Pomp and Circumstance: Zola Grimes, Graduation Attire and 19th Century Student Life

Zola Grimes, University of Oregon Graduation, 1899
Zola Grimes, University of Oregon Graduation, 1899

This week we are presenting a three-part series highlighting the history of graduation at the University of Oregon. Part one (Tuesday) takes a look back at commencement ceremonies from the 19th century, part two (Wednesday) features a recent donation of graduation memorabilia from the 19th century, and part three (Thursday) highlights commencement speeches over the years. Congratulations to the Class of 2015!!


Last year the UO Special Collections and University Archives received a unique donation from the family of Zola Grimes Sorenson. In the collection is the dress and shoes donned by Grimes at her 1899 graduation, the fan she carried on stage during the ceremony, and a portrait of the graduate in her dress from the commencement. The donation offered a rare glimpse of “typical turn-of-the century attire” that would have been worn by students of the late 19th century to graduation. This post highlights the donation of the collection and some background on Grimes while she attended UO.

In the fall of 2014 we were graciously gifted the Zola Grimes Sorenson collection by her relative Sharon (Miller) Hastings. As noted above, the donation included the dress and shoes worn by Grimes at her 1899 graduation, as well as the fan, and a beautiful photograph of the her in a dress at the ceremony (see image above left). Due to the fragility and uniqueness of the collection, we took special care to provide appropriate housing and support to prevent any further deterioration and to ensure long-term preservation. The below images show the some of the steps taken during the preservation and housing of the dress, shoes, and fan.

Acid-free paper was placed below and in between to skirt to prevent further folding.
The bottom of the graduation skirt. Acid-free tissue paper was placed below and in between to skirt to prevent further folding.
Bodice of the dress. Acid-free paper was also placed in the arms and chest for support and to prevent further creasing.
Bodice of the dress. Acid-free tissue paper was also placed in the arms and chest for support and to prevent further creasing.
Housing of the shoes and fan.
Housing of the shoes and fan.

Receiving the graduation dress also afforded the opportunity to look deeper into what life would have been like on the University of Oregon campus two decades after its foundation. Students like Zola matriculated on a campus that barely resembled the sprawling grounds into which it has grown and afforded few of the diverse opportunities enjoyed by the student body today.

“Recently resurrected portrait of Oregon's class of '99,” Old Oregon 21, no. 6 (February 1940), 8.
“Recently resurrected portrait of Oregon’s class of ’99,” Old Oregon 21, no. 6 (February 1940), 8.

Grimes was born in Linn County on July 12, 1878, the youngest of five children born to John Grimes and Frances Adella Holt. Zola spent her formative years in Harrisburg, leaving for Eugene in 1893 with her Will, four years older, and Anna, who had been born 21 months prior to Zola’s birth. The trio all enrolled in the scientific course, which Will finished a year before his two sisters in 1898.

15-year-old Zola arrived on a campus where entertainment options were limited to the few student societies such as the Laurean and Eutaxian Societies. Athletics were in their infancy at this point, both in terms of intramural sport and intercollegiate competition; the first UO football game would not be played until the spring of Zola’s first year in Eugene. In general, students in the 1890s were forced to create their own diversions. From the February 1929 edition of Old Oregon:

Will Grimes, who received his B.S. in ’98, and is now in charge of the University tennis courts, says that there wasn’t anything to do when he went to school except study, with only an occasional party to break up the monotony.

Dean Straub recalls riding a bicycle out to “Will’s” house, where he often spent the afternoon. He, too, says that there wasn’t much to do then except study or loaf, for there were no theatres, and dancing was taboo.

In addition to affording fewer extracurricular opportunities to students, enrollment at the University of Oregon in the late 19th century also entailed a far different curriculum than most students are familiar with in the 21st century. Without any standard public high-school education yet in the state, the university stepped into the void and provided preparatory classes for students wishing to seek undergraduate degrees. It was into this course that Zola enrolled when she arrived in 1893, taking classes in algebra, geometry, Latin, ancient history, English, and literature during her first year in school. Her second year of preparatory work entailed more coursework in English, Latin, algebra, and geometry in addition to both lectures and lab work in physics and botany.

In 1895 Grimes obtained freshman status, needing 68 credits at that point to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree. Her weekly schedule included four days of Latin, four of either French or German, four sessions on mathematics, three chemistry classes and a weekly lab, and a weekly English class. In that first year, for reasons unknown, Zola managed to earn only nine credits. As a sophomore, she was more active, earning 22 credits that year while continuing with Latin, English, and French or German study in addition to adding calculus and rhetoric as part of the standard scientific course. In that same year UO purchased the house built by retiring physics professor George Collier on the eastern edge of the university, expanding the campus footprint to 27 acres in the process and providing a new space for the growing library.

“Recently resurrected portrait of Oregon's class of '99,” Old Oregon 21, no. 6 (February 1940), 8.
“Recently resurrected portrait of Oregon’s class of ’99,” Old Oregon 21, no. 6 (February 1940), 8. Zola Grimes is seated on the far left of the picture in the front row.

In the fall of 1897, Grimes returned to Eugene as a junior, enjoying greater flexibility at this point in her course selection. Juniors studying for a B.S. at this time were still required to take either French or German as well as English, though there were no more requirements for Latin studies in the third year of collegiate study. The curriculum also comprised economics, general geology, general English literature, and a choice of either advanced physics or advanced chemistry.

Zola’s senior year finally commenced on September 19, 1898, in her sixth year of study in Eugene. Advanced geology, mental science, and English all awaited; so too did a choice of coursework in either the history of philosophy, biology, or a combination of astronomy and Elizabethan literature. On June 15, 1899, Zola had realized her dream of college graduation. She donned her special graduation dress and shoes for the 10:00 am commencement ceremony, where she was one of 22 graduating seniors — along with her sister Anna — to receive undergraduate diplomas from the University of Oregon.

“1899 Reunion,” Old Oregon 20, no. 10 (June 1939), 3.
“1899 Reunion,” Old Oregon 20, no. 10 (June 1939), 3. Grimes is pictured fifth from the left.

After graduation, Grimes was unmarried for the next decade before meeting Bernard F. Sorenson. Sorenson, a butcher born in South Dakota to Danish immigrant parents, and Grimes soon became seriously involved. The two were married sometime between 1907 and 1910, settling after World War I on 6th and Salmon on the east side of the Willamette River in Portland. Bernard and Zola would have three children during their marriage, two of which survived into adulthood.

Zola continued to be active in alumni activities, attending each reunion dinner as they were scheduled over the years. She was one of thirteen alumni to attend the 40th reunion dinner in June 1939 (see photo at right), and remained a proud Webfoot until her death in her hometown of Harrisburg on October 8, 1959 at the age of 81.


Information for this article was collected from the following sources:


Zach Bigalke
Student Research Assistant

Jennifer O’Neal
University Historian and Archivist

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