On Ben's Farm

Springtime Follies

On a damp spring day in 1920, students, townsfolk and visitors filled bleachers set up on the lawn in front of Demeritt Hall. As the audience waited, they caught a glimpse of women clad in whimsical costumes, flitting here and there on a makeshift stage, making final preparations for the first annual May Festival.

The event began with the presentation of the May Queen, a somewhat risque vision in a gauzy, sleeveless dress. Women students dressed as male heralds and jesters and children from the town in flower and butterfly costumes took the queen, ensconced in a coach, on a promenade. After the coronation and several dances, the festival closed with the winding of several maypoles.

This quaint spectacle from the college's early years was actually a kind of female bonding ritual, organized by a forward-thinking physical education director. In the early part of the last century, May Day festivals on college campuses were fairly common events. Although the term May Day brings to mind ancient spring rituals of fertility, the college version originated in 1881 at the Whitelands Teacher Training College for Women in England. There a May Queen festival was instigated by art critic and writer John Ruskin as a joyous celebration of innocence. He agreed to present volumes of his works (one suspects a healthy ego) and a gold cross to the student at Whitelands College who was elected the "nicest and likeablest."

New Hampshire's festival was launched by Helen B. Bartlett, who was hired in 1918 to head the women's physical education department. Bartlett, a thoroughly modern woman, received her training at a school founded by the famous health reform physician John Harvey Kellogg. Soon The New Hampshire was reporting that Bartlett had turned women's P.E. from "an uninteresting course into an attractive training liked by all the girls." Some of the classes resembled today's aerobics. There were deep-breathing exercises, calisthenics and exercises to strengthen and align the body, drills using a partner's weight resistance and others with a wand, Indian clubs or dumbbells. Dances and games helped develop endurance.

To add variety, Bartlett introduced soccer, field hockey, baseball and basketball. Despite popular theory that competition between women was unfeminine, she organized the first women's intercollegiate sports competitions. In 1919, she held the first public exhibition of gymnasium work. Finally, she proposed a May Festival to give the women a chance to be creative, to let their hair down—literally—and to have fun.

The Girls' Council sponsored the festival as a way to advance their goal of "bringing all the girls of the college together in one strong body, and to strengthen a feeling of real college spirit among them." Bartlett wrote, directed, choreographed and designed much of the event. Mary Bailey '20, the first May Queen, recalled that a red velvet portiere from a T-Hall window had been used to make her royal train. "Helen and her helpers sewed pieces of cotton around the edge of the curtain to make it look like ermine. It was really quite lovely," she said.

Bartlett directed two more festivals before leaving the university. Without a faculty advisor, the festival was discontinued, but in 1931, President Edward Lewis—believing the college needed more traditions—revived it.

Larger and grander than before, each year's pageant was even more elaborate than the last. Archery, fencing, gymnastics and horseback riding demonstrations were added. The New Hampshire reported that for the 1933 pageant, "attempts were made to secure a monkey for use in the dances on the green, but so far, the only results have been the offer of four donkeys."

After six years, interest in the May Pageant began to lose momentum. The participants themselves were often ambivalent. Marion James '40 laughed when she remembered the one pageant she participated in as a freshman in 1937. "I played the part of either 'Fever' or 'Death,' I can't remember which," she said. "I don't remember how I ended up with the role. I certainly didn't audition for it."

In 1940, the acting head of the P.E. department wrote to the sponsoring committee, saying with considerable tact, "I feel for various reasons that this would be a propitious year for a musical festival." As war approached, women's physical education focused more on fitness then recreation and the May Day festival was allowed to take its place in the pageant of UNH history.

Mylinda Woodward '97 is the assistant university archivist.

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