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Lydia's diaries: student life in the 1880s

Lydia Olsson: top left, as the bride in Fritiof’s Saga, April 14, 1905 (see larger image); top right, in Swedish costume for the Ladies' Chorus (see larger image); bottom, a later snapshot, date unknown (see larger image). (Augustana Special Collections)

Student of 2010 sees how lives overlap


By Rebecca Hopman '11

I met Lydia Olsson this past summer while working in Augustana's Special Collections. When I say met, I mean it in the most figurative sense of the word.

Lydia Olsson, the youngest daughter of former Augustana president and professor Olof Olsson, died more than half a century ago. However, Lydia lives on in the college archives. I found her while browsing the manuscript collections in search of something new and exciting. What I discovered was the story of an intelligent and independent young woman making her way through life at Augustana College.

Was at Sarah's for supper and then we went to Chapel together. Mahnquist stared at us and smiled a long while, which made us nearly croak. I told Sarah I could see my picture in his greasy hair. Everybody has gone to bed and here I am sitting writing such nonsence. I am wicked! (Sunday, Jan. 29, 1893)*

Lydia enjoyed school as much as she enjoyed her constant round of social events. She never complained about her academic work, instead exclaiming, "pray let me learn as long as I live" (Wednesday, Dec.r 21, 1892). Lydia particularly took pleasure in learning the skills of typewriting and shorthand. She often wrote passages of her diary in shorthand -- especially when she wanted to keep a secret from prying eyes! While she could not practice typing in her diary, she often mentioned her typewriting classes.

Great Ceasar! He drilled us four on the type-writer for speed to-day and my how we did go at it. I got six letters written in 30 min. Ella got 4 so did Carnagan, don't know how many Hull got; of course I had written it before several times.) Tuesday, Nov. 22, 1892)

Without a doubt, Lydia liked life on the Rock Island campus. But what student's life would be complete without a few complaints here and there? Much like the students of today, Lydia made it clear when something did not live up to her standards.

It's raining and I never saw such roads, it's perfectly scandalous that R.I. can't afford to pave their College street. They aught to be punished! (Tuesday, Dec. 6, 1892)

Though she might have had complaints, Lydia was saddened to see her student days end. By 1894 she had finished her academic work at the college. She continued to live on campus with her family, and still took part in the college's social life. However, she often felt useless and unproductive. Like many Augustana graduates, she wanted to have a purpose in life. She yearned for some new activity to fill her days.

If I had a regular work of something and earnt a little money regularly I would feel as tho' I had some mission to fulfill in this world, but now sometimes I feel as tho I were no earthly use or good. (Thursday, Jan. 4, 1894)

Her wish was soon granted by the Rev. Johannes Jesperson, a family friend and college administrator. Lydia became the assistant librarian for Augustana, and spent her days reading among shelves of books and artifacts (at that time the library was housed on the third floor of Old Main and shared the space with the College Museum). While she did enjoy the time to read, it does not seem as if she was the strictest librarian.

Ceder came into the reading room this afternoon and as he closed the door he spied E. Lofgren then. It made me nearly explode of laughter for the reason that he teases me so for him and says he has heard that EL is always in there. I tell him it is lonely and I need some company often. (Thursday, May 3, 1894)

Lydia's humor and lighthearted character served her well throughout her life on campus, and her job allowed her to give back to the school she loved so much. She might not have been the most typical student (just being a woman set her apart), but I think she certainly embodied the Augustana spirit. Even though the parties and classes have changed, can we really say the students of today are so very different from Lydia? Whether we are searching for new ways to succeed in life, or grumbling about any changes to our beloved campus, Augustana students in 2010 have quite a bit in common with Augustana students in the 1890s. Who is to say the same won't be true in another 150 years?

Lydia Olsson, from a family portrait, date unknown. (See larger image.)

I have had the pleasure, and honor, to get to know Lydia Olsson over the past few months. I am amazed at how much our lives overlap, and how different they can be. Since I already had an interest in Augustana history, I am sure I was drawn into Lydia's life more quickly than some might be. But I think everyone on campus has something in common with Lydia, and with the many other Augustana students of decades past. So whether you are a first-year just beginning your time at Augie, or a senior finishing up your last, I encourage you to spend a few minutes thinking about your own Augustana story, and how it connects those of past and future students.

* Lydia's original spelling, grammar, and word choice are retained throughout this article to maintain the character and the authenticity of her voice.

The Lydia Olsson diaries (1892-1896) are part of the Olof Olsson papers stored in Augustana Special Collections, on the first floor of the Thomas Tredway Library. The diaries, as well as more information on Lydia, are available upon request for further study.