E. Stone papers.

Hair pins, circa early 1900s. From the Winthrop E. Stone papers.

I found the set in the Winthrop E Stone papers, hidden amongst the other assorted objects belonging to the former Purdue president and

his wife. A pocket watch, a comb, and a headband join the bobby pins in box 39, a family of objects so commonplace that one easily forgets their significance. The set comes in four rolls according to size: 1 long, 1 medium length, and 2 short. These rolls are ordered nicely in a floral box, the golden background accentuated by green stems and pink roses. Obviously well-used, the box’s edges have been slightly torn in some places and the box’s corners have been worn down. The floral paper covering the box stops short, leaving a partial section of the bottom exposed, introducing the question of whether this box was homemade or simply cheap. The history in the object is evident— it just needs to be uncovered.


This object befits the class’s semester project because the aim of the project is to highlight Purdue in the time period given. We look at history in such a black-and-white way that we often neglect the fact that the people who lived in the past really did live.

Female student gathering. From the 1904 Debris Yearbook.

Female student gathering. From the 1904 Debris Yearbook.

The students of 1903-04 went to parties and drank like college students do, they cried over heartbreak, they danced the night away, they pulled all-nighters to finish homework, they lived in residence halls, they hated IU, and they had an intense amount of school spirit. Because this is so often forgotten, our class project emphasizes student life, and I think the bobby pins will make a great edition to the project. Bobby pins speak loudly of Purdue culture— from up-dos to popping zits, bobby pins witness every part of life imaginable.

Initial Thoughts & Next Steps

Because I am a woman studying at Purdue, the bobby pin set leads me to wonder what being a woman in my position felt like 100 years ago. Women attended college at this time and defied cultural standards by doing so. Now our culture expects most women to receive an education at some point in life. The bobby pins make me wonder whether school life and gender expectations combined well, or if the balance proved difficult for women of the time. What kind of pressures were put on women students? Did their male counterparts treat them well or were they scorned for pursuing higher education? These are the things I hope the bobby pins will lead me to unearth. Now I just have to do the exploration! The next step in the discovery process is simple: research. I plan on digging through editions of Purdue’s Debris yearbook and exploring some more of the archives’ treasures in hopes I can find a trail to follow.


The bobby pins, a somewhat common place treasure of the Purdue archives, waited in box 39 for years to be discovered, to tell tales of days long past. Our class aims to tell the story of the early 1900s in a way that reflects reality, how the students truly lived their lives. Whatever story the bobby pins have for me, I will make sure they have a real voice.

Blog Entry Two, April 11th 2016
Letting Your Hair Down

Women. Academics. Social Life. Fashion. Stress. Health. Marriage. Purdue. A single box of bobby pins— excuse me, hair pins; bobby pins as we know them were not invented until the 1930s— opened many research doors for me. So many, in fact, I found it difficult to narrow my topic down to a feasible size and research path. I knew I wanted to study the lives of college women in the 1900s, but the trails to follow seemed endless.

After weeks of researching secondary sources, my trail led me back to Purdue’s 1904 Exponent, and I found something that to any other person would seem arbitrary or trivial. The February 18 edition contains a short story called “The Incident,” following a women and her work struggles, primarily involving promotions and romance. At the end of the story, she goes to her home and reflects on the day’s events.

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From The Social Ladder, by Charles Dana Gibson, 1902.

The story as a whole was rather forgettable, but, to a girl searching for the significance of hair pins, the ending seemed to almost jump off the page: “Before her dressing table she took out one by one the pins that held her hair till it fell in dark beautiful waves about her shoulders.” After a long day on the job, the girl in the story relishes in letting her hair down and being able to relax, at one with her thoughts. This story gave me the connection I needed between hair pins and women’s daily life in college.

The image of letting one’s hair down for girls is powerful; it encompasses the idea of completion, of “letting loose” after a long day of a life well lived. It involves taking risks and allowing oneself to explore the unexpected. But, one can not have the pleasure of letting hair down and unwinding without first putting hair up and working diligently. Putting one’s hair up signifies an active lifestyle, whether that activity be physical or mental. Women through the ages have always been experts at putting their hair up and getting things done, and the Purdue women of the early 20th century were no exception.

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Eighty Drawings, Including the Weaker Sex, the Story of a Susceptible Bachelor, by Charles Dana Gibson, 1903.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Gibson Girl was the epitome of the modern woman. The Gibson Girl, created by Charles Gibson through his artwork, inspired the average American woman to be “unencumbered by bustles or convention” and chasing after what she wants. Though the Gibson Girl, or the “new woman,” usually traverses Europe in search of a wealthy husband, she also attends college.

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From The Social Ladder, by Charles Dana Gibson, 1902.

According to the Gibson Girl ideals, the college woman should embody beauty and health, as well as gracing a spunky and lively personality. The women who attended college had a certain self-motivation that pushed them to study despite all odds against them. A Purdue journalist described this drive as “what she makes of herself, not what the college makes of her.” These Gibson Girls put their hair up and lived life to the fullest.

College women possessed motivation that characterized them as true Gibson Girls, but this classification did not make daily life any easier for them. Though the new woman was being praised in artwork and media, education at universities was still disparaged by the majority of societies. To many, attending universities cost women dignity in the eyes of others, making them “mannish.” This notion was spread by Edward Clark’s book Sex in Education or a Fair Chance for the Girls (1873), stating that if women were educated in the same way as men, women risked reproductive health issues. Many institutions feared that these women would begin “pushing men out” of universities, causing a generation of manly women and an array of other issues. It was strongly believed that two sexes were so biologically different that they needed completely different academic structures, if not different universities altogether. However, against all odds, the Purdue women pressed onward, believing that it was in their power “to act as nobly and highly” as women in other circumstances do.

Going forward, I plan to study specific examples of women at Purdue in this time period to explore their daily lives and their accomplishments after receiving a degree. I have studied the general feelings toward college girls in this era, read academic articles pertaining to different universities admitting girls at this time, and studied in depth the Exponent editions from February of 1904, but I believe it is now time to dive into the lives of Purdue women. Narrowing down my area of study with my bobby pins began as an overwhelming experience for me, but I can finally see my project starting to take shape. I am excited to see where my research will take me as I conclude my work.

Blog Entry Three, April 28th 2016
Pinning Up Loose Ends

I sit down at my computer, dozens of notecards full of research findings around me (I still use the notecard method I learned in middle school for all of my research because I am incapable of change), wondering what I should write for my last blog entry. What do I want my readers to know about this project? My research has taken me in so many different directions; I find myself in places now I never would have guessed three months ago. While the blog is only a road stop to my final paper, it is the thing that will encourage my audience to keep reading, to want more. After all, my research has finally taken shape, and here I am left staring at my screen, attempting to puzzle it all together. The end is in sight—I just need to figure out how to get there.

I could spark interest in my findings in an array of different ways. I could explain that my research led me to discover the daily lives of women at Purdue, particularly that 1904 began an era of heavy women involvement throughout campus. I could discuss how the new woman ideals and the expectations of society did not always line up for college women; the idea that women could be rational, free thinkers was not accepted by many members of the community. I could explain that scholars believed women to be biologically inferior to men in rational thought, so they tailored academic systems to fit each gender. I could write about Hugo Münsterberg, a renowned German philosopher who took the new woman ideals of “progress and modernity” and transformed them into “inadequacy and superficiality,” fighting against the modern American women. I could tell my readers about Helen Gougar, an outspoken women’s rights activist from Lafayette who fought for the rights of women and held her own against many male adversaries. I could do everything possible to assure my audience that my research is coming together, and explain exactly what structure it will take in the end.

But instead, I want to focus on why I started this research in the first place. I want to remind my audience why a small box of hairpins contains any significance at all. I know that during my research I often lost sight of the bigger picture. When I was discouraged, I forgot why I took this path. In one of these moments of angst, after spending endless hours in the library searching the Exponent for scraps of information, I found this in the Feb. 25, 1904 edition: “How crowded every day of our life seems. How busy we all are. There are a thousand duties to which we must attend. There is scarcely an instant that we can call our own.” In the moments I lost sight of the end goal, the Exponent showed me to the correct path once again. I chose my hair pins because they reminded me that our present is rooted deeply in the past; the things we experience now are not so different from the things experienced 112 years ago. This sentence from the Exponent reminded me of this truth. As I walk the streets of Purdue, I constantly hear my peers complain about their workloads. I myself sometimes feel like I have “a thousand duties” to balance, between research, theatre, church duties, work, and spending time with friends. Students at the turn of the century suffered from severe stress just as students today do. In fact, women today deal with this stress in the same way as women then—piling hair on the top of the head. Maybe the Gibson Girl isn’t too different from the Boilermaker Woman today.

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The modern college woman at work

Students in the classroom, 1911. Image from MSP 43, Purdue Photographs Collection.

Students in the classroom, 1911. Image from MSP 43, Purdue Photographs Collection.


I learned much in my period of research. I learned about the history of bobby pins (they existed in Ancient Egypt—whoa!), I learned about the fashion of the early 1900s, and I learned about the people who paved a way for me to have a college education with ease. Most importantly, however, I learned that the past still has relevance today. If my readers don’t give one whit about bobby pins, I won’t mind, as long as they come away from my findings with the understanding that the past lives on in the things left behind. The past lives as long as we let it, and I hope that my research has allowed it to truly come alive.


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

About the Authors

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