Life as a Student at Indiana University in 1857

In the 1940s Indiana University was gifted a diary that belonged to one of the university’s early students, John C. Wilson.

John entered Indiana University as a freshman in 1857 in pursuit of a Bachelor of Science. As a student in the Scientific Course, John was required to attend three recitations per day, and pass a public examination at the end of each semester. As the typical mode of instruction, a recitation is where the student is asked to publicly perform the material from memory with the intent to foster the “development of the intellectual and moral faculties, the formation of correct habits of thought and study, and the communication of useful knowledge” (Indiana University).

Admission to IU in 1857 was not too different from today. Students wishing to attend were required to procure “letters of honorable admission” from previous institutions and pass an examination or provide proof that sufficient studies have been completed prior to admittance. Before attending a recitation, a student was required to show evidence that all bills were paid.

Many students were involved in one of the two literary societies on campus: the Philomathean Society or the Athenian Society. These societies gave members practice in public speaking through debates and regular orations. John was a member of the Philomathean, which had meetings on Friday nights–some sessions lasting until the early morning hours.

In the 1850s, Indiana was becoming more populated, reaching 1,350,000 people by the 1860 census (U.S. Census Bureau). Several efforts at modernization can be seen during this time, and in his diary John mentions traveling by train at the end of the first session to his family in Sullivan, Indiana.

Excerpt from the diary that mentions the Philomathean Society.
Excerpt from the diary that mentions the Philomathean Society.

Very little biographical information is known about John. The information we do have comes from his diary (which has been fully digitized and transcribed!), but curiosity and a desire to know more about John and his family prompted us to explore several resources to find out more. Our detective work proved fruitless, but here are a few of the resources we consulted:

  • and other genealogy sites in attempt to trace known information of John’s great niece, Norbeth Koonce, who donated the diary to Indiana University in 1947, back to John with the hope of determining John’s date of birth. There is mention of a Josiah Wilson in the diary, who may have been a family member attending Indiana University as a preparatory student, but this is unconfirmed.
  • Papers and diaries of Professor Wylie and President Daily from the 1850s, located in the Archives.
  • Newspaper archives from Indiana, such as Access Newspaper Archive, 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, and America’s Historical Newspapers.
  • Looked through the minutes of various administrative bodies on campus.

As always, please contact Archives staff if you have any questions!



Indiana University. (1858). Annual Report of the Indiana University Including the

Catalogue for the Academic Year, MDCCCLVII-VIII. Indianapolis, IN.

U.S. Census Bureau. Resident Populations and Apportionment of the U.S. House of

            Representatives. Retrieved from:

New! William R. Ringer papers, 1916-2011

Can I share with you one of my favorite archival sights?

*squee* New student diaries!

Earlier this year, I received an email from a woman in Virginia stating that the diaries of her friend’s father – primarily dating from his time as an IU student in the late 1910s – had found their way into her possession and she wondered if we would be interested in them?

Yes yes yes yes! I mean, have you seen this picture of me hanging in the library somewhere? See what’s in my hands? 

I like diaries. It’s not – necessarily – that I am nosey. Rather, I like how they fill in a person’s story, whether it be the writer or the individuals written about. When I come across mentions or descriptions of student hangouts or campus traditions or faculty, I’m over the moon! And I love how they provide a personal perspective on major world events.

So, when that box above arrived, I forced myself to set it aside until I could spend some time with the diaries because I knew they’d be a time suck. And because I like to share, I decided to immediately write a finding aid so that you all could also have the opportunity to enjoy them!


William R. Ringer, Class of 1920

Hailing from Williamsport, Indiana, native Hoosier William Raimond Ringer entered Indiana University in 1916. As a student, he was very active in campus activities, and served as an officer for several campus groups. The small collection of papers held by the Archives consists chiefly of diaries maintained by Ringer while he was an IU student. He was devoted to writing in his journals – about what classes he had that day, what they did, where he ate, who he saw and talked to, etc.

Ringer’s time at IU coincided with World War I. Although he originally planned to leave college to teach, at the last minute he turned down his teaching job so that he could return to IU and join the Students’ Army Training Corps when it was formed in 1918. According to the 1919 Arbutus, with the SATC,

the government was to practically take over for military purposes the organization and equipment of every college able to muster a sufficient number of students for military drill. This surrender on the part of the colleges to the government control was to be voluntary, and the relation between the government and the college was to be a matter of contract. A duty rested upon the colleges to provide suitable barracks and subsistence for the members of the Student’s Army Training Corps, in addition to academic instruction, the colleges to be reimbursed as agreed upon in the contract with the governemnt.

Indiana University was one of the first to make this contract, and began early to make plans for the housing and feeding of the great number of soldiers who were to be trained here.

The Delta Tau house on Kirkwood served as "Barracks 1" for the S.A.T.C. William lived there for his short stint in the Army.

On October 3, 1918, Ringer and his friends were divided into SATC companies and he was told he would be living at the Delta Tau House, aka “Barracks 1.” He wrote in his journal, “I am in the army – and tonight is my first night. I am glad yet I don’t like the bunch here at all. All roughnecks at the house.” Ringer continued to log his experiences – including a brush with the Spanish flu, which I previously wrote about – with impressive regularity. Thankfully, he never did get pulled into the war overseas, as on November 27 they received word that the S.A.T.C. was to be disbanded within the month and he moved out of the barracks.

Ringer continued writing in his diary through March of his senior year. Rather sad that he didn’t finish up with his accounts at IU, but to date, this is nonetheless probably the most complete account of student life we have through a diary keeper. (Update! I heard from the donor that she has the remaining IU entries and they were waiting on my desk this AM!) While the bulk of the collection consists of these diaries, there is also one volume holding copies of his outgoing correspondence for a short period, report cards, as well as some of his poetry and other writings (he was active in the Writing Club on campus).

Of course, one cannot read a person’s diary and not develop an impression of the writer. With William, even as a young college student, it seems he was very serious and the shenanigans of the other students tended to exasperate him. I don’t know whether he said anything to the individuals in person, but he could be scathing in his opinions of dates, classmates, and professors.

So, at your leisure, check out the finding aid and let us know if you would like to see the collection!