Author: Frances Densmore

Recipient: not specified

Date: Fall 1884

Location: Frances Theresa Densmore Letters 1884-86, Letter No. 23, Record Group 30/156, Oberlin College Archives

Document Type: Typed Document Copy



This entry documents the fire of the Second Ladies’ Hall in 1886. Densmore labeled this letter as coming from Fall 1884, which is likely a fault of Densmore’s memory, given that her transcriptions were made in 1941.

Densmore’s description of the men’s reaction to the fire is wholly inconsistent with how Elizabeth Russell Lord reported it. Lord wrote in a letter discussing the fire to her son-in-law on 11 January 1886, “Our young ladies behaved themselves beautifully. They neither screamed nor fainted. The young men were very gallantly [sic], and after the girls had left their rooms, I rescued what was left.”1

The fire prompted a wave of construction on Oberlin’s campus, about which Densmore also wrote home. “There is a really magnificent new Recitation Building being erected– even larger than Warner Hall. It is light gray stone and is perfectly immense. I think these fine new buildings will draw a wealthier class of students. The ‘new girls’ are much better dressed this year than last, and there are more in the schools than before. Chapel is filled to overflowing.”2 Given the financial instability of the college at this point, Densmore was aware of the administration’s attempt to draw in wealthier students in order to sustain the college.



<Fall of 1884>

5-1Letter No. 23 First Part

I forgot to tell you about our picnic last night. About 8:30 we heard men (!!<!>)<!)> hurrying up <t>he attic stairs and perambulating the halls till Percie3 went out to reconnoiter– came back saying she had observed “Bro. Hatch” going up the attic stairs with a pail of water and another man, and that there was a fire or some other fun up. We went out and interviewed George who said a chimney was on fire, we inferred from the thick cloud of sparks outside that such was verily the case, and had some fun– out of our rooms after 7:30– Oh “mirabile dictum,”4— some in shawls, with their frizzes all done up, all sorts of astounding toilettes, till we called ourselves the “Huther Mubbard Fire Brigade.”5 Then in the midst of it, who should come down but three young gentlemen we know– by sight at least. They had been “helping” but I assure you they enjoyed being upstairs in Ladies Hall, a privilege enjoyed by one in a thousand, once in a lifetime– be sure they took it all in. There was a defective flue,6 so very defective that it took five fullgrown bricks and some pieces to fill up the defect, and as the attic is full of old boxes and papers, shavings and shingles, it would have made quite a festive scene if it had happened two hours later, it was not far from us, too. I got a failure Thurs. night getting up and untwisting my clothesline and getting all ready for a fire.

<[>Reference<s> are, of course, to the popular negligée called a Mother Hubbard, and to the fire-escape-rope in my room.<]>7


Transcribed by Natalia Shevin

1 Mrs. Elizabeth R. Lorde, Oberlin File RG 21, II. Letters, A. By Oberlin Students, O. C. A.

2 Letter 46, Frances Theresa Densmore Letters 1884-86, Record Group 30/156, O. C. A.

3 Percie Coons, who enrolled in the conservatory from 1886 to 1888.

4 wonderful to relate; amazing to say.

5 Densmore later wrote in her explanation in the parentheticals of the transcription that this is a reference to Mother Hubbard, an English nursery rhyme first printed in 1805. Additionally, Mother Hubbard was a style of night dress.

6 subsequently a smoke-duct in a chimney. Hence extended to denote a channel of various kinds for conveying heat, etc., esp. a hot-air passage in a wall; a pipe or tube for conveying heat to water in certain kinds of steam-boilers.

7 Densmore explained the fire-rope in an earlier letter: “Papa will be very glad to know that he himself [room-mate’s father] bought 40 feet of heavy rope and screwed to rings in the wall between the windows behind the bureau, and tied it in tight, and told us just what to do in case of fire. The building has no fire-escapes, there are a few pails of water “For fire only” on each floor, and three staircases beside some long ladders in the back yard.” (Letter No. 7, Frances Theresa Densmore Letters 1884-86, Record Group 30/156, O. C. A.).