“Conform to the rules and regulations herein set forth”

While processing a recent box of donations, I happened upon an Annual Catalog from the 1920-21 school year at Eastern Mennonite School. As I leafed through it, I found handwriting all throughout the margins. There is no name on the catalog, so it could have been a student eager to remember all the rules or a member of the faculty or staff taking notes so they knew how to guide their pupils. Either way, these notes provide a revealing look at the minutiae of life at EMS a century ago. 

EMS was in its fourth year in 1920-21 and the fledgling school was finding its wings. In January of 1920, students and faculty moved up the hill from the White House in Park Woods to the newly built Administration Building. As the only building on campus, it was the focus of campus life. Students studied and lived all together under one roof. Enrollment was 216, nearly triple the first year’s enrollment of 77.1

EMS Administration Building

The rules were numerous at EMS in 1920-21, so our scribe was savvy to take notes. The first rule under, “General Rules and Regulations” sets the tone, stating that, “The discipline of the school will be parental and homelike but firm and positive.” The rest of the 23 rules and regulations cover behavioral expectations both in and out of the classroom.2 EMS sought to educate young people to become good workers for the Mennonite church, and their rules were meant to keep students in good standing with the school, the church, and their fellow students. The “Discipline and Decorum” section states that “for a denomination to maintain and perpetuate doctrines which are unpopular and the observance of which call for self-denial and non-conformity to the world, she must exercise a rigid and judicious discipline.” and “It should not be considered that obedience and submission to wholesome discipline and authority militates against the happiness of man, or that it infringes upon his real liberty”3. Following the rules was required to maintain the harmony of community at EMS and foster an environment where learning was possible.

Here is a sampling of what was noted in the catalog: 

On curfews and timeliness: 

“Gentleman in the building by 7 o’clock. Ladies in the building by supper time.”

“Prompt to come, prompt to go. Do not linger in basement hall.” 

In the halls, one must not linger or loaf habitually or blockade the stairway and doors.

“Students must be in their rooms when last bell rings for study period. At 10 o’clock all lights must be out and quiet”

“No noise before 6 A.M.” 

On relationships:

“Students will be allowed to associate on the campus provided there is no habitual coupling off of the same individuals of opposite sex”

“Students will not be allowed to couple off away from the campus except on outings accompanied by authorities. Violations of this rule will be punishable by at least 10 demerits.”

“No visiting during study hrs. without permission from H.M. or assistants” 

On personal health:

“Bathe twice a week–bathing schedule on bulletin board Friday P.M. 20 minutes each” 

“Have a study schedule, refrain from eating between meals, exercise regularly, and avoid too much sweet.”

Failure to follow these rules, along with other infringements like unexcused absences could result in a demerit. The writer notes that five demerits disqualify someone from office (for school clubs or literary societies), 10 earn a reprimand from the principal, 20 a reprimand before the faculty, 25 suspension and 30 expulsion.

There was at least one perk of 1920 EMS–someone else does your laundry! The scribe writes that students were allowed 12 pieces besides bedding and were to throw their items down the chute Sunday afternoon. 

Though the above rules have gone, the 2020-21 school year at EMU has seen a new crop of regulations–this time for the physical health of all on campus and in the wider community. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students must do their best to observe social distancing, mask wearing, and there are limits on the dining hall, athletic spectators at games, and gathering size. Following the rules is yet again required to maintain the harmony of community and to foster an environment where learning was possible.  Though the methods and reasoning look different a century on, I believe the hoped for outcome is the same: a conscientious and caring community that prepares students to make a difference in the world.


1. Kraybill, Donald B. Eastern Mennonite University: a Century of Countercultural Education. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017. p. 343.

2. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p. 22-23.

3. Eastern Mennonite School. Annual Catalog 1920-21. p.17.

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