Book and Key: A Brief History    

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.

This article is part of the Book and Key Society portion of my series Last Century Today. Book and Key did not meet on February 21, 1918. Therefore, in lieu of their meeting minutes, here is the first half of their history, written by a founder whose signature is too inscrutable for me to read and who therefore shall go unnamed.

UPDATE 2/27: The author’s name is Howard Cooper Johnson.

BOOK AND KEY: A Brief History    

Tribute to H.J. Tily, Morris Clothier etc.



Shortly after 1900 Morris L. Clothier and I conferred about the establishment at Swarthmore of a Senior Honor Society based on the plan of the Yale Societies. We visited, from the outside, Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, Book and Snake and others and gathered bits of information from various sources and together planned this building and its furnishings. For practically all of this, Morris paid.

In the meantime we drew upon the experience of Herbert J. Tily in drafting the Initiation Ritual, which I rather suspect was influenced by that of a well known fraternal organization. In Morris’ mind, secrecy was very important.

In 1906 the building was completed and the first undergraduate class initiated. From time to time many prominent graduates were laid out on the floor “their bodies arranged as the figure 7 to typify their being members of the 7”. The protruding tummies of some of our most prosperous alumni so prostrate on the floor is one of the sights our present undergraduates will rarely see.

The Society immediately took an important place in undergraduate life and there were immense crowds of students, alumni and townsfolk at the College to witness tap night, as well as the entry into this hall at the time of the annual initiation. The research of some of our professors living in the neighborhood was interrupted by the terrific racket and ringing of the gong on the roof at initiations and compelled the Society to cancel this frivolity. The march of the members, two by two, in lockstep from this hall to the front entrance of Parrish, led by the bearer of the great wooden key at the conclusion of each meeting was abandoned at the urging of College reformers.

Some Senior classes have cooperated with the College administration and have contributed much to undergraduate understanding of the society. Some classes, less interested and active, have contributed little toward advancing the standing of Book & Key. The several waves of anti-fraternity, anti-tradition, alumni-know-nothing spirit which from time to time have swept American colleges, have caused us heartburnings and at times almost despair.

A few years ago Morris Clothier, with many misgivings, agreed with the majority of us that the time had come to eliminate all of the secrecy, except that of a well-regulated family and consequently we are free to explain to prospective members, the faculty and the administration our objects and aims. A plan of obtaining the news of undergraduates as to the new Junior men is helpful in broadening the interests of the students in Book & Key.

Stay tuned for the characteristics looked for in a member of Book and Key.

Featured image and archival preservation courtesy of Friends Historical Library.

Keton Kakkar ’20

Keton entered Swarthmore with the class of 2019 and graduated with the class of 2020. He double majored in English literature and computer science and was awarded Honors at commencement. A former editor of this newspaper, he was responsible for merging The Daily Gazette with The Phoenix, among other initiatives. He grew up in Sands Point, New York, completed the last two years of his secondary schooling at Phillips Academy in Andover Massachusetts, and is a member of the class of 2025 at the NYU School of Law.


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