On Ben's Farm

Models for Their Time

For more than half a century, Laura Jacques '22 saved her old clown costume. It was white, made of rough cotton, covered with black polka dots the size of half dollars. Back in 1922, the year Laura apparently sewed the costume, the half dollar was in widespread use.

She saved pictures, too, such as the snapshot of her and Eleanor Sawtelle '22 dancing in their clown costumes, hooking their legs in unison: Pierrot and Harlequin. Such dancing was required as part of women's physical education at the New Hampshire College of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts in the decades before Title IX ensured gender equality.

A film of these old May Day ceremonies survives. Young women looked like characters in Maxfield Parrish paintings, only more modest. They danced in skirts thin as gauze, waving barrel hoops garlanded with flowers. They swung the hoops in unison, then raised them to make a sphere. The children of Durham were costumed as fairies and elves, and they capered around a Maypole. The May Queen ruled from her throne: a carved wooden chair.

This is part of Laura's legacy, which is preserved, along with the mementos of dozens of other pioneering UNH women, in a new exhibit called "Lucy's Legacy" at the UNH Museum in Dimond Library.

Lucy, of course, is Lucy Swallow, the teenager from Hollis, N.H., who became the college's first woman student. In 1890, she wrote Dean of Faculty Charles H. Pettee, seeking a place in the next class. Lucy was accepted and enrolled in 1891. But she chose not to move from Hanover to Durham with the college in 1893, and later married Charles P. Brown, the brother of Delia Brown, the second woman to be admitted.

Lucy lived typically for a woman of her times, managing a household and farm as she contributed to a rich cultural life in a small New Hampshire town. Lucy served in the Hollis Grange, the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. She died in 1965 at the age of 92.

As Lucy Swallow was a model for the educated woman of the last century, Laura Jacques was ahead of her time—a model for the modern, emancipated woman. Jacques came to college from Ashland, N.H., winning a scholarship from the local Grange. She had to earn her independence: her father insisted she quit school at 16 to work in the local hosiery mill. By the time she was 18, she had returned to finish high school and then enrolled at the college soon to become UNH.

There was more to women's athletics than the May Day exercises, although a shortage of money was a hurdle for both men's and women's varsity teams. Jacques saved a picture of her 1920 field hockey team—one of the first women's varsity sports. It's clear that the team had to contend with obstacles—uniforms apparently scavenged from U.S. Navy surplus and a very bumpy field. But that did not stifle a sense of mischief. One day, on a dare, Laura and another student dropped all the field hockey sticks at once. The noise reverberated through T-Hall.

Jacques graduated in 1922 and became a medical technician in Maine. But she chafed at being ordered about by the physicians—all male—so she became a doctor herself, attending the medical school at Boston University. "In many regions, especially those less populated, medical women are still sort of novelties..." Jacques wrote in the '30s. "But this leaves the women free, each to observe her own place, and this they seem to do, usually as specialists rather than as general practitioners."

Jacques specialized, earning the post of New Hampshire's head pathologist. She was a real-life forebear of Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner in Patricia Cornwell's thrillers. Laura traveled throughout New Hampshire, performing autopsies, solving mysteries. In the 1940s, Laura Jacques married Wilford A. Dion '23. Nevertheless, she kept her job until she retired in 1963. Dion passed away, but Laura still lives in Concord, N.H., at the age of 101. And the museum has the mementos she saved for so long—the clown suit, the snapshot of Pierrot and Harlequin, and the picture of the field hockey team, smiling young women all holding those sticks.

John Milne is a writer who lives in Concord, N.H.

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