Daily Life at Mount Holyoke

Daily Life

"How I do wish the things at home would go like clockwork as they do here, so much is accomplished."

For the Mount Holyoke students and their teachers, the school day lasted more than 16 hours. Between 5 am--the required wake-up time--and bedtime at 9:15 pm, the Seminary was run on a strict schedule created by Mary Lyon. Every 15 minutes, bells rang to announce the next activity. Students were expected to obey some 70 different rules pertaining to conduct, health, protection of the building, safety, and contact with the outside world. For example, they had to whisper in halls and work rooms, sleep with doors slightly open, and sit in assigned seats at every activity. Rules at men's colleges were common, but, unlike Mount Holyoke's, were often not enforced.


Silhouette of Mary Lyon, who was principal of the school she founded for 12 years.

A Typical Day

Classes and Study Hall

Students memorized and recited their work, which was the learning style of the day. Mary Lyon quickly adapted new college teaching methods such as written compositions, lectures, and analysis of texts. The books used by the students were the same as used at men's colleges.


Each day teachers met with a small group of students to review their work and hear their recitations.


Textbooks. The books used by Mount Holyoke students were the same as used at men's colleges.

Domestic Work Circles

Students, working in five-person teams or "circles," performed every chore needed to keep the Seminary running smoothly. They cooked, baked, washed dishes, set tables, did the laundry, cleaned, delivered mail, and worked in the office. Mary Lyon, a model of efficiency, broke down the chores into steps. One circle, for example, rolled out pie crusts (as many as 38 at a time); another team filled the shell, still another baked the pies. Work assignments were rotated monthly.


Mary Lyon believed in the benefits of exercise and fresh air, and was one of the country's earliest advocates of physical education classes for women. All students were required to walk one mile after breakfast. During New England's cold and snowy winters, she dropped the requirement to 45 minutes. Calisthenics--a form of exercises--were taught by teachers in unheated hallways until a storage area was cleared for a gymnasium. Domestic work often involved strenuous physical activity.


Mary Lyon took great interest in planning the Seminary diet. She demanded quality meats and foodstuffs from her suppliers and even offered tips to student cooks on making a perfect pea soup or apple pie. Fruit such as oranges, grapes, and raisins were considered delicacies. Much to the dismay of some students, coffee and tea were banned from the Seminary.

Butter Dish

Butter dish owned by Mary Lyon.


Mary Lyon was a devout Christian. Although Mount Holyoke had no religious affiliation, students were required to attend church services, chapel talks, prayer meetings, and Bible study groups. Twice a day teachers and students spent time in private devotions. Every dorm room had two large lighted closets to give roommates privacy during their devotions.


Cross made of Mary Lyon's hair. For many years at Mount Holyoke, prayer and Bible study were important elements of daily life.