[This guest post has been brought to you by Jillian Pullis and Dr. Lisa Mastrangelo’s Advanced Composition Class. Students in this class work closely with archival staff and items, allowing them to practice their writing and research skills, as well as learning more about their university. It’s a wonderful partnership that we look forward to and occasionally we ask one or two students to share their work on our blog. This paper in particular was impressive because we, the Archives staff, see this photograph often and wonder about the students in the picture. Pullis’ research has identified these girls and we now know a little more about this dorm room candid. We are grateful she accepted our offer of being included in the blog, and hope you enjoy learning how she investigated the visual clues this picture held to deduce its content. No edits have been made to this document, and the student’s work is shown in its entirety.]
The picture that I am investigating is two young ladies laying on their dorm room beds at Centenary College. Investigating this photo allowed me to turn into an archivist for a few weeks. I had to depend on my historical sources to find information, describe my findings, and provide accurate sources to allow others to find this information. As an archivist, I had to analyze my photo and find any clues that could help me date it. I also had to try and organize the information I found and communicate it in a way that would make sense. Although, in this case I was just following the steps of what an archivist would do, I was able to put my evidence together to find the year the photo was taken. By following the steps of an archivist and investigating the image, I found my photo is from the year 1957.
In the photo, the two girls laying on their dorm room beds are similar in which they both have short hair, long white socks, and plaid skirts. The way the beds are positioned directly up against each other is either trying to portray that the girls must be extremely close, and they sleep that way each night, or the photo is posed and trying to give off a “come here and find your best friend” vibe. On the walls, the girls have a poster and a sorority paddle hanging on the wall. These two things play a huge part in helping me date this photo. The girls also have a book – shelf with multiple copies of the same books, perfectly placed. I found this to be further evidence that this photo could be staged. The room also has two windows with matching curtains.
Centenary College was a junior college for women from 1940 to 1976. In the dorm room the girls have a Dartmouth Winter Carnival Poster hanging on the wall. On the corner of the poster it is dated February 3-5, 1956. I was able to find the exact poster on the Dartmouth Archive site. I contacted Morgan Swan, Ph.D., M.L.I.S. who is the Special Collection Education and Outreach Librarian at Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth College. Morgan said, “During the early to mid 20th century, Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival was a nationally prominent event that required an invitation to attend if you weren’t already a student there. Many college students at women’s colleges all over New England (and NY and NJ) would often be invited to come as the dates of Dartmouth men.” He additionally added that it was popular for Centenary college girls to travel to Dartmouth on the train and enjoy the fun weekend in the snow. Before this email, I had to keep in mind that just because the poster was dated and on the wall was not enough to convince me the girls were there. It could have just been a decoration or a gift to the girls. I was very excited when I read this email because it proved to me that I was on the right track with the year.
In the dorm room the girls have a sorority paddle hanging from the wall. The paddle was dated 1958. This led me to look at the yearbook sorority pictures from the years around 1958. This finding played a huge part in helping me identify these girls in the yearbook. I was able to find the sorority picture in the Hack yearbook of 1957. By looking at the Hack yearbook, I was able to name these two girls as Gail Zabriskie and Leslie VanNess Bush. I examined every single picture in the Hack yearbook 1957. I was able to reassure myself of a few things by looking at these pictures. In my dorm room photo and the yearbook photo of the girls, they have the same windows and curtains. I did not think this was enough to be 100% sure, as maybe Centenary provided each room with the same curtains. By looking at every picture in the yearbook I was able to find that almost every single bedroom shot with the windows in the back had different curtains. Not one of the photos had the same curtains that my two girls had. I also believed that this photo was staged by how the beds were positioned and how neatly the room was set. By looking at the other yearbook pictures I found that almost every room had tables and chairs in between the beds. No matter how close you are with someone I did not find one other photo with beds positioned that closely. It was a huge find being able to find these girls names and find information about them.
Gail Zabriskie and Leslie VanNess Bush were both on the Orientation Committee, Guild, Student Activity, Psychology Club, and Theta Epsilon Nu. Gail Zabriskie was the President and Leslie VanNess Bush was the Vice President of student activities. They were next to each other in the yearbook and it had a picture of the two girls together. The girls were standing next to each other smiling in front of a window. The picture in the yearbook had the same windows and curtains as the picture I was examining. This was all found in the Hack yearbook in the year 1957. It could be possible that every room had the same curtains and window set up, but I found the similarities to be significant. The girls were also in a lot of the same clubs and very involved on campus so it would make sense that they would be asked to stage a photo to promote Centenary and portray it as finding your best friend.
Leslie VanNess Bush was sporting short and curly hair in her yearbook picture as well as the dorm room picture. This was very popular in the 1950s that was inspired by some prominent women. Beauty Launchpad explained, “Many actresses and female singers of the 1950s, including Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Eartha Kitt, favored this shorter, slightly less voluminous version of the classic bouffant. Perfectly curled and coiffed hair was the signature of this look, though great care was taken to make hair appear to be naturally curly.” Gail Zabriskie can be found in both photos with her short brown Pixie Cut. The pixie cut started becoming popular in the late 1950s and really took off in the 1960s. Beauty Launchpad added, “Audrey Hepburn’s closely-cropped hair in the popular film Roman Holiday began a trend of super short hair coupled with soft, wispy bangs that remains popular today.” I was very reluctant to find out that the hairstyles of the two girls matched up well with what was popular during the year that I found.
In todays’ world of social media, specifically Facebook and Instagram, it is so easy to just swipe by a photo in seconds. We often will not even look at most pictures that pop up on our feeds, and if we are it is followed by a quick “like”. Examining archived photos requires the person to really look at every detail. When you think you have found all the clues, you should look again. By doing this I was able to find the key component on the sorority paddle to identify the women in my picture. If I did not room in on the paddle, I would have never seen the date and most likely would not have found the girls names.
“Dorm Room ; 1957” Photo. Archives and Special Collections,
Taylor Memorial Library. Centenary University
The Hack. 1957. The Taylor Memorial Library,
“Hair Through History: 9 Memorable Hairstyles of the 1950s.” Beauty Launchpad, 24 Oct. 2019, www.beautylaunchpad.com/hair-through-history-9-memorable-hairstyles-1950s.
Swan, Morgan. “Feb 3-5, 1956 Dartmouth Winter Carnival .” Feb 3-5, 1956 Dartmouth Winter Carnival , 25 Feb. 2020.