1901-1903 Manuscript Diary of a Wisconsin High School Sorority Girl Who Would Go on to Marry Into a Prominent New England Family and Make an Impact at Dickinson College

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On offer is a revealing diary written by one Helen Leonard Gilman (1884-1952) of Madison, Wisconsin, during her sophomore and senior years of high school at Madison High. Gilman would go on to graduate from the University of Wisconsin as a teacher and marry Dr. Herbert Wing, a member of a prominent New England family which founded Sandwich, Massachusetts, and a renowned professor of Greek literature for many decades at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. [NOTE: We also hold a diary written by Dr. Herbert Wing in our collection - search for item # 2097 or contact us for the listing]. See end of listing for complete BIO NOTES on Gilman and Wing. 

This diary covers the second half of Gilman’s sophomore year of high school, with long, chatty entries spanning January to August, 1901. There is then a large gap, and Helen returns on June 12, 1903 for a detailed update about her high school graduation, and once more on June 29, 1903, when she meets up with her Delta Epsilon sisters for a final picnic before they all move on.  

In her diary, Helen gives us much more than a daily look at her life. She is highly intelligent and provides great detail that situates the reader clearly in the teen world of Wisconsin at the turn of the 20th century. She is heavily involved with her high school sorority, Delta Epsilon, and discusses their activities at length, including the initiation process for a new member named Daisy. She shares great detail about her education, extracurricular activities, church life and community involvement. She is an engaging writer and her entries are robust. She writes in a notebook instead of a diary, allowing her to be as verbose as she desires in her writing. 

Some excerpts from her diary give a sense of the themes and style of her writing: 

“Another week of school begins! The same old studies History, Caesar, Algebra and Greek are gone over. This noon took my notices to the Journal office with my notices. After school tonight, the committee appointed to oversee Daisy’s initiation met here. We have planned the most terrible things! Its a wonder if the poor child is not killed. This evening the Nautilus Club have a sleigh ride but I am unable to go on account of my cold and hard hard studies…[Jan 14, 1901].

“I took to school with me this morning the babies Mother Goose Rhymes which we [Delta Epsilon] girls gave to Daisy who is to learn portions of it [Daisy is being initiated into the sorority]. Nautilus club met this evening after school and we had quite an exciting time as one of the girls got so excited while talking about how much she loves Burns that she wept. After club Margaret F and I went up town. The small pox scare at the Psi U house has proved to be nothing put a case of La grip” [Jan 15, 1901]. 

“This has been a very busy and delightful day – Flora and I went uptown at noon and tried to find a poster girl that I could use tonight but failed so after school I had to draw one. Such a sight as all the girls were this evening. Fran and Daisy came as ballet girls and looked too dear for any use. Awful low necks and short skirts. Dignified Clare shocked us all by appearing in a skirt far above her knees!...” [Feb 21, 1901].

“... Today however is a great day for this morning I received the reward of four hard years of labor – my diploma from Madison High School ... with a grade of 5th in a class of 95!. ... Last night I received my graduation presents...grandma gave me a beautiful diamond solitaire and the aunts a beautiful pearl ring...Mama gave me one of her beautiful gold bracelets with the initials of all who have worn it inside…” [June 12, 1903].

For a social historian or researcher into Women’s Studies, this is a window into the role education played in socializing young women into gender roles. As the writer Karen Graves noted in Girl’s Schooling During the Progressive Era,, the high school education system became a more "efficient site for the construction of gender" (Graves, 2016). Traditionally, education served to teach middle and upper class girls enough to make them suitable marriage partners for men who would actually be the ones running affairs. Its goal was to make them good wives and mothers, not educated equals in society. This diary gives a fine view into this system and would be a valuable addition to any writings exploring this subject. Her sorority membership adds an extra layer as sororities and fraternities have long been seen as elitist and exclusionary organizations that serve to segregate young people based on ethnicity, class and wealth.

BIO NOTES: Gilman was born to Edward Gilman and Sophie Mosley in 1884 in Madison, Wisconsin. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Wisconsin in 1907 and taught at schools around the state. She also worked for the Wisconsin Historical Library. In 1916, she married Herbert Wing who came from a well-established New England family. Helen and Herbert lived in Pennsylvania where Herbert worked at Dickinson College. They had one child, H. Gilman Wing, who graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dickinson in 1948. During the senior Wing’s tenure at Dickinson, Helen helped to organize the Mary Dickinson Club. While in Pennsylvania, Helen founded the Carlisle branch of the American Association of University Women, was a patroness of Pi Beta Phi sorority and was heavily involved in the Methodist church. Herbert Wing was an ancestor of Reverend John Wing, who founded the town of Sandwich, Massachusetts, the oldest community on Cape Cod. Through marriage, she is a member of the Wing Family of America Inc. This nonprofit corporation was formed in 1902 to preserve the family heritage of The Reverend John and Deborah Wing It also owns Wing Fort House, the oldest home in North America continuously owned by one family. Helen sadly passed away at the age of 68 from breast cancer. 

This hardcover, lined notebook measures 9.5 inches by 7.5 inches. It contains 96 pages and is about 50% complete. The cover is in good condition. The spine is in good condition, but the binding is loose at the inside front cover, although it is still intact. The pages are in good condition and the handwriting is quite legible. Tipped in to the diary are dried flowers from Helen’s high school grad, two handwritten original Delta Epsilon songs, and a handwritten list of names that appear to be connected to sorority life. Overall Good+. 

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