Letters From a New Home: Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor

Jacquelyn H. Clements here contributes to the Archivist’s Notebook a fun essay about living in Greece in the early 1910s. She draws her inspiration from the letters that a young bride, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor, sent from Athens to her mother in America. Jacquelyn, who is completing her doctoral thesis in Classical Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, is also an aspiring photographer. She would like to live in Greece in the future and model herself after Alison Frantz, the well-known American archaeologist and photographer. You can look at Jacquelyn’s photography at: http://www.jacquelynclements.com

Students and scholars who study at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor. During her time abroad, Zillah wrote frequent letters to her mother, Emma E. Pierce, back home in Massachusetts. Zillah’s correspondence from a foreign land provides a unique picture of life in Athens in the early 20th century, and a life at the American School that bears many resemblances, as well as striking differences, to our life here today.

Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor on the balcony of the Director's House at ASCSA

Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor on the balcony of the Director’s House at ASCSA, ca. 1910 (Dinsmoor Family Papers, ASCSA Archives). Click to enlarge

In my Regular year at the ASCSA (2010-2011), I began volunteering in the School’s Archives along with fellow students William Bruce and Katie Lamberto. Our task was to undertake the tedious project of transcribing Zillah’s letters, and like any major archival project, it was faced with some trepidation, at least on my part. Her letters fill five boxes with multiple folders apiece, comprising hundreds of crumbling papers written in florid handwriting, sometimes encircling the borders of the pages when she ran out of room. In two years of transcribing Zillah’s letters, I’ve managed to read about seventy. Her musings are filled with detailed descriptions of daily life in Athens with “Billy,” (as she refers to her husband William) and their travels, both within Greece and also to England, France, and trans-Atlantic voyages. On occasion, I have been treated to photographs, placards, and small sketches as well, in addition to the occasional caret of commentary by Billy, his streamlined penmanship contrasting sharply to Zillah’s flowing cursive.

Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor, ca. 1910

Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor, ca. 1910 (Dinsmoor Family Papers, ASCSA Archives). Click to enlarge

Not much is known about Zillah’s early life. She was born Zillah Frances Pierce in September (27?) 1886 and married William Dinsmoor in 1909. Their daughter, Frances Athenais Dinsmoor, was born in Athens in 1919, and son William Dinsmoor, Jr. was born in 1923 in New York. From photographs of Zillah, we can see that she wore a variety of fashions, writing lengthy descriptions of her sewing habits and her dresses, and she even occasionally wore the style of the “natives.” Zillah’s letters are filled with both historical anecdotes as well as the day-in and day-out activities of a young woman living in Greece. Her trove of letters begins with the first trans-Atlantic journey that she and Billy took to reach Greece in 1910. Besides lengthy descriptions of their lavish meals on board and interactions with other passengers, Zillah still found time to explore. Before stops in rainy Naples, Pompeii, and Sicily, the ship docked in Gibraltar, and she wrote:

“The quay was crowded with funny little donkey carts, their drivers following you along, clamoring for you to ride…then small boys getting right under your feet in their endeavors to sell postcards. It was a perfect babel. The streets are very narrow, even Boston scores on Gibralter [sic] and they are built in tiers reaching about half way up the mountain side. The houses are of stone or mud, colored in pinks, yellows, grays and so forth. The whole evening seemed like a chapter from Arabian Nights. The Moors in their turbans and short loose robes about to the their knees, bare legged, long bearded, wandered about the streets together with Spanish senoras, English Bobbies, and officers.” (Undated letter from 1910)

This marked the start of many delightful descriptions of a new world through Zillah’s eyes. She clearly became enveloped in the foreign city of Athens and her different way of life. She met many visitors and residents of the American School, including the Moseses, Sanborns, and Allinsons, Hetty Goldman, Alice Walker, and Bert Hodge Hill, to name just a few. Often she also would visit the governess of the Crown Prince’s children at the Palace for tea. Zillah comments frequently on the styles and customs of the times, sometimes in a positive light (“Athenian women certainly know how to dress” [November 3, 1910]), while at other times rather critical: “The people over here do not know how to live,” (November 17, 1910, in response to less-than-favorable living conditions in Corinth). As we do today, Zillah often made the rounds at other foreign schools’ lectures and Open Meetings, including the German School, where she met director Georg Karo and heard lectures by archaeologist Wilhelm Dörpfeld.

Even in the early 20th century, the American School had established favorite traditions abroad, such as Thanksgiving, albeit with a slightly different menu and dress code than we have today:

“The dinner was quite wonderful for Evangelos is a genius.  I don’t know that I can remember everything we had but there was soup, fish cold jellied pigeon, little individual salads with whipped cream, turkey with chestnut dressing, another kind of salad, potato balls, quince jelly, & most remarkable, ice in fancy shape, salted almonds, different nuts, four or five kinds of candies and fruit also.  Then we all adjourned to the drawing room..Mr. Hill had said that the men were not to dress in evening clothes for this dinner, not even dinner coats, so I gave up my pink gown as inappropriate and wore my blue silk.  I wish you could have seen the sight that greeted my eyes when I reached the head of the stairs.  With the exception of Miss Walker and Miss Sheldon, the others had on the most elaborate ball gowns with long sweeping trains and very delicate gowns.” (November 27, 1910)


Zillah was also often a partner alongside her husband as he explored ancient and Byzantine sites in Greece, from the Boiotia region to Salamis and Chalkis. She often typed his manuscripts, quite possibly even one that I’ve been using in my dissertation work (Dinsmoor’s 1913 study of the Erechtheion building accounts, AJA 17 [2]: 242-65). The two took walks to Chalandri, where they discovered an ancient gravestone, had picnics at the monastery of Kaisariani, and explored the quarries of Penteli and the harbors at Phaleron and the Piraeus. At Delphi, Zillah wrote:

“We wandered about there [the Apollo precinct] looking at the remains of the different Treasuries and measuring foundations and stones. Billy will every once in a while pick up a perfectly ordinary looking piece of stone and say that comes from the Cnidian Treasury or this comes from the Siphnian Treasury. I think it is remarkable. You would laugh to see us now.” (January 17, 1911)

Another one of my favorite passages is as follows, from the same letter just after New Year’s:

“First we went to one of the hotels for a permit to visit the Acropolis. They issue permits sometimes for evenings when the moon is full but they had none then so we went up just the same knowing that the guards were sure to recognize us. However when we reached there not a guard was to be seen so we climbed over the fence and went up. The Acropolis seemed just like a fairyland for in the moonlight the marble lost much of its brown tone and glistened and gleamed like frost. Down below the city was one mass of lights and we could hear distinctly noise, the shouting and laughter of the crowds. In the distance the light of the Piraeus shone out less clearly but the people there were evidently celebrating too.”

Zillah Dinsmoor and friend watching the excavations at Corinth, ca. 1911

Zillah Dinsmoor and friend watching the excavations at Corinth, ca. 1911  (Dinsmoor Family Papers, ASCSA Archives). Click to enlarge

Another favorite moment was when the Dinsmoors walked from Athens to Eleusis, a journey of sixteen miles on foot. Exhausted, they at least had the good fortune to be able to take a train back to Athens:

“We started at eleven o’clock and reached Eleusis at six that evening (walking all the way) but we took it very slowly and spent about an hour for lunch; then we stopped at the church of Daphne and at the temple of Aphrodite.  At Daphne we saw the first good mosaics of the Byzantines…these had been cleaned by the French so they looked as fresh and new as though they had just been done; being made of little pieces of colored glass it did not injure them to clean them. We left Eleusis by train at six-fifteen and arrived in Athens at seven-fifteen (fifteen miles isn’t that good time). They ought to pay you for riding on these trains.” (February 7, 1911)

William B. Dinsmoor with the Secretary of the School, Cyrus Ashton Sanborn, at Ptoon, 1911

William B. Dinsmoor with the Secretary of the School, Cyrus Ashton Sanborn, at Ptoon, 1911 (Dinsmoor Family Papers, ASCSA Archive). Click to enlarge

Zillah later recounted this experience to a group of visitors from Harvard:

“They were aghast when I told them they would enjoy walking out to the sanctuary of Daphne, about seven miles. I don’t suppose they ever walked so far in their lives. I told them I had walked sixteen to Eleusis at which they looked at me as if I were an escaped lunatic.” (February 28, 1911)

This is a walk that I’ve always wanted to take myself, but admittedly haven’t yet out of fear of the modern Hiera Odos (Sacred Way) and its congested traffic. But Zillah’s journey brought back fond memories of my own Regular year, when a good friend and I walked the route of Lucius in Apuleius’ Metamophoses from Corinth to Kenchreai – and similarly exhausted, we took a taxi home after a pleasant lunch on the beach. There’s something to be said about recreating the ancient journey, and it’s becoming increasingly common for School members to take up these travels of tracing ancient paths, as current Associate Member Jacob Morton has been doing by bicycle this year.

Butter cost .98$ in Greece, when one could bought a shirt with 1.25 back in the States (LIFE Magazine, Jan. 27, 1910, p. 172)

Butter cost $ 0.98 in Greece, when one could have bought a shirt for $ 1.50 back in the States (LIFE Magazine, Jan. 27, 1910, p. 172)

Things were expensive in Greece in the 1910s, and news traveled slowly. Butter was 98 cents per week for two people, milk was 14 cents a quart, and an apartment was $75 a month – not including heat and “service.” At the same time, Americans abroad were still keenly aware of life back home. In a letter to her mother dated April 18, 1912, Zillah remarks on an event that occurred three days before:

“Athens is ringing with the news of the wreck of the Titanic but as yet we have not heard many details. What an awful thing it was. I think ocean liners should be made to carry a search light on the bow; that certainly would do away with accidents of this sort. How valuable the wireless telegraph is. It seems to have been the means of saving many lives in this instance.”

In many ways, Zillah’s letters have helped me become a more informed historian, drawing together the places I have visited with the School as part of the dialogue of modern Greek history. For example, I recently traveled with the Regular members to Dekeleia, located at the summer residence of the Greek royal family at Tatoi. Located there is the tomb of George I,  a long-time king in Greece whose rule was cut short on March 18, 1913, when he was assassinated in Thessaloniki. This left an indelible mark on Greece’s history, and reading about it in Zillah’s letters to her mother made the event even more tangible:

“The frightful news of the assassination of King George has driven nearly everything else out of our heads this week. We received it in a most dramatic fashion. We were at a cinematograph…with the Steeles and just after Theodora Empress of Byzantium had been strangled on the screen a man from the balcony asked for quiet and attention several times; then he said “Our King has been murdered.” In a second all through the audience ran the murmur, “the Bulgarians.” We went out into the street with everyone else and walked up Stadium St. to a newspaper office before which a large crowd had gathered and there we saw the announcement which read, “A Greek has killed our king.” We wondered then how the newspaper people had been so foresighted as to make the first two words “A Greek” but we learned the next day that the news had not been made public for more than two hours after it was officially known and the Senate had been called, so this precautionary measure was dire to the government.” (March 22, 1913)

The funeral procession for King George I. Click to enlarge

The funeral procession for King George I (Dinsmoor Family Papers, ASCSA Archives). Click to enlarge

In the Dinsmoor family papers, I found a number of images of the funeral procession, which was witnessed first-hand by Zillah and William. Though she noted that “I don’t suppose we could ever feel toward any President as these people feel toward their King,” her description of the event reminded me of the reactions to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A recent NPR reflection on the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death provided an audio transcript of the announcement of his assassination to the audience at the Boston Symphony on November 22, 1963, which was followed by a tribute of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Like Zillah at the cinematograph, the audience was clearly deeply affected. Although both events were before my time, I could feel the reactions of both groups through the words of Zillah to her mother and audio of the 20th century. One of my goals for my Associate Year at the American School was to learn more about the history of Modern Greece, and I have been able to accomplish this through the careful mining of primary first-hand accounts such as Zillah’s letters.

The grave of King George I at Tatoi (photo by Jacquelyn Clements)

The grave of King George I at Tatoi (photo by Jacquelyn Clements). Click to enlarge

In addition to her handwriting, Zillah’s vocabulary would often have me running for a dictionary. From her, I’ve learned what a “jabot” is (an ornamental frill, usually made of lace), as well as “oka,” which is a Turkish unit of weight. “Mutton tallow” might be familiar to some: a kind of processed sheep fat that can be stored for long periods of time (the Crisco of a hundred years ago?). Zillah’s letters are filled with such terminology, and even simple phrases were used more commonly than today. “Pouring,” for example, is her way of referring to the afternoon ritual of serving tea, which Zillah and her friends would take turns doing frequently, a ritual still at the American School in our time.

Other times, Zillah’s take on life in Greece has been remarkably similar to my own experiences: “Thebes is the most gloomy place it has ever been my fate to enter,” she wrote (October 20, 1910) and I readily admit that was my first impression of the village as well (though on my second visit, my opinion improved greatly!). She asks her mother to send her items from the States (the early 20th century version of the care package?), makes lists of the things she misses (baked beans and chowder, like any true Bostonian, I suppose), and expresses concern for the health of her grandparents, news of whom she would have to wait patiently for the next letter.

One of the postal envelopes Zillah used to send to her mother. Note the Flying Mercury stamps (click to enlarge).

One of the postal envelopes Zillah used to send to her mother. Note the Flying Mercury stamps (click to enlarge).

As with any good archival project, I’m left with a number of questions. What did Zillah’s mother write to her? We view Zillah’s letters as documentation of the American expatriate a hundred years ago, but to her and her family, they were surely personal, intimate accounts of life through her own eyes. Did Zillah’s mother fret about her daughter living so far away, as our own families surely do? For me, reading Zillah’s letters over the past couple of years has been a succession of small discoveries about life in Athens in the early 20th century, the day-to-day workings of taking tea, meeting people from different walks of life, tracking down a long-sought item of clothing or food, and exploring new places. Each letter I’ve worked through is filled with the seemingly mundane aspects of life in a big, foreign city, a world both very different and still strikingly similar to the Athens that we call home today.

4 Comments on “Letters From a New Home: Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor”

  1. Diane Dinsmoor morgan says:

    Zillah was my grandmother. I have information about her early life. I took care of Frances until the end of her life in 1995. I do not have the letters her mother wrote to her, but I do have letters that my grandfather wrote to her about his life in Athens prior to their marriage. I also have a copy of most of the letters in the archives that Zillah wrote to her mother. Zillah didn’t throw out any letters. We have one that was written to her thanking her for her hospitality in Athens by Eleanor Roosevelt who stayed with them. I was fortunate, at the time of my grandfather’s stroke in 1960 to be able to go and live in Athens for several years. Thank you for sharing some of this fascinating story.

  2. […] William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman […]

  3. […] Bell Dinsmoor’s young bride, Zillah. (About Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960), see also “Letters from a New Home: Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor.”) Her letters describe enjoyable lunches and elaborate multi-national dinners at the German […]

  4. […] wore a deep reddish-pink gown almost violet.” (About Zillah Pearce Dinsmoor, see also “Letters from a New Home: Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor” and “Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.