Stanford history written letter by letter

It is often said that history is written by the victors. Stanford alumna ALISON CARPENTER DAVIS, ’79, takes a different view, at least when it comes to her alma mater. She believes Stanford’s history is written by students who send letters, and sometimes laundry, home to family.

Letters Home from Stanford is a collection of letters, emails and, yes, even texts from Stanford students to their family and friends back home.

Letters Home from Stanford
Letters Home from Stanford

Carpenter Davis says the idea of Letters Home from Stanford came when she learned that her mother, also a Stanford alumna, was told to write two letters home every week, or her tuition money would stop flowing.

As she started her research, Carpenter Davis touched base with the Stanford University Archives and learned, much to her pleasure, that archivists had started preserving letters as part of the Stanford Alumni Legacy Project.

Next, Carpenter Davis put out a call for alums to submit their correspondence. “Beyond stories of struggle and resilience, correspondence is encouraged about everything from how to do laundry to body paint at football games,” according to one call for submissions.

The accounts about life at Stanford started to roll down like waters of a mighty stream. Here are a few examples:

  • “Dear Mother and Daddy, For once in my life, I am really petrified over a history class. Western Civ has proved rather hard for me … I am comforted by the thought, however, that I had this same trouble when I first went to high school, and I did all right there, so I guess I will here, too.” —1944 letter home from a Stanford freshman, who graduated four years later
  • “Of course there are a lot of times when I wonder if it’s all worth it, but deep down I decided that a while back & know it’s still true. I think it’s really something to have something to work and struggle for so much.” —Anonymous, ’76
  • “Dear mother, … From 9:00 til 12:30 by night light I again crammed trig. and rose early Thurs. morning to stand in line at bookstore to draw for tickets for football show. Had my ex. in trig. Thurs. morning, went to town in afternoon to order flowers for game, came home, ate supper, & hurried to assembly hall so as soon as doors were opened we could get in & get a seat. Well the [Roble] rally was wonderful. Never saw anything like it in my life. Cheering & throwing of hats in air lasted for 15 minutes at a time. My ears haven’t been just right since.” —Julia, Nov. 12, 1911

The reception for Letters Home from Stanford has been warm. For example, former President John Hennessy wrote, “The letters cover a full range of experiences; from building reliance, to living in an intellectually vibrant community, to making new friends, to learning the challenges and opportunities of being an independent, thoughtful adult.”

Watch Carpenter Davis discuss her book.

Meet Carpenter Davis at a book event.