Few laments for the good old days were heard among a group of Northern Virginia high school students who recently opened their museum exhibit on growing up in 19th-century Alexandria.
Back then, girls for the most part confined their ambitions to hearth and home, a stiff hickory switch was considered as much of a learning tool as a McGuffey reader, and orphans were placed in job apprenticeships by local courts.
On the other hand, there were some bright spots in the once-bustling tobacco port of Alexandria. During the last century the city was considered the fashion capital of the East Coast -- a Paris on the Potomac, according to one student.
The 34 students who put together the exhibit called "Rites of Passage" took part in a Youth History Project run by the staff of The Lyceum, Center for Alexandria Heritage, and funded by a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which paid for lectures, paper and painting costs for the exhibition room, printing of labels, and construction of display cases. Students were trained in every aspect of museum work, including historical research, "reading" old artifacts, interviewing some of Alexandria's oldest residents and picking the color to paint the exhibit room.
The culmination of the students' work is an exhibit now at The Lyceum, at 201 S. Washington St., itself an important part of historic Alexandria. The imposing museum in the Greek Revival style was built in 1839 as a lecture hall and library for culture-hungry Alexandrians.
Modern-day Alexandrians can see the exhibit through October. It covers five areas: family, work, recreation, education and the Civil War.
After a school year of weekly meetings and intensive research into the life styles of their youthful counterparts of the last century, the students say that growing up in the 20th century has its advantages.
"I wouldn't have wanted to have been a girl back then," said T.C. Williams High School senior Katie Ablard, who may study archeology or anthropology when she goes to college next year.
Ablard, who worked on the topic of recreation, said that girls played basketball, tennis and held quilting bees, but were often confined to the kitchen. Most youngsters had little time for play, but swimming in the Potomac and ice skating were among the favorite pastimes.
She got involved in the project because of her interest in historical Alexandria. Her family lives in an Old Town house where George Washington's cousin once lived. Ablard said that she's found antique bottles buried in her back yard.
Another T.C. Williams senior, Alex Hoey, agreed with Ablard about the lack of career choices available 100 years ago. "Now students have access to more knowledge. They're not locked into a certain education or an apprentice-journeyman route," Hoey said.
The students said they wanted to work on the project because of interest in history, to fulfill academic requirements and because it will look good on college applications.
Most said that they didn't realize all the work that goes into arranging an exhibit. Students went to the Lloyd House Library in Alexandria to scour old newspapers, letters and diaries to document the life styles in as accurate a way as possible.
Museum professionals from the Smithsonian Institution, the National Park Service, the Office of Historic Alexandria and the Fort Ward Museum that dates from the Civil War, lectured the students on research techniques and on how to design an exhibit.
One of the more unusual research exercises was called "The Lady in the Trunk," National Park Service employe Charles Mayo showed the students a trunkful of artifacts belonging to a Pennsylvania woman now in her 90s. The students studied letters, travel documents and household objects to draw up a composite picture of the woman's life. Historians refer to this as "reading" artifacts.
Ken Turino, assistant director of The Lyceum and Ruth Hohl, museum exhibitions specialist, guided the students through the project. Participants came from public and private high schools all over Northern Virginia, including T.C. Williams, Bishop Ireton, Groveton, St. Agnes, St. Mary's Academy and Langley in Great Falls.
"Museums don't do anything for high school students, but we do programs for little kids and senior citizens. I think "Rites of Passage" was a very ambitious project -- I'm glad we did it," Turino said.