Saturday, October 20th, 2018

In 1950, my Grandmother attended Gorham Normal School

Posted on January 22, 2017 in Perspectives
By USM Free Press

By Mary Ellen Aldrich, Community Editor

Note: The spelling of my grandmother’s name differs from the customary “Charlene” and is instead spelled “Charleen”


In the 1950s, when USM was known as Gorham Normal School (GNS), my grandmother, Charleen Ellen Lyons-Aldrich, attended her first semester of college here.

Charleen’s fall semester ran from August 1950 to January 1951, during which time she studied to become a teacher. The school was much smaller then and had different rules and expectations than USM has today.

During this time period, the only dorm on campus was Frederick Robie Hall, which also encompassed the addition known as East Hall. Today this dorm is called Robie-Andrews. The dorm had a curfew in place requiring all dorm lights to be out by 10 p.m., which is quite a contrast to today’s simple rule of quiet hours. It was an all-girls dorm, and the males attending GNS customarily boarded in town.

“Any time a man needed to be in the dorm, for maintenance or any other reason, it was announced with, ‘Man on floor! Man on floor!’ to make sure everyone was aware and decent,” said my grandmother.

Today, there are several dorms on campus and they are all co-ed. It’s no longer seen as necessary to announce the presence of a man on the girls’ floor. Not only are the dorms co-ed, but so are many of the floors, and upon request, some of the rooms can be co-ed as well.

Students who currently attend USM are required to have a meal plan that’s managed by an electronic system with ID cards. This gives students a set number of meals and dining dollars (to be used wisely). Students can go to the dining hall nearly any time of the day and find something to eat, as long as you swipe your card. Yet, during the days of GNS, the meal plan was a bit different.

Three meals were served a day: breakfast, lunch and supper. If you slept through breakfast, napped through lunch or skipped supper, you missed that meal. They wouldn’t let students go hungry of course, and class schedules didn’t interfere with customary meal times as they often do now. Charleen waited tables at the dining hall during her semester at GNS and said that meals were served much like at a public school.

“You got in line with your plate,” explained Charleen, “and someone served you what was on the menu.”

Many colleges and universities today have laundry facilities that require quarters to get a load of laundry done. However, USM has laundry machines that are free to use, making it that much easier to get your clothes clean. In the 1950s, GNS had a laundry room, but it was all hand-wash. That’s right, you couldn’t chuck your load into a washer and come back later.

“You stood there and you did it by hand,” noted my grandmother, saying that all you needed was to put some elbow grease into it and wash your clothes by hand with a bucket, a bar of soap and a washboard.

“It wasn’t particularly inconvenient,” she said, “except for when we served fish. It would permeate our clothes and then we really had to scrub to get the smell out.” She did note that there was an option to take your laundry into town to use automatic machines, but that would get expensive on a college budget.

Trips to town are a good way to kill time and boredom. These days, there are several coffee shops and various places to shop and eat that are located conveniently close to campus. In the 1950s, there was a movie theatre in town that often had double viewings.

“It was one of the few places you could go in town without a chaperone,” Charleen said. “It was a good place to go if you had a boring afternoon ahead of you.” 

Charleen and her friends also enjoyed going to one of the coffee shops in town for donuts and coffee. The donuts were only five cents and the coffee was cheaper than most of today’s bottled water, and probably better tasting than most of today’s coffee.

Most college students today have a vehicle on campus. For those who don’t own a vehicle, it’s convenient to be able to hitch a ride with a friend or fellow classmate. Yet, in the 1950s, there weren’t many vehicles on campus, and those that were on campus belonged to faculty and upperclassmen. If a student wanted to catch a ride with anyone other than a legal guardian or parent, students’ parents had to sign a permission waiver.

While there wasn’t an appointed dress code for GNS, nor is there currently one for USM, people were, and still are, expected to dress in a decent manner. What constitutes as decent today is different than what was considered decent in the 1950s.

“Holes in your jeans wouldn’t have gone over so well in 1950,” Charleen said. “If someone showed up in something immodest they’d let them know about it.”

Today, ripped up jeans and crop tops are more common than slacks and knee-length skirts. In most cases these outfits aren’t seen as indecent or inappropriate unless a professional appearance is required for something, such as student teaching.

With the changes in name, buildings, faculty, students and societal customs, GNS and USM are two distinct variations of the same institution. Each version of USM has its good points and bad points. In two generations, our university has changed a lot, and that’s just on the dorm-life side of things. It will be interesting to see what will change in the next two generations.

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