Some of the unique primary sources I have at my disposal at Virginia Tech are a small handful of scrapbooks that were kept by various students during the war era. These scrapbooks offer a glimpse into student life that one might not see by looking at pictures through the yearbook. Photographs from scrapbooks are more candid, more revealing about the people pictured and the person behind the camera, and can help me better construct what life may have been like for Tech students during the period.
The images I’ve selected to show here come from the scrapbook of DeWitt Clinton Wolfe Jr., a cadet from Wise County, Virginia who studied at the institute from 1917 to 1921. Wolfe entered VPI (Virginia Polytechnic Institute, as Virginia Tech was called at the time) at a pivotal moment in my research story. By 1918 every able-bodied student had either voluntarily joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps or were compelled to join the Student’s Army Training Corps. A year after Wolfe arrived in Blacksburg in 1918 students no longer wore the traditional uniform of the institute (pictured left), instead students wore the olive and brown Army uniforms that earned American soldiers the nickname “doughboys” (right image).
To me, the contrast of these two images couldn’t be more stark. The student on the left in the VPI uniform seems carefree and even smirks for the photographer. The student on the right (possibly the same student) looks more at home on a battlefield in France. He is not only wearing a service uniform, but is ready with his rifle and bayonet to “go over the top.” In fact, if I crop out the buildings in the background (currently Major Williams Hall), one might think that this picture was actually taken at the front.
This makes me wonder about what the war meant for Tech students. How the war permeated their lives. How they thought, acted, and reacted. The pictures show two different worlds for Wolfe, one with a boy and another with a man.