Education

New student exhibit compares life in Southold in 1920 to today

How has life in Southold changed over the past century?

That’s a question one group of Southold High School students is exploring in a new exhibit, “A Century of Southold,” in the school’s museum.

The project began at a meeting of the Ambassadors Club last fall, as students leafed through old yearbooks and other archived school documents while curating items to put on display.

In a 1921 yearbook entitled “The Skeptic,” the senior class motto was spelled out in green lettering: “Knowledge is Power.”

“When we noticed that, it became less of an exercise of looking at cool stuff and more of ‘what can we learn’ on a deep dive in history,” said Mira Johnson, the school librarian and club co-adviser. “It was a nice way to engage with some larger ideas while holding artifacts from 100 years ago.”

The interactive exhibit takes you through a year in the life of a Southold student in the 1920s and 2020s, from taking attendance to keeping score at a basketball game, singing in a choir concert, reading in the library, signing yearbooks and graduating.

Comparing the artifacts to today, Ms. Johnson said the students took note of how most things have changed drastically and some hardly at all.

Taking attendance and report cards, for example, are now done exclusively online, whereas names and grades were handwritten in script a hundred years ago.

Students also noticed that course offerings varied. A century ago, Latin was a common subject and students frequently studied two foreign languages.

One display is devoted to basketball scorebooks — still recorded by hand, though teams have since scrapped knee pads as part of the uniform and there’s now a girls’ team.

Another features concert programs and yet another shows how yearbooks have evolved from tiny, black-and-white paper booklets to hardcover editions full of color.

“Those were particularly fun to compare with our yearbooks from today,” Ms. Johnson said. “The students were fascinated with different fashion trends and hair styles and different traditions.”

Today’s yearbooks may still feature superlatives but notable 1920s traditions included leaving a “will” behind for underclassmen — a cherished window seat, an old textbook, and nicknames like Tippy and Bunkie.

“[The students] used gloves, so they’re taking care of the items and are understanding how special they are,” said English teacher and co-adviser Jessica Ellwood. “They really decided what was worthy of being part of the exhibit.”

According to Ms. Johnson, the Ambassadors Club project grew out of the museum first established in 2016 through a partnership between the Southold School Educational Foundation, AP government students who curated the first exhibits and tech students who helped construct the mahogany display cases.

“As author Michael Crichton said, ‘If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree.'”

Anthony Mauro

The collection of items has grown as recent school renovation projects brought dusty boxes out of storage. “They started unearthing all of these treasures,” Ms. Johnson said.

While the displays all relate back to the school itself, Ms. Ellwood said the curation process served as a springboard for larger discussions about relevant topics like prohibition and women’s suffrage.

Before the pandemic, the museum was open to the public and Ambassadors would lead tours. “We couldn’t do any of that this year,” Ms. Johnson said. Instead, this year’s exhibit will be featured on an upcoming SOHO TV segment and is documented on the club’s Instagram page @SoutholdAmbassadors. The students will also make a presentation to the Board of Education at its next meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 27.

Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mauro said the club provides a “unique opportunity” for students to connect with local history. “As author Michael Crichton said, ‘If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree,’ ” Dr. Mauro said. “The teachers who run the club do an excellent job allowing us all to connect to the Southold tree.”