An Identity Constructed in Felt
College pennants are a nearly ubiquitous feature in vintage photographs of college dorm rooms. Such photographs, which capture dorm rooms decorated in ways that reflected students’ personalities and interests, rose in popularity as photography became more accessible near the end of the nineteenth century. The images serve as carefully curated moments in a person’s life.
Photograph of a Dorm Room, c. 1890-1900. Silver gelatin print. Winterthur Library, Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera collection 182
Appropriately, we can discover much about the inhabitant of the dorm room pictured in the photograph above. The two pennants on the wall proclaim the inhabitant was likely a student at the University of Pennsylvania. A set table with a teapot shows that the student used the dorm room as a space for entertaining. Numerous decorative floral pillows and floral designs on the carpet and chair cushion demonstrate the student’s sense of style. Displayed pictures of Renaissance art and Native American prints and artifacts suggest that the student had a variety of intellectual and cultural interests.
Nevertheless, there is much about the student that remains a mystery. The lighting and the pictured American flag most likely date the image to 1891 or later. Since the University of Pennsylvania began admitting women in 1880, the gender of the inhabitant is unclear. Evidence suggests that the inhabitant is a woman because there are no oars, rifles, hunting trophies, or other overtly “manly” decorations popular in that era. Additionally, we cannot be sure that the dorm room has only one inhabitant, because the angle of the photograph renders a significant portion of the dorm room unseen.
Although half of the pennant reading “PENNS ” is out of frame, its placement as focal point in the photograph mirrors its conspicuous placement above the bed and therefore appears to be deliberate, not an accident of angle. Pennants were a common feature of college dorm rooms because they displayed institutional pride, just as college t-shirts and sweatshirts do today.
Annin & Co., Flags and Banners of Every Description (New York: the Company, c. 1912). Winterthur Library.
The Annin & Co. trade catalogue from 1912 demonstrates that selling objects emblazoned with college insignia was already big business. The catalogue sells pennants, burgees, and streamers of various sizes, as well as novelties like pillow covers. While most of the advertised objects were made of felt, some were made of silk or even cashmere. Pennants could feature a variety of design elements, including college seals, mascots, and graduation year.
While the catalogue claims to be able to make these objects for many schools, only a handful of schools, including the University of Pennsylvania, are prominently featured. Annin & Co. is prepared to make objects with not just the school’s name, but its seal and its Quaker mascot. For a certain style of pennant the catalogue even explains, “We can furnish above style pennants in Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale. Other names must be ordered in a quantity of a half dozen of a size and name.”
Curiously, with so many commercial options available, the pennant in the photograph appears to be handmade. The room’s inhabitant was almost certainly aware of flags made by Annin or a similar manufacturer. With the knowledge and means to buy a commercially made pennant the inhabitant must have had a reason for choosing a handmade one.
Ultimately, the handmade pennant lends credence to the idea that the room’s inhabitant was a woman. Making handicrafts is an activity long associated with young women and felt was considered an easy material to work with because its edges do not unravel and it can be cemented together instead of sewn. Having a handmade pennant would therefore be an ideal way for a female student at a coeducational school like Penn to meld femininity, self-expression, and school pride while requiring minimal time and effort.
By Aliza Alperin Sherif, MA Candidate, University of Delaware Department of History
This post is part of a series written in the fall of 2016 for a Historic Interiors class at Winterthur. Students explored photographs housed in the miscellaneous photograph collection (Collection 182) in the Winterthur Library’s Joseph Downs Collection. These scenes each reveal a treasure trove of objects that invite further examination, speculation, and connections to other Winterthur collections.
Carter, Sarah Anne. “Picturing Rooms: Interior Photography 1870-1900.” History of Photography 34:3 (2010): 251–67.
McCabe, Lida Rose. The American Girl at College. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co, 1893.
Snow, Bonnie E., and Hugo B. Froehlich. A Hundred Things a Girl Can Make. Philadelphia and London: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1922.