Posted by: rcieri | December 2, 2009

From the town to the dorms: Elon then and now

By Rachel Cieri

Dec. 2, 2009

The administration building, or “Old Main” as it was later called, was located adjacent to West Hall, where Alamance Building sits today. It housed all the college’s classrooms, offices, the library and even a museum. Photo courtesy of Belk Library Archives.

In a quiet room on Belk Library’s second floor lies the Elon archives, a virtual time machine through the school’s history.

It goes without saying that Elon has changed throughout the years. Just nine years ago, the college became a university and the Fighting Christian was replaced by the Phoenix.

Looking back even further, there is not much the modern student would recognize, aside from the signature railroad tracks and oak groves. In 1909, the campus was comprised of three main buildings and offered only three majors.

But some of the intangible aspects of an Elon education haven’t changed a bit.

The Pendulum took a look through the Belk Archives to give students a glimpse of life at Elon 100 years ago.


The administration building, or “Old Main” as it was later called, was located adjacent to West Hall, where Alamance Building sits today. It housed all the college’s classrooms, offices, the library and even a museum. Photo courtesy of Belk Library Archives.

Today, Elon has an entire building devoted to almost every department and major, but 100 years ago, one building housed it all. The Administration Building, or “Old Main” as it was later called, stood on the spot where Alamance is now located and set the precedent for Elon’s signature three-story brick look.

Its front featured a four-story octagonal tower and housed everything from classrooms and offices to the library and college museum. Before the adjacent residence halls were built, it even housed ladies’ dormitories.

A 24-hour, three-story library probably would have been unthinkable in 1909. That year, Old Main housed Elon’s one-room library and its corresponding “reading room,” which provided the latest magazines and journals. Both were open between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Most studying took place in the students’ dorm rooms, located in two buildings — East and West Dormitories. West, the oldest building on Elon’s campus, is still used for its original purpose — a women’s dorm. In its earliest days, the second and third floors contained the dorm rooms, while the first featured the college dining hall, ladies’ gymnasium, living quarters for female professors and reception halls.

East Dormitory, which stood close to the site of Duke Hall today, was the men’s dorm.

Dorm life

Today’s students clean their own rooms, wash their own laundry and, in some cases, scrub their own toilets. But 100 years ago, dormitories were fully equipped with servants who cooked, cleaned and fetched water for the students.

The typical Elon dorm room in 1909 contained a mattress, a box spring, a rocking chair, oak suits and toilet sets all for the yearly price of $120 for women (about $2,800 today). Men were charged $10 per month and an extra $90 for the turn-of-the-century equivalent of a meal plan — meals in the college dining hall.

Student life

A group of students, likely the class of 1910, poses on the steps of an original building. Photo courtesy of Belk Library Archives.

Before the era of fraternities and sororities, Elon social life was dominated by three literary societies. The women joined the Psiphelian society, which met weekly for “improvement in composition, oratory, reading and debate and acquiring knowledge of parliamentary law” and various social gatherings like an “ice cream supper.”

The men had a choice between the Philogian or Clio societies. Before Old Main burned in 1923, each society had its own “hall” in Old Main in which to hold its meetings. Any second-year student not a member of one of the societies was required to submit a bi-weekly essay of 1,000 words to a professor.

A testament to the societies’ importance to the college, Elon’s yearbook Phi Psi Cli got its name from these literary societies. All three were disbanded before World War II.

Other clubs centered on religious life, like the Society of Christian Endeavor and a fledgling Ministerial Association. Just a few years later, the college would form chapters of the YMCA and YWCA.


Forget SATs and GPAs. In Elon’s early years, admittance was determined by an entrance exam encompassing English, history, science, Latin, Greek, modern languages (French and German) and mathematics. A passing score in those days was a 70 percent.

For students who did not pass the entrance exam, the college had a separate “preparatory department” that provided remedial education.

Today, Elon boasts more than 50 undergraduate majors and five colleges, but in 1909 students had a choice of three majors with corresponding degrees —the Classical Course (AB), the Bachelor of Philosophy (Ph.B) or the Bachelor of Literature (Lit.B).

Departments of study in 1909 were similar to the departments which still exist in the College of Arts and Sciences, but with a few additions — Biblical literature and doctrine, Old Testament, pedagogy and commercial.

Gender roles

With so many girls gallivanting around in sundresses today, it might seem like Elon has a dress code for women.

But in 1909, there really was a uniform. Women were expected to wear black or navy blue dresses of inexpensive material on a daily basis. They wore similar plain white dresses on Sundays and for special occasions and were expected to wear Oxford caps year round.

Male students had no specified uniform. Other than the honor code, the male students had no written restrictions to their lifestyles.

Elon’s female students, in contrast, were kept under a watchful eye. Any “physical training of young ladies” was under strict supervision, the female students’ mail was reviewed by the president and they were allowed no correspondence with men without parental permission.

While the college was on the cutting edge by allowing women to enroll, the women in the class of 1909 still fell into the traditional roles of homemakers and teachers once they graduated.

Elon values

As a college founded on Christian ideals, Elon has always valued character development as a key part of a student’s experience and its moral lessons have not changed much during the years.

At the turn of the century, Elon emphasized values like “neatness, politeness, purity of speech, correct morals and studious habits,” a list not far from today’s “honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect.”

The 1909 Honor Code: “I hereby certify that during this examination, I have neither given nor received aid.”

The 2009 Honor Code: “On my honor, I will uphold the values of Elon University: honesty, integrity, responsibility and respect.”

Town of Elon

The “village,” as the Town of Elon was then called, was a much more rural locale. Spanning both sides of the railroad tracks, the village encompassed about 30 families on four-acre lots. The college was advertised as an escape from the “disturbing temptations and excitements” of the outside world.

Even so, students stayed connected to the rest of civilization through the post office, the single telephone in each dorm and the 14 trains that passed by campus daily.


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