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Release: Nov. 6, 2002

Ione Mullnix letters show what life was like at UI in early 20th century

The letters that Ione Mullnix wrote home read fairly typically for a college student writing to her parents; requests for money, complaints about uninteresting compulsory classes, dates, parties, bouts of homesickness and late night cramming sessions for finals.

But Ione wrote her letters nearly a century ago, when she was a student at UI between 1904 and 1909.

The more things change….

The letters can be found in the Iowa Women's Archives, a unit of the UI Libraries dedicated to preserving the history of women in Iowa by collecting photos, writings, and other materials by women and making them available to students, scholars, and the public. The IWA is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year with a symposium on women's history Nov. 15 and 16.

Ione Mullnix's detailed letters are a diary of the life of a young coed in the early 20th century and serve as a window into UI life a century ago. More than 200 of Mullnix's letters are in the archives, along with about 175 of her parents' replies. Margaret Ione Mullnix grew up in the north central Iowa town of Dows, where her father was a physician, pharmacist and co-owner of the Mullnix Drug Store. She was an only child and had an exceptionally close relationship with both her parents, writing to them at least twice a week, frequently more often than that. She graduated from high school on an accelerated program and went off to the university at the age of 16, living in a boarding house at 198 N. Clinton St.

Mullnix was a devout Methodist who disapproved of drinking and dancing, though she attended school dances fairly often and fought an increasing temptation to participate before finally giving in her senior year. Her letters detail her activities, dining in boarding houses, and combining funds with friends to provide joint food "spreads." She writes of concerts, lectures and debates, picnicking, churchgoing, walking in the woods, entertaining guests in the parlor, ice skating, boating, clothing care, sewing and shopping.

In one of her first letters, she writes of a freshmen welcome reception at President MacLean's house with lemon sherbet and ladyfingers, "a real swell affair." She also attended the cornerstone laying of what would become MacLean Hall and wrote a vividly detailed description of that year's Freshman-Sophomore Pole Scrap, won by the freshmen.

In the long-time tradition of college students, she also complains about costs, a lack of money, and having to take classes she doesn't like. In one letter, she tells her mother she needs a gymnasium suit for a physical education class and that she hadn't planned for the expense, between $2 and $3."I don't want to take gym work very badly, but it is (compulsory)," she wrote. "Sorry."

One letter was written on the back of a geometry assignment she was particularly proud of. Another included a hand-drawn map of the UI campus and downtown Iowa City.

Her early letters are sprinkled with the kind of self-doubt, gloominess and homesickness one would expect of a teenaged girl far from home, but she matures dramatically through the years. A letter from February 1907 shows much of her gloom has lifted.

"Your daughter has been having lots of nice things happen to her in the last week till she begins to feel that she is getting almost more than her share of this world's pleasures," she writes, reflecting her Calvinist Methodist upbringing.

She talks frequently of dates both good and bad ("I don't like him anymore -- got tired of him" she writes after dumping one potential suitor), and of her blossoming relationship with Walter Grissel, whom she frets her parents won't like because he's Bohemian. His ethnic background apparently did not prove too great a hurdle, however, as she eventually married him.

Mullnix graduated from UI in 1909 with a major in zoology and returned to Dows, where she taught elementary school music for two years. She married Grissell in 1911 and moved to Cedar Rapids, where they raised three children and continued to be active supporters of the university. She died Dec. 8, 1947.

Karen Mason, curator of the Iowa Women's Archives, said the letters were loaned to the IWA by Mullnix's daughter, Lois Grissell Aldrich, of Concord, Mass., to be microfilmed. The original letters will eventually become a permanent part of the collection. The Ione Mullnix microfilm is available for public use by calling the Iowa Women's Archives at (319) 335-3068.