Smith’s First President Helped End World War One!

Well, not exactly.

But President L. Clark Seelye’s voice may have inspired the United States diplomats who attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Here’s the story…

At their 30th reunion Smith College’s class of 1886 initiated and funded a project to record President Seelye reading the passages from scripture, Job 28 (“the price of wisdom is above rubies”) and Philippians 4 (“help those women which laboured with me in the gospel”), that he traditionally read at the first and last chapel exercises.

Why did the class want do this? The answer seems to be simply that President Seelye was a beloved figure in the early years of the college and the class members would treasure having such a recording.

On November 3, 1916, a member of the class named Leona Pierce wrote a telegram to Columbia Graphophone requesting information about making personal records. That same day a Columbia sales representative sent her a reply describing in some detail the process and cost of record making. Later that month Miss Pierce purchased two wax matrices for making 12 inch single disc records at the cost of $75 per matrix. The 12 inch matrices had a playing time of 4 minutes and 15 seconds each.

Sometime between November 18 and November 28, 1916, Seelye recorded the scripture passages. The matrixes were then returned to Columbia Graphophone so that records could be stamped from them. Fifty-three copies of the record were made that November; 45 records for members of the class of 1886 and 8 additional copies.

Columbia Graphophone record label

Columbia Graphophone record label from President Seelye's recording.

According to the class receipts, in August 1918 the class had 150 additional records made; in December 1918, 100 more were made; in May 1919, 100 more were made; and finally in May 1920, 50 more copies were made. These were sold and distributed to Smith Clubs, Smith alumnae, members of the Seelye family, friends of Seelye, and other potentially interested listeners. One was even sent to Alexander Graham Bell, who acknowledged its receipt in a letter dated April 1919. He also noted that the record had arrived “a trifle cracked,” and he was sent another copy. He sent a second letter acknowledging receipt of this next record “in perfect condition” and wrote “I am hoping to have an opportunity of hearing it very soon.”

Seelye’s children were especially delighted with the recording. Henrietta Seelye Gray wrote a thank you letter noting, “it will always mean a great deal to have it and to be able to keep it for my children.”

So where’s the World War One connection? Here.

President Seelye's letter to Adele Allen, 6 December 1918.

President Seelye's letter to Adele Allen.

On December 6, 1918, Seelye wrote in this letter to Adele Allen of the class of 1886:

It would indeed give me great pleasure if my record may have given any one of the peace plenipotentiaries a deeper sense of the superlative value of wisdom and of its source, — although I have little faith that it did, but I am pleased to learn from your letter and the one you enclose from Mrs. Lansing that it has served to recall pleasant memories of Smith College.

The Mrs. Lansing he referred to was Eleanor Foster Lansing, who attended Smith from 1885 to 1886. She was the wife of Robert Lansing, Amherst College class of 1886, and Secretary of State in the cabinet of Woodrow Wilson from 1915 to 1920.

Mr. Lansing sailed for France on December 4, 1918 with President Wilson (the first time a United States President had traveled to Europe while in office) to attend the Paris Peace Conference. Seelye’s letter dated December 6 implies that through Mrs. Lansing’s Smith connection (attending Smith in 1886) she received a copy of the record, and the diplomats to the conference (including Wilson himself perhaps?) may have listened to the recording before they set sail.

The Peace Conference began on January 18, 1919. Among several treaties prepared at this conference was the Treaty of Versailles, ending the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. Did the United States diplomats have Seelye’s words ringing in their ears as they worked on the treaty? We’ll never know for certain, but if you’d like to have his words in your ears, you are welcome to contact us and we’ll send along a mp3 file of the original recording.

Want to learn more about Eleanor Foster Lansing? Take a look at this April 1923 Time magazine article noting her numerous activities, including Director of the YWCA (and for more about the history of the YWCA, see the Sophia Smith Collection here at Smith!).

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