Mandolin orchestras on college campus’; Amherst, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges 

Mount Holyoke College Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin Clubs (Photo credit: http://www.mtholyoke.edu)

Mandolin orchestras during the golden era (1880s to 1920s) were especially a part of college life. Playing in a mandolin orchestra was a social activity, not a serious study of music, and the groups were student-run.  Most of the colleges also had banjo clubs and glee clubs, and the three clubs would make joint concert appearances at least once a semester. The two all-women colleges of the Pioneer Valley, Smith and Mount Holyoke, and the predominantly male Amherst College were among the colleges that regularly gave glee, banjo, and mandolin group concerts. Mount Holyoke’s Mandolin Club was still in existence as late as 1922 (1), and the Smith club remained until 1923 when the glee club ceased to be student-run (2).

Life at a women’s college was restrictive in the 19th century. When they weren’t attending classes, women’s off-time activities were confined to “prayer, contemplation, and manual labor” (3). The “frivolity” of playing music wasn’t encouraged, let alone permitted. While upper-class women were encouraged to take up an instrument, it was intended for private pleasure and not to perform in public.  By the 1890s, Mount Holyoke and Smith lifted those restrictions, and women pursued social activities their male counterparts enjoyed in their collegiate life. The Smith College Mandolin Club was formed in the fall of 1894 under the leadership of Mabel Tucker (class of 1897), and made its debut the following February “at a Southwick House play” and played “six other affairs that year.” (4).  After the group expanded to include seven mandolins, five guitars, and two violins, Maude Carpenter (class of 1896) took over as leader of the Smith Mandolin Club after Miss Tucker left Smith (5).  Each year, the Smith Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs had a concert day in March, and in 1901 they gave a concert at The Academy of Music (6).

The Mount Holyoke College Mandolin Club was formed in 1899, according to the 1913 edition of The Mount Holyoke journal. The college’s glee and banjo clubs were already established earlier that decade.  The three groups performed mid-winter concerts on campus and at promenades and commencement exercises. 

The women’s glee, banjo and mandolin clubs “only occasionally toured and rarely ventured beyond their communities,” and the tours were intended to “recruit and better alumni relations.” (Karen Linn)  The women’s groups at Smith and Mount Holyoke, therefore, may not have had the opportunity like the all-male Amherst College Glee, Banjo, and Mandolin clubs to perform at Carnegie Hall, which they did in April 1897 (8).

The time approximate of the disbanding of the instrument clubs, the early 1920s, was around the same time the rest of the mandolin orchestra craze waned.  The cultural shift of the time rendered group mandolin playing too archaic and sedate for the new generation of college students, as they roared into the 20th century and enjoyed the technical advances of recorded music amongst other modern pleasures.

1. Llamarada (Mount Holyoke College Yearbook), 1922

2. Smith College

3. Karen Linn, “That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture,” 1994, University of Illinois Press

4. The Smith College Monthly, October 1895

5. Ibid

6. The Smith College Monthly, 1901, month unknown 

7. Karen Linn, “That Half-Barbaric Twang: The Banjo in American Popular Culture,” 1994, University of Illinois Press

8. Carnegie Hall (www.carnegiehall.org)

Smith College Mandolin Club (Photo credit: http://www.smith.edu)

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