Apr 26

‘Life was very simple. Very simple’

Tuesday, April 26, 2016 12:01 AM

By

Midshipmen with sweethearts in 1903 (U.S. Naval Archive)

Midshipmen with sweethearts, 1903
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Mary Taylor Alger Smith was born on 1 May 1892 and grew up at the U.S. Naval Academy, where her father, Philip R. Alger, a naval officer, was assigned. Below are a few quick excerpts from her descriptions of life at the turn of the 20th century. Despite Mary Smith’s statement that “life was very simple” back then, I think these stories below demonstrate people have not changed: children getting into trouble, girls meeting boys, socializing, dating. Perhaps the things that have changed are our clothes and hairstyles.

 

Socializing at the turn of the 20th century. (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Socializing at the turn of the 20th century.
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Q: How did you arrange a date with a midshipmen if he couldn’t come to call?

Mary Smith: . . . I don’t’ remember their telephoning. We met them at the gate, of course, you see, and then walked with them.

 

Midshipmen sailing (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Midshipmen sailing
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Mary Smith: And we used to go sailing all the time. For weekends, we used to go sailing on the old Argo, and the Robert Center.

Q: But not with midshipmen?

Mary Smith: Yes, always with midshipmen.

Q: With midshipmen?

Mary Smith: Yes. We’d meet them at the gate and go sailing.

 

Midshipmen attending afternoon tea (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Midshipmen attending afternoon tea
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Q: Where were you when you met your husband-to-be?

Mary Smith: I had come home from boarding school, and I was living in 5 Maryland Avenue with the family. And I met millions of midshipmen, as you can imagine, you know, lots of them. I met him, as I remember, in Catherine Devalier’s house. She had a party, tea party, like we used to have, and you met midshipmen that way.

Q: You started telling me about meeting your husband-to-be?

Mary Smith: Oh, nothing. I met him.

Q: At a tea party.

Mary Smith: Yes, tea party. Not matter who you were, Superintendent or anybody else, there was nothing to drink but tea. Not even coffee. Tea. I met him and then I was—what was I? I guess I was 17, 19, and I met a lot of other rivals, as you might say. And then we decided we’d like to be engaged and the family had a fit.

 

Worden Field circa 1905-1906 (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Worden Field circa 1905-1906
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Q: How many midshipmen were there in those days? How big a place was it?

Mary Smith: Oh, I would think only a few hundred, because they used to come out, for instance, and form and drill on the area around the Hendon Monument…And around that time, they were finishing what was known as Oklahoma, which is the area in front of Rodgers and Upshur Road.

*The nickname “Oklahoma” was chosen by midshipmen for what officially named Worden Field (the parade grounds) because, like the Western territory petitioning for statehood at the time, it was out in the middle of nowhere.

 

Main Gate, Naval Academy, 1898 (U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Main Gate, Naval Academy, 1898
(U.S. Naval Institute Archive)

Mary Smith: In those days, you knew all the watchmen.

Q: The watchmen, were they Marines in those days?

Mary Smith: No. I don’t know what corps they belonged to. They wore blue informs—plain blue clothes, as I remember. And the gate—well, I haven’t looked at it but the gate, I think, is the same as now.

 

Front of Bancroft Hall, 1906 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

Front of Bancroft Hall, 1906
(Naval History and Heritage Command)

Q: The gate on Maryland Avenue? [Gate 3 today]

Mary Smith: I mean the gate itself, the 1907 gate, but I mean the gate house. Used to be plenty big for anything that went on. But then they were building, as I said, Bancroft Hall, and we had a marvelous time with that. We used to go down there and race through it, which we were not supposed to do, of course. And the watchmen were not as quick as us, and they were a little fatter. And we used to go in and they’d chase us and tell us to go out, and we would wiggle through the partitions, which were not plastered, between the rooms. We would go down here, you see, about six rooms while those poor things were coming in, down the hall. It must have been maddening.

 

To read more about Mary Smith’s life as a Navy wife, please see my previous blog.

https://www.navalhistory.org/2016/03/22/life-as-a-dependent

Or to learn more about the U.S. Naval Institute’s growing oral history collection, please see the link below.

http://www.usni.org/heritage/oral-history