A History of Hazing – Swat Circa 1917

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Welcome to Swarthmore, class of 2013! You may have noticed that no upperclassmen have yet reprimanded you for wearing loud socks, forced you to sing for the rest of us, or challenged you to a wrestling contest. You’re welcome, but just remember – your kind didn’t always have it so easy.

Rules and regulations governing freshman behavior fill page after page of early Student Handbooks. Take these chestnuts from the earliest handbook in the Friends Historical Library, from the 1914-15 school year:

  • Freshmen are required to tip their hats to all Seniors in town or on the campus. A strict obedience to this rule must be observed.
  • Freshmen shall not wear conspicuous socks or neckties before the end of the first semester; and especially no Freshman shall wear any garnet.
  • Every Freshman shall purchase a regulation Freshman cap, garnet in color, with a large green button, not less than one inch in diameter, on it. These caps must be worn at all times upon the campus until the end of the first semester, excepting Sundays.

Note how “no Freshman shall wear any garnet,” but in the very next sentence, every freshman must wear a garnet cap. A later handbook from 1921-22 adds:

  • Freshmen shall not walk or loiter with their hands in their pockets.
  • Freshmen shall not cut campus; they shall keep to the walks at all times.
  • No Freshmen shall take a college girl to any athletic game or to Sunday night singing before the end of the first semester.

It’s kind of eerie, walking around campus right after thumbing through these dusty old student handbooks. Right after I left McCabe, I ran into someone walking with his hands in his pockets. And while I don’t want to moralize about the privileges we enjoy in 2009 relative to 1914, I’ve found the “You can behave as you like” aspect of Swarthmore one if its defining features. It’s sobering and a little surprising to realize that this was once far from the truth.

There are plenty of other rules, but these handbooks also give us a list of “Class Scraps,” such as the Keg Rush, the Soph-Fresh Tie-Up (exactly what it sounds like), and the Wrestling Contest. Most interesting may be the procedure for the election of the Freshman president. The Women’s Handbook from 1925-26 reads, “No man who is held on his back by sophomores shall be considered…The Freshmen shall be permitted to hold their class meetings unmolested after the election of their chairman.”

If that means freshman molestation was allowed prior to the election, that’s a little upsetting, but the Freshman Picture tradition created an even more aggressive display of class spirit. For many years, the Picture was taken in a similar manner to the election of the Freshman president: the freshmen would assemble in the first few months of the year to take their class picture, while the sophomores were given full license to disrupt the process however they could. In 1914 the tradition was abolished, and the Phoenix outlined why:

[I]t was deemed advisable by the Sophomore classes to place sentinels on the campus to sound the alarm. And with the introduction of these sentinels came the trouble. The system of guarding was improved year after year by each successive Sophomore class, until there was organized a system as complete in every detail as the Kaiser’s War Machine. From 5 a.m. until 10 p.m., up until Thanksgiving, the Sophomore class patrolled the campus, armed with revolvers and shrill whistles.

I’d say that the sole presence of students patrolling the campus with revolvers is evidence enough to end an unnecessary tradition (although I do wonder if this was hyperbole on the part of the Phoenix columnist), but apparently the administration abolished the Freshman Picture for a much more Swarthmorean reason.

During this period [when the picture could be taken] both classes forsook class room and study hall for the campus and during this time of class war, the peaceful arts of studying were relegated to the background in order to give an outlet for class spirit. During the period of the picture last year, the grades of the two lower classes were much lower than the average.

Over the years, students gradually chipped away at restrictions governing student life. In 1930, freshmen were permitted to loiter around campus with hands in pockets, and no longer had to tip their caps or curtsy to upperclassmen. By 1934, the handbook says that “no physical intimidation” shall be used in enforcing the rules, while in 1917, punishment was a menacing “swift, sure, and stringent.” In 1938, freshmen were required to wear the customary freshman beanie, were forbidden certain other articles of clothing, and were required to distribute mail to the upperclassmen – but almost all other rules had been abolished. By 1953, the only remaining restriction for freshmen was an earlier curfew.

Chris Densmore, curator of the Friends Historical Library, sees World War II as the primary reason for the elimination of freshman rules. “You get the Navy on campus, and students coming back after serving time overseas with the GI Bill – is the college really going to ask them to wear a freshman beanie?”

Interestingly enough, Swarthmore historian William Hull claimed in the 1930s that Student Government at the college was originally created to discourage freshman hazing – which, when you think about it, is a pretty bold move by the administration. To stop students from harassing other students, you give more power to the students? That can’t have been common in the 1890s. Hazing at the time included activities from “compulsory speech-making or singing at sophomore feasts” to “the wearing of weird apparel on a train ride to Philadelphia” to the more perilous “compulsory feeding; burying in the snow; tossing in a blanket; turning out of bed at midnight; ducking in the Crum.”

Ultimately, I’m left wondering how accurately we can reconstruct student life a century ago from Student Handbooks and Phoenix stories. There are very few testimonies of students from this era, and the darker side of these hazing stories only appears when there’s an effort to abolish it, such as a sudden influx of letters to the editor about “paddling” around 1910. When you read the handbook or the Phoenix now, how representative do you find them to be of your daily life as a Swarthmore student?

I’ll be mulling over that question a lot this semester, as the Daily Gazette’s history columnist. Feel free to let me know if there’s a question about Swarthmore history you’re particularly curious about. And don’t forget to tip your hat.

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