There was once a time at Centenary when male and female students were not allowed to freely socialize. Today, it seems crazy to think that boys and girls attending the same school would only interact a handful of times a year, but that was a reality for the students of Centenary Collegiate Institute. A student from the 1880’s recalled their lack of social contact with the girls, saying, “We had a scant hour at meals…a signal tossed perhaps across the chapel; a ‘kerchief waved from a window, little else except a real ‘Parlor Social’ two or three times a year…”
Mealtimes were strict business in those days; students had to attend every meal and sat in assigned seats. The girls sat on one side of a long table with the boys opposite them.
At the beginning of the school year, the girls chose their seats. Returning students took their old seats, and new girls took unclaimed seats. Then the boys entered and chose seats in the same fashion – with one exception. As a boy went to take an empty seat, he would have to quickly determine the level of interest of the female sitting opposite – if she smiled, he could take a seat. If he was met with indifference, he had to keep walking.
In later years, the custom was for boys to rotate seats every two weeks. That system could be (and often was) easily circumvented so that a boy could dine opposite the lady of his choice for much longer than two weeks. The result of these occasional social interactions, combined with “ingenuity and inventiveness” (209), led to many marriages of C.C.I. schoolmates. The Rev. Dr. Whitney, Centenary’s first president, jokingly referred to the school as his ‘Match Factory’ and officiated a number of those weddings himself. Even unyielding separation of the male and female students couldn’t stop Cupid from doing his work!
Today, mealtime at Centenary is completely unlike its early years; students now chose what meals they eat here, when they go to the cafeteria, and who they eat with. Imagine how a student from 1880 would react!
Custard, Leila Roberta. Through Golden Years: 1867 – 1943. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1947. Print.