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college history

Guest Blogger: Anna Kilby on “Mary Lacy and The Need for Domestic Perfection”

In Fall 2019, Archives, Special Collections, & Community (ASCC) had the privilege of working with Dr. Rose Stremlau’s “HIS 306: Women and Gender in U.S. History to 1870” course. Over the course of a semester, students researched the history of women and gender in the greater Davidson, North Carolina area using materials in the Davidson College Archives and other local organizations. The following series of blog posts highlights aspects of their research process.

Anna Kathryn Kilby is a sophomore potential Gender and Sexuality Studies and Political Science major at Davidson College. 

Mary Lacy, wife of Davidson College President Drury Lacy, took her job as First Lady of the college very seriously. In her letters to her stepdaughter, Bess, she writes of cooking the best food, wearing the best clothes, and making sure people at the college are taken care of, including her own slaves. She also expresses her frustration at her female slaves when they grow ill but doesn’t address their work in the home directly. Mary Lacy seems to be striving for domestic perfection, but how much of her efforts are hers, and how much effort belongs to her female slaves? 

Mary Lacy was Drury Lacy’s second wife. He served as president of Davidson College from 1855-1860, and, during this time, their family lived across from the college, where the Belk Visual Arts Center is now. Drury Lacy had children from his previous marriage, one of which was Elizabeth, or Bess, as Mary called her, whom Mary writes her letters to. Bess lived in Charlotte with her husband. Mary wrote her letters to Bess from 1856-1859 while her husband served as president1.  

Scan of the first page of a July 2, 1856 handwritten letter written by Mary Lacy to her step-daughter, Bess. She asks Bess about crops and food products.
Letter by Mary Lacy dated July 2, 1856. This letter is referenced in the following paragraph.

As First Lady of Davidson, Mary’s duties consisted of hosting guests of the college and making sure she was the perfect hostess. In her first letter from July 1856, she asks Bess about crops and food products, and then in the next letter she discusses dresses and blankets. In a December 1858 letter, Mary tells Bess of a purple scarf from New York that is “the exact shade of her bonnet strings” and tells Bess to send her furs if she won’t wear them. Throughout the letters, Mary often talks about both male and female guests staying with them. Mary’s quest to be the best housewife is evident. She clearly needs to look the part, act the part, and cook like the part. 

So much of Mary’s perfect image was due to her domestic enslaved women, a few of which she mentions in her letters. In a letter from August 1856, she writes about the inconvenience of enslaved woman “Aunt” Amy getting sick, and then expresses displeasure when another enslaved woman shows symptoms, claiming “Aunt” Maria was faking it to get time off from work. Mary calls Maria a “hard old case.” The state of these enslaved women is so frustrating to Mary because she needs them to upkeep her image. How could she possibly be the best first lady, host, and housewife without the help of her domestic bondwomen? She calls in doctors to help with Aunt Amy’s illness, but I assert that this is not out of compassion for Amy, but out of selfish concern. Without enslaved women like Aunt Amy and Aunt Maria, Mary’s image would deteriorate. These enslaved women shaped Mary’s identity, and got none of the credit. Readers can wonder which meals Mary actually cooked, which clothes she actually sewed, which guests she actually took care of, and which efforts were actually hers. 


Admin, Davidson College HIS 306 Spring 2017. “Introduction.” The Mary Lacy Letters. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://his306sp17blog.rosestremlau.com/introduction/ 

Lacy, Mary. “Letters and Transcriptions.” The Mary Lacy Letters, Davidson College. Accessed November 6, 2019. https://his306sp17blog.rosestremlau.com/ 

National Park and Recreation Month: Davidson College Arboretum

Green brochure front with a cluster of leaves in the center, "arboretum" typed across the top, "Davidson College" written just below the leaves.

Arboretum Brochure, Front Page

Since 1985, the National Park and Recreation Association (NPRA) has promoted July as National Park and Recreation Month. As part of these efforts, the NPRA encourages people to appreciate the importance of parks and recreational facilities to STEM education, community gathering and engagement, wild life preservation, and public health – among others.

In recognition of this celebration, we invite you to learn more about the Davidson College campus, which is also a nationally recognized and protected working arboretum.

The campus earned this designation in 1982 when then college president Samuel Spencer received a letter from Henry Cathey, the director of the National Arboretum, requesting the grounds of the college be used as a working arboretum. With the addition of a generous donation from the estate of forestry enthusiast Edwin Latimer Douglass, Physical Plant led an aerial photography and mapping project of the campus to facilitate the preservation of the space.

Four men surround new aerial image of the college campus.

Four men surround new aerial image of the college campus, 1991

But how did the college’s landscape become so unique that it merited this recognition?

The first mention of intentional grounds planning occurs in the first volume of The Meetings of the Board of Trustees of Davidson College. The minutes for February 28, 1855 state: “A communication was read signed by a few ladies of Davidson College, earnestly requesting the Board to take into consideration the propriety of enclosing the college campus, and a general remodeling of college grounds.”

Feb 28, 1855 meeting minutes from the Board of Trustees. Discusses tree plantings.

Feb 28, 1855 meeting minutes from the Board of Trustees


This is followed up in the Annual Faculty Report of 1860 – 1861 which commented: “During last spring, the students, at the suggestion of the faculty, undertook to set out each a tree for the embellishment of the campus.” By 1869, reports indicated that such plantings would deliberately attempt to replicate the general forestry and botany of the state and region.


June 22, 1869 meeting minutes from the Board of Trustees discussing how the plants should reflect local botany.

June 22, 1869 meeting minutes from the Board of Trustees


Today, the college arboretum includes five tree species which were extinct on the North American continent sometime between 2 and 50 million years ago. Since their re-planting in Davidson, they have survived several hurricanes, ice storms, and campus landscaping alterations.


Descriptions of five extinct species in arboretum brochure, including Cunninghamia lanceolata, Koelreuteria paniculata, Metasequoia, glyptostroboides, Zelkova serrata, Ginko biloba.

Descriptions of extinct species in arboretum brochure


Umbrella Tree Poem from the 1909 Quips & Cranks, picture of the tree on top of the vertically oriented text.

Umbrella Tree Poem from the 1909 Quips & Cranks


Student relaxing against tree after Hurricane Hugo

Student relaxing against tree after Hurricane Hugo


So the next time you enjoy the shade provided by our carefully constructed and maintained landscape, stop and look for a small metal plaque where you will find information about the tree’s name and history. Want more information? The Archives holds several copies of the Elm Row Newsletter – a campus publication once dedicated to stories about the college grounds and distributed by campus staff.

1997 Elm Row newsletter, front page. Columns describe campus plants.

1997 Elm Row newsletter, front page


Related posts:
25th Anniversary of Hurricane Hugo
Campus Maps