Swarthmore’s Frisby Craze of the ’50s and “Genteel Frisby”

Frisbee has been alive at Swarthmore decades before the days of the venerated Earthworms and Warmothers. Formal frisbee mania began in the spring of 1958, with a tournament hosted by the Society of Kwink (an organization of managers of men’s sports teams at Swarthmore) where the Phi Kappa Psi and Phi Delta Theta fraternities competed against each other. In this Phoenix issue, however, apparently disc-addicts had been frisbee-ing for the past five years. The center of frisbee activity on campus was the Wharton Quad, where the first organized match took place drawing 200 spectators at a time when Swarthmore’s student body was under 1,100 students.

Frisbee mania was not just limited to the outdoors; students also played on the stage in Clothier and in residence halls. However, Wharton remained the scene of the indoor campus frisbee action. A 1959 article in The Phoenix stated: “The title of supremacy in indoor frisbee, based on light-bulb destruction, is contested; Wharton C and D-Sections were almost perpetually darkened last year, with many claimants to superiority in numbers and accuracy.” Anticipating Gen Z’s love of “aesthetics,” The Phoenix detailed the central conceit of the “frisbee aesthetic”: “But the Frisbee aesthetic is not one of guttural starlings and frothing jaws; it is rather the epitome of the casual and effortless. The true zealot aims for the aura of classic repose, and a raised eyebrow is infinitely as expressive in the discontent as a roar of triumphal glee in other pursuits.” 

Some on campus seemed shocked that frisbee could replace the old favorite games of “penny-pitching” or “mumblety-peg,” both of which were toppled by “the exalted platter.” Student council was somewhat caught off guard but recovered in time to supply two frisbees for Parrish porch along with a “pretentious” Hula-Hoop, the presence of which singularly bothered The Phoenix as it was “no substitute.”

With the popularity of the game on campus, it is not surprising that Swarthmore developed its own campus version of the game, as Ted Nelson detailed in an article for The Phoenix. “Genteel Frisby” consists of one incident and two announcements, much like life, Ted contends. The first involved the thruster [thrower] thrusting the frisbee to grasper. Upon the grasper grasping the frisbee, the thruster announces the score that they believe the grasper’s grasp merits. The grasper then replies with the score they feel entitled to, an adjusted score, and the action continues with the grasper becoming the thruster and the thruster becoming the grasper. The score is not on a scale of one to ten, but rather as Foot! Shank! Loin! Lung! Beef! Bone! and Hand!, in that order. Each of these scores has an associated part of the body that one slaps while announcing the score they award. (See graphic, originally printed with these rules in The Phoenix.) When an announced score is to the declarer’s advantage, they are meant to slap with their right hand, and when to the other’s advantage, the left hand. If the announced score is to neither’s advantage, a split, there is no slapping. 

A few other minor rules: if a thrust is bad, a bonk, the grasper is allowed to shout “Cancellation!” and the thrust is canceled. In the case of a fumbled grasp, the thruster shouts “Honor!” According to the Phoenix: “This is to further confound the quantitative aspect of the game, since the addition of Honor points make it less clear who the real winner is at the end. Thruster then (most likely) announces the same score that was heard last, indicating that the grasper got no real points for his fumble.” There are many other rules that you can read about here.

What was the campus’s response to “Genteel Frisby?” We can not know for certain; Ted Nelson opined the game combines “some of the best features of mah jongg [Mahjong] and the Bullfight,” and it’s apparently thrilling to watch. Spectators are encouraged to shout “Sterling” or “Golden” for good plays, “Scorn” for bad ones, and “Euge” for mediocre ones. Nelson ends his piece with an appeal for creating a separate “Frisby Committee” as he believes that regulating, promoting, and funding the activity is too big a job for Student Council to handle. Whatever the reaction in 1959, we can hopefully be assured that we won’t see any games of Genteel Frisby played by the Earthworms or the Warmothers on Swarthmore’s campus any time soon. Should any frisbee enthusiasts be interested in rejuvenating the sport, I only ask you keep your thrusting feet, shanks, and loins away from me. 

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