Undergraduate Life at Yale, by Henry E. Howland, with illustrations by Orson Lowell

“The atmosphere of a university is the subtle creation of its history, traditions, and surroundings, and is an element as vital as its more tangible properties. If, as Syrus says, ‘Discipulus est priori posterior dies,’ antiquity is a factor in its influence which neither wealth nor equipment nor even a high order of instruction can supersede. If we wish to take a true estimate of the genius of the institution, we must consider the character of the men who attended its birth and impressed themselves upon its youth, the molding force of the events through which it has passed, and the ideals toward which it has always striven.

The foundations of Yale University were laid by John Davenport, the leader of the colony planted at New Haven in 1638. To establish it his labors were for many years persistent and unwearying, and although he was not to see the fruition of his efforts, the tradition of them led at last to the consummation of his original design. The colonists who made up his company were men of superior wealth, culture, and knowledge of affairs; they recognized in no way dependence upon Royal favor. Under their leader they proposed to found an independent State which should ac- knowledge allegiance only to God. Their scheme of government included provision for universal education, schools where the learned languages should be taught, a public library, and, to crown all, ‘A college in which youth might be fitted for public service in Church and State.’ Their appreciation of the importance and dignity of their undertaking is shown in the building of their new town. They erected ‘fine and stately houses,’ and there was nothing in those days in New England which for beauty and fair situation could equal their streets and public square.

Their zeal in the cause of education was not local. In the fifth year after their landing, at the request of the Commissioners of the United Colonies of New England, they took up a contribution of corn for the support of the College which had already been established in Massachusetts, and continued it for several years. A cash gift… is also gratefully acknowledged by the historian of Harvard, received from Governor Eaton of New Haven, to assist in the erection of the requisite buildings in Cambridge; and, ‘for the encouragement of such persons as showed a disposition to bring up their children in learning,’ money was voted repeatedly from the public treasury ‘to maintain hopeful youth at Harvard College.’ But in the closing years of the seventeenth century exhausting Indian wars, the deconstruction of chartered rights, to satisfy the greed of the needy favorites of Charles II., and the Revolution accomplished by Sir Edmund Andros, scarcely tended to the promotion of the higher education.

The Colonists were known to the Crown as the friends of Cromwell, and although they had declined his invitation to return when he became Lord Protector, it was notorious that they were in sympathy with his views, and their protection of the regicides, Goffe, Whalley, and Dixwell, who were concealed in Davenport’s house and in the Judges’ Cave at West Rock, had brought down upon them the Royal displeasure. Instead of an independent community supported by all the institutions which can make it glorious, the colony had been brought into subjection to Connecticut, and the college, whose motto, ‘Lux et Veritas,’ was to have illuminated the world, had not risen above the grade of a grammar-school. But the love of learning had been deeply planted in the hearts of the people of New Haven: of the graduates of Harvard from its foundation in 1636 to 1700 as many as one in – thirty were from the distant town of New Haven, whose population did not exceed five hundred; and in the fullness of time the aspirations of those early years have been realized by a grateful posterity.

In 1700, William and Mary being on the throne of England, in an interval of peace following the treaty at Ryswyck, under the inspiration of James Pierpont, who had married the granddaughter of John Davenport and was the heir to the traditions and hopes of the family, eleven trustees selected by him, nine of whom were graduates of Harvard, ‘met at Branford, each member brought a number of books and presented them to the body, and laying them on the table said words to this effect: ‘I give these books for the foundation of a college in this colony.” The framers of its charter, to avoid Royal jealousy, gave it the name of the Collegiate School, ‘that it might better stand wind and weather,’ and to avoid local dissensions it was at first established at Saybrook as a central position. The times, however, were unpropitious; within two months of the entry of its first student, Jacob Hemingway, the War of the Spanish Succession began, and the American colonists were again involved in a French and Indian war. There was an empty treasury and there were no powerful friends. Strong enemies were intriguing to deprive the colony of its charter; the whole able-bodied population was on the frontier from the eastern border of Connecticut to the St. Lawrence. Amid these dangers and difficulties the trustees kept the college alive. In estimating the obligation due them the history of those trying years should never be forgotten. All that those eleven ministers had to cheer them as they rode slowly on horseback through the woods to their stated meetings in Saybrook were their faith in God, and the echoes of the Protestant cannon of Marlborough and Prince Eugene, which came to them over the water from Blenheim and Malplaquet.

In 1717, after a lapse of eighty years, the original plans of the founder of the colony were fulfilled in the removal of the college from Saybrook to its present location, where it celebrated its memorable commencement in its first building, 170 feet long and 22 feet wide, known as Yale College, whose ‘architectonic part’ had been designed by Governor Saltonstall. At this time it was endowed by Elihu Yale ‘with a liberal and bountiful donation,’ and received his name, which has thus been perpetuated in all times and in all lands; a tribute to high and unselfish action, justifying the inscription upon his portrait:

Dum mens grata manet nomen laudesque
Cantabunt soboles unanimique Yalenses Patres.

They were strong and earnest men, those old Presidents, who successively assumed the direction and development of the nursling which was eventually to become the Alma Mater of so many thousands of American youth. They were prominent figures in the stern theological controversies of the times, served as fighting chaplains in the colonial armies, cultivated polite learning when not in service, read Hebrew, wrote books, paid tribute to the muses and watched anxiously over the growth of the college. The report of the change in the religious views of Rector Cutler, the successor of Abraham Pierson, the first President, leading him to abandon the communion of the churches in the colony and to apply for Episcopal orders, ‘roused the whole country, and many people came to New Haven expecting some strange occurrence.’ As President Woolsey has said, ‘Greater alarm would scarcely be awakened now if the theological faculty of the college were to declare for the Church of Rome, avow their belief in transubstantiation, and pray to the Virgin Mary.’ The Rev. Elisha Williams was at one time a chaplain in the expedition against Louisburg, and a colonel in the invasion of Canada, and yet, in addition to these martial qualities, he is described as ‘a man of splendor’ who spoke Latin freely, and delivered orations gracefully and with animated dignity.

In the Grove Street cemetery lie the remains of many of the succeeding Presidents of Yale, beginning with the Rev. Thomas Clap, whose lot was cast in troubled times. His term of office began with the Spanish war in 1739 and ended during the excited discussions preceding the Revolution; but in spite of widespread controversy on religious subjects, which carried division into every town and household, in a low state of public credit, in the face of the expense of a costly war amounting to half a million sterling, he secured from the Legislature of Connecticut in 1752 an appropriation for a building now standing on the campus and known as South Middle, a link binding the old and the new. As the President and fellows marched into it in solemn procession at Commencement, the beadle, by order, made the following proclamation:

‘Cum e Providentiae Divinae Favore per Colonii Connecticutensis munificentiam gratissimam hoc novum Aedificium Academicum Fundatum et Erectum fuerit; in perpetuam tantae generositatis memoriam Aedes haec nitida et splendida Aula Connecticutensis nuncupetur.’

For eleven years, marked by great political excitement preceding the Revolution, the Rev. Naphtali Daggett acted as President pro tempore, retaining his position as Professor of Divinity. During the later years of his term the college was dispersed because of the war, and the confusion of the times was such that a President was never chosen. ‘Dr. Daggett,’ inquired a friend, ‘I understand that you are only President pro tempore; is that so?’ ‘Certainly,’ retorted the Doctor. ‘Would you have me President pro eternitate?

Dr. Daggett was an ardent patriot and sacrificed his life to his devotion, his death being caused by exposure in the field in resistance to the British troops when they entered New Haven. The democratic tendencies of his time are indicated in the foundation of the ‘Brothers in Unity’ as a protest against the aristocratic and exclusive Linonia; in a compliance with the wishes of the Legislature by the disuse of Latin in the laws of the college, and in the arrangement of the names of the students in alphabetical order. Previously the names were inserted according to the rank of their fathers. One of the severest punishments consisted in placing the name of an offending student below his proper rank; and there is a story of shoemaker’s son, who was placed above his order upon his statement that his father was on the bench.

It was the darkest period in the war of the Revolution when Ezra Stiles came to the presidency in 1778. The resources of the State were exhausted in raising soldiers and furnishing supplies to the army. Although it had a population of only two hundred thousand, twenty-two regiments were in service beyond its limits; the senior tutor, Timothy Dwight, had resigned to become a chaplain of a brigade of troops in General Gate’s army, and the students were dispersed; yet through the college into harmony with all classes of people in the State, re-established its prosperity, built South College, delivered orations in Hebrew on ‘Oriental Literature’ at Commencement in the morning, and in Latin in the afternoon; established the principal chapter in this country of the Phi Beta Kappa, and gave dignity and reputation to the institution at home and abroad.

Of student life at Yale in the eighteenth century but little is recorded. The earliest disorders were not rioting and dissipation, but theological differences, often marked by errors and extravagances. David Brainerd, of the Class of 1741, ‘whose religious character was of a high order,’ and who was afterward a most distinguished clergyman, was overheard to say of Tutor Whittlesey, who had been unusually pathetic in prayer, that ‘he had no more grace than this chair,’ and was expelled. Whitefield was creating great revivals and destroying the established order of things. The authorities were alarmed at the growing propensity of the students to disobey not only the rules of the college but the law of the land, by running away from the appointed place of worship to the Separate meeting. John and Ebenezer Cleaveland, who had attended the Sunday services at a Separatist Church with their parents, refused to confess that what they had done was in violation of the laws of God, of the colony, and of the college, and met the fate of Brainerd.

The disciplinary spirit of the times is illustrated in the laws governing the servitude of freshmen; they were forbidden to wear hats in the President’s or Professors’ door-yards, or within ten rods of the President, eight rods of a Professor, or five of a tutor. They were not allowed to run in the college yard, or up or down stairs, or call to anyone through a college window. Seniors could regulate their conduct in every particular. ‘Every freshman is obliged to do any particular errand or message required of him by anyone in an upper class, which, if he shall refuse to do, he shall be punished.’ They could not appear unless completely dressed, nor could they play with members of another class without being asked. Fines and penalties for misdemeanors ran from a half penny up to three shillings, and sophomores and freshmen had their ears boxed before the assembled college by the President or a member of the faculty for an infraction of discipline. All classes learned humility from the conclusion of the college prayer: ‘May we perform faithfully our duties to our superiors, our equals, and inferiors.’

Complaints of Commons were not so much of the quality of the food as of its cost. There were pipes of wine at commencement, and some mention is made of rioting in President Clap’s time. Contests between ‘town and gown’ are indicated by the attempted revenge of some Frenchmen in 1764, who for some real or fancied insult arising out of the hatred engendered by the late war, attempted to obliterate the college by mixing arsenic with the food in Commons, a catastrophe which was happily averted by the use of the domestic remedy of mustard and hot water.

The refinement of modern days was possibly somewhat undeveloped. In the history of Connecticut, published anonymously in London, in 1781, we are told: ‘Yale College is built with wood and painted of a sky color; it is one hundred and sixty feet long and three stories high besides the garrets. It is the first of American colleges. Its students have no polite accomplishments. It is always painfully apparent that they have been educated in Connecticut.’

The times favored the development of strong men, and while in the earlier years the Church claimed the majority of graduates, in later years statesmen and soldiers outnumbered all others. Four Yale graduates, Livingston, Morris, Wolcott, and Hall, signed the Declaration of Independence; eighteen were in the convention that framed the Constitution. Thirty-four ministers served as chaplains in the army, and there are records of one hundred and fifty graduates who served in the Continental line, including Wooster, Humphreys, Talmadge, Wadsworth, and Wyllys, the last of whom was in the leading battalion that stormed one of the Yorktown redoubts.

It is a notable fact that the descendants of James Pierpont, well called the founder of the college, have been closely associated with the conduct of its affairs for nearly two hundred years. Timothy Dwight, who was at the head of the college at the beginning of the present century, was his great grandson through the line of Jonathan Edwards of the Class of 1720, the wonderful preacher and theologian whose name to this day is the most illustrious in the Church of New England. Theodore D. Woolsey, the late honored President of the college, was a great great grandson of that James Pierpont, and the Timothy Dwight of to-day is his lineal descendant. The first President Dwight was a man of large mind, a believer in all kinds of knowledge, and a generous friend of all good learning and thought. He was, by the testimony of all who knew him, remarkable for his personal magnetism over all sorts of men and for the fullness and symmetry of his powers. He developed largely the atmosphere of the early days of the New Haven Colony of individual freedom, of mutual regard, creating a generous, tolerant community. Through him and those whom he influenced the new century was made at its beginning to strengthen and establish the characteristics of the earlier time. The discipline of the institution was changed; the whole system of pecuniary fines was swept away; the theory was established that the students should be treated as gentlemen. The custom of placing freshmen in a degrading dependence on the members of the upper classes was abolished as a relic of a barbarous age.

One of the greatest services he rendered to the college was the selection of some graduates of unusual promise whom he influenced to become instructors, unconsciously shaping its educational policy for the next fifty years. Three of them were for more than half a century associated with one another in the service. The heading of the catalogue of 1806, at that time printed only upon a card, contains their names. There are men yet living in all parts of the world who will bear witness to the influence which the example and instruction of Jeremiah Day, Benjamin Silliman, and James L. Kingsley had upon their lives. Their term of service began in the last century and continued until 1852, and their successors in their various chairs of instruction have undoubtedly received inspiration from the tradition of their service. By their individual prominence in their own departments and by their united labors, they heightened the reputation of the college which President Dwight had extended throughout the whole country. Those who followed them proved worthy of the inheritance: Chauncey A. Goodrich, in service from 1817 to 1860, who clothed the dry bones of classic rhetoric and criticism with the flesh and blood of a living enthusiasm; Theodore D. Woolsey, the very embodiment of a ripe and versatile scholarship, a master of the Greek language and literature, and an honored President for twenty-five years; Noah Porter, psychologist and lexicographer as well as President; Thomas A. Thacher, counselor and friend to many grateful college generations. The history of the university shows perhaps no scholar more conspicuous in any branch of learning than James Hadley was in all. It seems to us now a waste of splendid talent that he should have been chained to the task of plodding beside the stumbling feet of beginners in fields over which he could so proudly soar. The world knows his great achievements in Oriental philology, but he was also mathematician, essayist and poet, and all his qualities of intellect received a charm from rare modesty, patience, and gentle courtesy. There was about him, too, a quiet humor which would often appear in a shadowy smile at some incredible blunder and a soft ‘Yes?’ followed by a statement in exact variance with the adventurous answer.

It was natural that a college whose professors continued so long in service should maintain a conservatism in its external appearance as well as in its administration. Many years must elapse before the architecture of the modern campus will be infused with the associations of the old brick row which it has supplanted. The plain buildings had no charm of fretted masonry or solid costliness. They made the background for a long vista of elms which dappled them with flickering light and shade and varied to the eye the soft wide slopes of the Green beyond. At night they stored, like reservoirs of sentiment, the harmonies of ‘Gaudeamus,’ the blithe strains of ‘The Sheepskin’ or ‘Cocachelunk’ or the more tender songs of Francis M. Finch of ’49:

Floating away like the fountain’s spray,
Or the snow-white plume of a maiden.

And the echoes of his Alumni Song:

Clasp ye the hand ‘neath the arches grand
That with garlands span our greeting,
With a silent prayer that an hour as fair
May smile on each after meeting;
And long may the song, the joyous song,
Roll on in the hours before us,
And grand and hale may the elms of Yale
For many a year bend o’er us.

In the memory of older graduates, too, the simplicity and dignity of the old chapel were of higher worth than any structural splendor. In and out of its portals daily, morning and evening, poured for many years the whole college body, saluting with reverent bow the President as he passed down the centre aisle. From that plain pulpit flanked by tutors’ pews on either side were preached sermons on the Nature of Sin, the Freedom of the Human Will, and the Divine Decrees, the effusions of a consistent and conservative theology. A restless, mercurial throng listened to them from below, watched over by vigilant tutors in sentry-like boxes on the side aisles. Over all in the galleries sat the reverend professors and their families, watching in majestic serenity the throbbing tide of youthful life. What devotion there was in the beautiful music of the college choir and how that grand old hymn swelled out among the elms as it does to-day from eight hundred voices:

If through unruffled seas
Toward heaven we calmly sail
With grateful hearts, O God, to Thee
We’ll own the favoring gale;
But should the surges rise
And rest delay to come,
Blest be the sorrow, kind the storm,
Which drives us nearer home.

Morning prayers were less solemn. A gathering for worship at five in the summer and at six in the winter was more like the penance of a cloister than a devotional exercise. The chapel was cold, the lights were dim, the prayers were long. The gibing rhymster sang:

Day’s prayers they are delightful,
They last from morn till nightfall;
And when to pray Day’s once begun,
Day never stops till day is done.

The singing furnished the only relief, and Professor Silliman felt this when after reading eight verses of a hymn, he finished the line — ‘And sing to all eternity — omitting the last two stanzas.’ The congregation were dressed in motley, with a general predilection for a shawl or circular cloak and a pair of rubber boots to hide their naked frailties, and make them presentable for the hour of recitation which preceded a long-deferred breakfast.

In the social life of the college the great debating societies always held a prominent place, and contributed largely to that capacity for organization and that cohesion which has always been and is to-day a noticeable characteristic of Yale. Linonia, established in 1753, and Brothers in Unity, founded by David Humphreys in 1768, were intended to supply a literary culture which the curriculum did not furnish, and they fulfilled this office for one hundred years. They did much toward breaking down the barriers between the classes and promoting harmony and good-fellowship in college; they furnished ample opportunity for the display of forensic and literary ability and political activity. Extemporaneous disputes, orations, compositions, and humorous dialogues are mentioned in the earliest recorded proceedings. Questions which passed the scrutiny of a committee that they might correct any ‘bad grammar, wrong spelling, or the like,’ were entered together with the answers on the minutes of the scribe. Here are some of them: ‘How is the greatest common measure discovered in algebraic quantities?’ ‘To extract the square root of 16/199ths?’ ‘What is the reason that tho’ all rivers run into the sea, the sea doth not increase?’ Nathan Hale, of the Revolution, propounded the following: ‘How are the parts of life divided?’ The answer, ‘Into three — the vegetive, the sensitive, the rational.’ ‘What thing is the most delightful to man in the world?’ Answer, ‘It is much as the person is; if he is luxurious, he delights most in what he ought most to be ashamed of. Virtuous men will take greatest delight in virtuous actions; but what is most delightful to most men is getting money.’ The first question in extemporary debates in 1772 was, ‘Is it right to enslave the ‘Africans?” Most of the subjects were theological and indicated a spirit of free inquiry for that time. ‘Can a finite nature commit infinite sin?’ ‘Is infant baptism a damage to religion?’ ‘Was the punishment threatened to Adam in case of disobedience anything more than a temporal death?’

When a new government was in process of formation, many political subjects found their way into the field of society debate. ‘Have the United States any right to oblige any one of the States to come into the Constitution?’ ‘Ought not the slave-trade to be abolished?’ ‘Is commerce on its present footing beneficial to the United States?’ — were questions discussed by men who afterward had an active part in building States and the nation. The names of David Humphreys, friend and staff-officer of Washington, Timothy Dwight, Nathan Hale, James Kent, Jeremiah Mason, John C. Calhoun, and later the members of one class — 1837 — who have been conspicuous in public affairs, William M. Evarts, Morrison R. Waite, Edwards Pierrepont, and Samuel J. Tilden, suggest the value of their training. There were exhibitions, plays, and prize debates. The campaigns for securing freshmen reached back into the preparatory schools, were conducted on railway trains coming into New Haven, and culminated in the ‘Statement of Facts,’ held a week after the opening of term, when orators from the societies set forth alternately the incomparable history, the superior prize-list, and the immense advantage of one or the other in fervid oratory. Who can forget the playful humor, the sarcasm, the cross-fire of repartee, which that exciting occasion exhibited to the novice in college associations? The most spirited meetings of the commencement week were held in their halls, and men eminent in public life paid tribute to their usefulness. A third society, the Callipean, was established by Southern students in 1819, and was an expression of their sectional feeling.

But these societies became too large; with the growth of the college the members scarcely knew each other by sight; fluent and confident public speech came to be less highly esteemed than it had been fifty years before; the course of study became more comprehensive and exacting, and the development of class societies and the expansion of college life rendered unnecessary the excitements of the society evenings; the two great literary camps which used to fill the air with their rival cries, and parade their trophies at annual commencement, passed into honorable oblivion. The Brothers men said Linonia never died because there was not a quorum at the funeral, and the Linonians retorted:

Three hearers heard in a sleepy state,
Three speakers spoke with eloquence great
To gain three prizes in Brothers hall;
Three judges judged, and that was all.

The mention of the Calliopean Society suggests the numbers and influence of Southern men at Yale before the war. They brought with them manners and a culture foreign to the sober atmosphere of the North, but fascinating to the untravelled eyes of the boys of New England. To the charm of their aristocratic bearing and address there was added a picturesqueness of attire — Byronic collar, velvet waistcoat, flowing scarf, and sumptuous watch-chain, all crowned with the glory of locks which Hyperion might have envied — the cynosure of college fashion. But they brought a more vital contribution to the college in their fervid eloquence, in their generosity, and in the suggestion of a wider range of thought and action in a world outside the college gates.

College customs and amusements are transitory in their nature; they rise, run their course with greater or less length of life, change with varying surroundings, or give place to others. Many in the older times were recognized institutions. The Bully Club, won in battle from sailors at the Dragon — ancient name of Fair Haven — was for forty years the symbol of leadership in the college, an aegis in combats with the town, and invested with the mystery of legendary awe. Each class had a Bully of its own, but the Senior class furnished the Bully for the college, the autocrat of the undergraduate world. The institution was abolished in 1841 in consequence of a melee on Commencement Day between its adherents and those who opposed the old order of things as savoring of barbarism. The memory of it is recalled in the dirge written by Nathaniel P. Willis, of ’27, for the funeral of the Bully of his class:

Ye’ve gathered to your place of prayer
With slow and measured tread;
Your ranks are full, your mates all there —
But the soul of one has fled.
He was proudest in his strength,
The manliest of ye all;
Why lies he at that fearful length
And ye around his pall?

There are old graduates who remember the grotesque hilarity of the burial of Euclid, which braved the faculty ban for nearly half a century with all the zest of lawless adventure. The old print of its ceremonies is thus described: ‘Over all and above all is seen the Presiding Genius of Mathematics, in despair at the sad fate of the great geometrician. He sits on a throne of hyperbolas and arching parabolas, circumscribed by spherical fiends and segments of oblique-angled devils, while his great right hand is grasping the tangents and cycloidal curves which compose his mathematical thunderbolts.’

The freshman Pow-wow, a substitute for the annual foot-ball game, and the Thanksgiving Jubilee, which took the place of the more orderly exercises on Thanksgiving-eve in the staid old debating societies, were the occasions for the display of much dramatic ability, wit, and eloquence; but their excessive exuberance brought upon them the displeasure of the authorities, and led to their abandonment.

The memory quickens at the name of the ‘Wooden Spoon,’ and recalls a crowded theatre, the vivacity of eager maidens and their gallants, a brilliant exhibition of undergraduate wit and eloquence and all the glamour of youth and unaccustomed festivity. The presentation of the coveted emblem under the charge of the Cochleaureati, as non-appointment men were called, was the great entertainment of a year less subject than now to feminine distraction. It was adopted from the custom at the University of Cambridge of naming the Junior Optime, or last man in the honor list, the ‘Wooden Spoon,’ and although the distinction was first bestowed upon a third colloquy man at Yale, in later years the desire of exalting the most popular man in his class made it the absolute gift of the undergraduates. The enchanting music, the elaborate wit of the programme, the unequaled acting, and the brilliant, fluttering audience still dazzle the mind’s eye. The men of humble scholarship studied more Latin for the purposes of burlesque, paid more attention to original composition and developed more latent talent than the most sanguine of their instructors could have wished for, so great was the incentive and so eagerly sought the honor. As one of the songs had it:

Old Yale has many honors
In reach of every son,
And scarce a son departs from her
Without some honor won;
While hundreds take these honors
‘Twixt every twelfth full moon,
But one a year, and only one
Can take the Wooden Spoon.

When college life has passed away,
And battle-life’s begun,
This Wooden Spoon will ever be
A type of college fun.

But soon you’ll choose your better-half,
You’ll be a fraction soon,
And fractions of a fraction then
May use this Wooden Spoon.

The Junior Promenade with an accompaniment of concert, ball, senior and sophomore German, has become its successor and brings a burst of color, gayety and temporary freedom from restraint into the round of college occupations.

For a short period, a sort of dark ages in the fifties, Fate and the Faculty saw fit to institute a system of intellectual torture, a revival of the peine forte et dure, which laid the crushing weight of Analytical Geometry, , Differential and Integral Calculus, the influence of the Greek accent and Butler’s ponderous ‘Analogy’ upon a helpless college. Biennial examinations were imposed upon sophomores and seniors, and covered the entire work of the two preceding years; an unearned tribute to the mental powers of boys of eighteen. Into some minds the rills of learning never ran; and even from the diligent much must have escaped, but in the eyes of the faculty they should have been reservoirs brimming with learning to be drawn upon at will. Succeeding generations know not the nightmare of that time. Annuals and later term examinations took their place, but their memory still haunts the corners of the campus in the refrain:

No more for us yon tuneful bell shall ring to morning prayers,
No more to long Biennials we’ll mount yon attic stairs;
Examinations all are past; alumnuses you know,
We’ll swell the praises loud and long of Alma Mater, O.

The inauguration of the society system which now exists at Yale was one of the most important steps in the evolution of the old simple college into a life of humming organized activity. In the year 1832, there came into being a society which is at the very core of Yale life and upon which the whole unique system is based, the ancient Society of the Skull and Bone, now known as ‘Skull and Bones.’ It was followed, in 1841, by Scroll and Key, and in 1883 by Wolf’s Head, each in turn called into existence by the increasing numbers of the classes, or, as it was less euphemistically put, ‘to give community and sweetness to the eating of sour grapes.’ This was only in the birth of each, however, for they are now more nearly equal, although the prestige of age and achievement remains with ‘Bones,’ and this triumvirate sways the college world, raises to preferment or proscribes with absolute power.

These are societies of the senior class alone. The societies of the other classes — for in obedience to the Yale class-feeling each year has its own — have been ephemeral in their life and without any strong influence; their secrecy has never been profound, and a union of their forces for a college celebration has not been unusual. They generally serve as steps to the pinnacle of college success. A possible exception to this generalization should be made in favor of the Junior Societies… which have a history of fifty years, and though without the attraction of exclusiveness, keep Yale in touch with fraternity life in other colleges.

Except for the curriculum itself no force in the college is to be compared with the senior societies. The bond among their members lasts through life, and so close is it that even the college world knows nothing of their proceedings, and can only conjecture their purposes. Their cardinal principle in the selection of members is the recognition of character and achievement. The various activities of a college career are all recognized — literary ability, scholarship, athletic energy, the liking of many friends are all avenues to the temple of fortune. This is the highest honor which a Yale man can receive from his fellows, and because it comes from them he sets it above scholastic distinction or any titles which the faculty can confer. All the things that may be desired are not to be compared to it, for it is itself a crown of victory for whatever task a man may have undertaken.

The society halls are retired and guard their own secrets. Curiosity stops abruptly at the iron doors. The members do not even breathe the name of any one of the three societies, and the little gold badge of membership never leaves the person. By so much the more is their glamour increased in the eyes of the unthinking, but their real strength lies in the character of the men they choose and in the stand they take for the better things in academic life.

The timorous freshman sees afar the shining mark, and his footsteps take a purpose in their course. The swashing sophomore, in the hurly-burly of midnight, casts a backward glance of prudence at upper-class dignity, conscious of the ordeal to come. Juniors are, of course, as men on trial for their lives, and walk accordingly with guarded, and alas! sometimes worldly eyes. Sir Senior himself, in the full panoply of success, with the consciousness of deeds well done, feels the responsibility of great place and does his best to meet it. He has passed through the valley of tribulation and over the hill of difficulty, and now he sits serene in the enjoyment of his garnered wisdom. It may be inferred that the system has its defects — few institutions are better than the men who compose them. A world of perfect retribution is an unrealized ideal, and the mimic world of college does not always weigh with perfect scales. The genus ‘Swipe,’ anglice toady, is not unknown; and individuality of thought is sometimes sacrificed to public opinion, crystallized by the society men and the society standards. But what a sane, what an impartial, what a tremendous public opinion it is. The writer, the debater, the scholar, the athlete, each is goaded to the full measure of his abilities. Life is strenuous and eminently practical because success is tangible. The organization of effort, carried to its highest development at New Haven in athletics, debate, or the different phases of social life, which is the ‘Yale spirit’ upon its tangible and mechanical side, is due in large measure to the society influences which concentrate into channels of efficiency all the diffuse and vagrant energies of the college. The system is at once the child and supporter of that vigorous democracy which endures because it recognizes the achievements of worth, and yet acknowledges no claims of birth or station.

The only public manifestation of the effect of these senior societies upon college life is at the annual choice of members from the incoming Senior Class. For weeks before the announcement the elections have been taking place in the society retreats, and the results are disclosed in a manner at once mysterious and dramatic, which gives to the ceremony the sombre tone of a Nemesis tragedy.

On a certain Thursday afternoon in the last week of May groups of men begin to thicken about the campus. Underclassmen, juniors, heroes of the day, seniors, sceptics, and scoffers, to whom the future offers nothing, all but the forty-five society members who are withdrawn into their remote temples, sweeps, conversational mothers, graduates ruminant of the past, and professors, swell a crowd which wavers about the fence in thrilling anxiety, the perfect type… eager to praise or blame, sagacious after the event, but impotent before the march of fate.

As the college chimes ring five o’clock a senior from each society comes upon the campus into a hush of expectation. He walks solemnly to the crowd of men, enters it, threads his way about with a fixed gaze at nothing, and often passes by the object of his search until finally he comes up behind his man, taps him on the back, and with the accolade bids him sternly ‘Go to your room.’ With relaxation of the strain comes applause, varying with the popularity of the elected man, and generally louder if his fortune was unexpected. In an embarrassed rapture he goes to his room as a hero to the abode of the gods, attended by the senior as his sponsor Valkyrie. What happens there is the first mystery. From this point the elections are given out in rapid succession as the afternoon wears away, and within an hour all hopes are realized or defeated. For a few days the elected men may receive the congratulations of their friends, but on the following Tuesday they pass the frowning portals of the hall and their lips are sealed.

If there appears something of the childish in these observances, as no doubt there is, especially in this particular demonstration, the unfamiliar critic should consider that Yale men almost unanimously applaud their influence and cherish their existence. In 1884, when their selection of members had not met with the complete approval of the college, a proposition was made for their abolishment and a mass meeting called. A prominent man who had failed of an election delivered an enthusiastic eulogy upon the system, and the proposition to abolish was defeated by an overwhelming majority.

The moral and intellectual atmosphere of the training of older Yale was in keeping with the physical aspect of the recitation-rooms, formal and ascetic, with an uncompromising ugliness of bare white-washed walls and blackboard, mourning badge of learning, which stood for discipline and arduous effort. The turbulent youth crowded on the yellow benches were subjected to violent temporary repression beneath the grim looks of the tutor who faced them in his little pulpit, presiding over the sacrifice… unrelenting… In other relations he was a good fellow — over beer and pipe he might rise to heights of geniality, but the ordinary tutor was in the class-room a sphinx before whose questions many ambitious youths perished miserably. The intellectual rigidity which his severity enforced always became painful before the lapse of the full hour of recitation, so that the explosion welcoming some touch of humor in the proceedings was as violent as the repression had been austere, and the unhappy tutor often found himself suddenly confronted with a crisis not necessarily included in the experiences of a high-stand past.

‘What was the laticlavius?’ said the tutor to a pitiable wretch of that order whose intellects transfuse the solid facts of positive knowledge into a nebula of vague conjectures. Boldly he concealed the weakness of his defences and faced the enemy: ‘It was the garment which the Roman matrons wore when they went into the Cloaca Maxima.’

Equally unfortunate was the youth who volunteered to give the parentage of Trojan Ganymede. ‘He was,’ said he, ‘the son of Mount Olympus and an eagle.’ Some doubt being expressed as to the exactness of this biological statement, he proved his faith in authorship, and shocked a drowsy room into clamorous applause by reading triumphantly from the preface to his Ovid: ‘And Ganymede was borne to Mount Olympus by an eagle.’

Even the mathematics recitation, usually a desiccated repast, was sometimes flavored with a taste of humor. A much-loved professor was deeply pained to see an estimable young man, whose knowledge was at his fingers’ ends, put that knowledge into his pocket upon the professor’s approach. In a voluble attempt to cover up his manoeuvre he said: ‘Professor, I think this sine of alpha can be computed upon a different thory.’ ‘Sir,’ mildly replied the professor, ‘it is a condition and not a theory that confronts you.’

The men were unruly enough in those older days to justify the faculty restraint which was laid upon their irresponsible doings. The unpopular tutor was an object for humane pity. Regularly upon Saturday nights the vandal brick aimed by the hand of some Bacchic celebrant would bring with it through his window the cool night air of January. Uproarious bursts of mirth in his class-room would be so frequent as to suggest that they were not altogether adventitious. Had he a propensity for exceeding the hour of recitation, some hidden alarm clock would rattle out a reminder or a concerted shuffling of feet would express the impatience of his scholars. Mr. Washington Value, the ancient teacher of dancing when that polite accomplishment was a feature of a New Haven education, was goaded into such a Gallic frenzy that he exclaimed: ‘Gentlemen, if the Lord were to come down from Heaven and say, Mr. Washington Value, will you be the dancing-master of Yale College or will you be eternally damn? I should say to him — Sare, if it is all the same to you I will be eternally damn.’ Citizens of the town were occasionally obliged to select their front gates from a pile of such pieces of real property erected on the green, and a subsequently distinguished professor of Columbia College developed his taste for physical experimentation by shooting an arrow into the clock with the philanthropic purpose of delaying the arrival of the hour for morning prayers.

The practice of stealing signs was once accounted honorable, and many tablets of industrious tradesmen were borne by night into the caverns in the old brick row. It is told in ‘Sketches of Yale College’ (1843) that on one occasion Tutor Divitiacus observed the plunder-laden flight of two of these thieves and followed hastily. The men, conscious of the pursuit, locked their door, thrust the sign into the stove and began a very audible reading of the Holy Word. The pious man would not interrupt the exercise, which ended only with the complete incineration of the sign and the closing verse: ‘A wicked and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign, but no sign shall be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.’

Those were the days of hazing, when unduly clever freshmen were haled from their quiet rooms to distant saloons, where they rowed furious races with toothpicks on tables slippery with beer, ‘browsed,’ with hands tied, upon paper pinned several inches above their noses upon the wall, or repeated the oration of their school commencement with compulsory gestures. Sometimes they were marched up Chapel Street at the head of a platoon of remorseless infanticides and compelled to announce to the interested townsfolk their names, genealogy, and personal claims to notoriety. Of these and kindred practices the higher civilization of a university has left only the mild disorder of campus bonfires, generally laid so as to consume the few remaining spears of grass dear to the heart of the Superintendent of Grounds and Buildings. With the first flicker of the barrel-fed flame windows fly up with startling rapidity and a chorus of ‘Fire!’ breaks out which lasts for fifteen minutes and drops off with scattering shots from distant South Middle or the Lyceum. An inexhaustible piece of humor is the imputation of the origin of the blaze to some unhappy scholar or immaculate deacon whose light may be burning. This information is disclosed by the Socratic method, a single interlocutor putting the question, ‘Who lit that fire?’ and Durfee, Famam, Lawrence, and the old brick row responding as one ‘Highstand lit that fire.’

The centre of all campus life is and always has been at the Fence. Up to 1888 this Palladium of liberties stood at the southeast corner of the campus on the spot now occupied by Osborne Hall; in that year it was removed by the faculty to its present position in front of Durfee Hall. From prehistoric times this famous seat of learning has had the sanctity of an institution. It represents the most important article in that unwritten constitution of democratic principles which is the creed of every Yale man. Night and day it receives innumerable rivulets of common leisure, tributary to its havens of idlesse. Thigh to thigh sit scholar, athlete, and Bohemian, in a guild of fellowship far better than the dusty ruts of learning —

No fears to beat away — no strife to heal —
The past unsigh’d for and the future sure —

learning a mutual respect and an appreciation of life which could not be gathered from the contemplation of a cuneiform inscription, or a journey into the wastes of spherical trigonometry. As the Master Apologist for idlers has it: ‘There is certainly some chill and arid knowledge to be found upon the summits of formal and laborious science; but it is all round about you, and for the trouble of looking, that you will acquire the warm and palpitating facts of life.’

After the manner of all Gaul the Fence, in its material aspect, is by the fiat of tradition divided into three parts — a generous stretch of rails for seniors and juniors, a smaller one for the sophomores, and a little tail-piece for the freshmen, which they may enjoy only if and when they overcome the Harvard freshmen at baseball. In fighting days the juniors, the very Erinys of inter-class warfare, used continually to incite the freshmen to break established law and seize the sophomore fence, and then would the battle rage as over the ships at Troy, and many reputations be won. After a time the freshmen would become conscious of the superiority of sophomore organization and decline to provide amusement for the unscrupulous juniors.

The Fence fills its peculiar function with each class. The slender freshmen stand without the gates and worship with reverent desire for the days of enfranchisement when they may sit upon it and whistle the Freshman March at other freshmen yet unborn. For the sophomores it tops Olympus. It is a sufficient joy to be envied of the freshmen and with ‘Procul, procul este, O profani!’ to preserve its sanctity from unhallowed touch. With new-fledged pride of worldliness they rub elbows with upper classmen and watch the grave and reverend seniors in their games. Sophomores always act with the united energy of an explosion, and for an escapade the Fence is an unrivaled locus proficiscendi. It is in sophomore year that a man whittles his name upon it. In junior year, when individualities are growing and it becomes a familiar thing, more subtle delights, more intellectual enjoyment of character or of contact made possible by broader experiences come from its use, and elaborate glees and madrigals supplant the roaring songs of sophomore year. The seniors have a touch of sentiment at the thought of approaching dissolution and begin to feel its power as an institution, even when they lay destructive and incendiary hands upon the seat of their affections.

At the Fence the seniors welcome spring with tops and marbles, an indulgence which has always been their especial prerogative, and the freshmen have always assembled on Washington’s Birthday for their banger parade, while their natural foes perch upon the rails in the new glory of silk hats. Advertisements of the sale of furniture, signs of spring, plaster the surrounding trees, and here used Hannibal, student emeritus, to sell his wares ‘of saccharine sweetness.’ ‘Gentlemen,’ he would say, ‘I vow and assert that the confections which I now present for your consideration are worthy of that reputation which it has been my pride to create and my earnest ambition to uphold. Their perfection is most excellent, and their sweetness unparalleled. De gustibus.’ A favorite amusement of idleness was to provoke Hannibal and his ancient rival ‘Davy,’ now deceased, to debate upon metaphysical subjects. The dead languages were revivified and quotation, aphorism, and, at the last, personal epithet hurtled in full shock until a sated audience would straggle down to Mory’s and slake the fever of spring with cool ale.

Has any benighted soul never heard of Mory’s or of Mory’s ale? That ‘woody’ ale? Those nooks for placid thought and sympathy? The house of Mrs. Moriarty, shining with pewter, hospitable with toby and fragrant coffee, with twin golden eggs and flanking toast, shrines the memory of many quiet hours. An atmosphere of contemplation and reminiscence pervades the rooms and makes them fit for meditation or for confidence. The genius of the spot dislikes merry-making or noisy mirth, and casts his spell only upon those who appreciate the subtle charm of drowsiness and seclusion from garish pleasures. In each class some solitary soul makes it his haunt and drinks lethean ale into his blood. You may find such an one on a warm spring afternoon, when the whole college is afield or afloat, brooding in a corner or hobnobbing with some forgotten author, companion of his slow pensiveness. In the winter season rowing men will settle here some anxious question about the height of foot-braces or the distribution of the weight in this year’s boat. Members… discuss the latest Kipling story or the tendencies of college writing. Many secrets of politics are hidden in the dusky corners, which could startle the world with the real reason why ‘Bibulus ’81 didn’t make Bones,’ or how Sychophantikos got into a sophomore society. Here are libations of ‘musty’ or of the treacherous compound ‘velvet’ poured before the victors in class races, and here do graduates of all ages and degrees lament the decay of manners and mark with an ‘Eheu, fugaces’ the passing of the golden age of their time. Of late years the patrons of Mory’s have been used to carve their names upon the round centre table, and when no more space remains, the table-top is removed and hung upon the wall for the gaze of future generations, so that the voices of the past speak with the personality of a name.

Mory’s affords no shelter to the wandering freshman. He may not enter its sacred portals except under the tutelage of a superior, and even then he is subject to discomfiting ridicule if he orders ice-cream or a chicken sandwich. Truly, the eighteenth century laws in restraint of freshmen are but slightly relaxed.

In earlier days the youth who were temperate in their indulgences regaled themselves at a booth opposite South College on fried pies, ginger-bread, and root-beer, the simple products of Pond. Those who preferred stronger waters descended into the town to the cosey tap-room of a publican, named Lake, whose pumps drew porter, stout, and half and half. The presence of the great Lake gave a richer tang to the ale, for his early days had been spent in the English prize-ring. He wore knee-breeches, gaiters, a frieze coat, and an air of gentle ferocity in keeping with his past, but he left the serving of beer to Mrs. Lake, a woman with a ruffled cap and portly unruffled dignity, who sat behind the little bar.

A rake’s progress from the peace of a boarding-house to Pond’s insidious pies and the dissolute haunt of Lake ended at the Woodcock, a supper-room in Court Street, where midnight suppers and champagne, eked out from months of economy, shocked the revelers with a sense of their depravity. No such quail have ever since whistled in the Connecticut wheat-fields, and canvas-back duck have mightily degenerated since the ghost of Lucullus was laid in those golden days.

The organization and development of intercollegiate athletics now absorb much of the energy that used to be given to such dissolute wanderings or to the furious internecine warfare of classes. From immemorial time there were mighty games of football on the New Haven Green, in which whole classes engaged. The freshmen posted their formal challenge on the bulletin of Lyceum, and the supercilious acceptance of the sophomores named the day for the struggle. ‘Come,’ cried the Class of ‘6o,

And like sacrifices in their trim
To the fire-eyed maid of smoky war,
All hot and bleeding will we offer you.

And the Tyrtaeus of ’58 cheered his mates with the noble lines:

Let them come on, the base-born crew!
Each soil-stained churl — alack!
What gain they but a splitten skull,
A sod for their base back!

On the bloody day appointed, both sides massed in heavy column with Napoleonic tactics — while the New Haven fathers surrounded the field. When the round leather ball was kicked, two hundred men clashed together in frantic, shoving, dusty, roaring chaos, the one side striving to kick the ball to the Chapel Street fence, the other to force it to the steps of the State House. Swift runners hung upon the outskirts to seize the ball, chance-directed to their feet, and hurry it amid full-gazing applause to the goal. But it was in the middle press where deeds were uncrowned, where shirts became streamers and rib squeezed rib until they cracked, that the heroes of war and the college Bully were to be found. From this Titanic struggle the degenerates of to-day have evolved the emasculated game which they call football, a wretched sort of parlor pastime!

The particular savagery of ’58, who gave battle with painted faces in fearful attire, excited the actual physical interference of one of the faculty, who charged upon the combatants, a member of the church militant, and found immortality in the lines:

Poor ’58 had scarce got well
From that sad punching in the bel
Of old Prof. Olmsted’s umberell.

Then there was rowing — real rowing — another sport of heroic virtues, for it was done in mighty barges which only strong men could pull, not in attenuated shells with factitious aids to speed, and the gallant craft — that was their poetic way of alluding to it — was put to practical use by carrying Commencement maidens out to New Haven Light, an eight-mile pull. This was of course far more agreeable to the rowers than snatching at the water in a furious effort to get a few inches ahead of eight other unhappy men, and it is very much to be suspected that the girls liked their share in the occasion better, too.

The first race with Harvard took place at Lake Winnipiseogee in August, 1852, and was a sort of agreeable junket for the oarsmen. There were boat parades, evening entertainments and a two-mile race, won by the Oneida of Harvard from the Shawmut of Yale by two lengths. A regatta in which Harvard was again victorious was held at Springfield in 1855, and from 1858 to 1870 race-meets were held at Lake Quinsigamond, near Worcester. In most of these the Yale men were vanquished, but they generally helped their conquerors to celebrate the occasion in a manner which was the origin of the traditions, long obsolete, that still find their way into the papers in accounts of the excesses of football enthusiasts. The Bay State House was the scene of rejoicing, and after all convivial spirits had been whipped into its net the doors were locked against escape and the proprietor had to deduct from the profit on his wine account the cost of broken crockery and demolished furniture.

In 1872 and 1873 the races were rowed at Springfield, and in 1874 and 1875 at Saratoga, under the auspices of the Rowing Association of American Colleges, and were won successively by Amherst, Yale, Columbia, and Cornell. In 1876 Harvard and Yale rowed again at Springfield, and ever since that year, save for the interregnum which is now so happily ending, the banks of Thames have echoed to the imprecations of the brazen-lunged little cox- swains. The life at quarters for the four weeks preceding the race is a serene existence removed from all clamor or utilitarian affairs and devoted to out-of-doors and the apotheosis of youth, health, and strength. Although there are long conferences and debates on rowing matters, the primal forces are dominant and match the wide simplicity of sky and river. The sweating fierceness of four -mile trials, the sharp bursts of practice speed with each man marking the catch with voice and oar, the savage cries of the coach and the evening tingle of stretching muscles bring a man to the realization of the elements of his nature.

The era of modern football at Yale was inaugurated in 1872 by a game with Columbia under association rules with twenty men on a side. A thrilling match was played in the next year with an eleven of old Etonians, most of them in the British diplomatic service. The Englishmen were more adept, but the exchange of international hospitalities had not improved their ‘condition,’ and the Yale team carried the day by a score of three goals to two in an exciting game which lasted until after dark. The Englishmen introduced a novelty in the wearing of uniforms, consisting of white flannel jackets and trousers trimmed with broad light-blue ribbon. In 1876 the Rugby rules were adopted, under which Yale, Harvard, and Princeton have ever since played with elevens, except in 1877 and 1878, when Harvard insisted on playing with fifteens.

The public which cheers the skill or marvelous concert of an eleven knows nothing of the process out of which it has come, tried as by fire, the real effort of the college as a whole; knows nothing of the longing of the man on the sidelines who has given his best toil for three months, perhaps for as many years, and finds his only reward in carrying his rival’s sweater during the great game. The little band of substitutes who make up the second eleven and who are driven back day after day in practice, doggedly resisting every inch of trampled ground, receive no paeans from the thousands at Manhattan Field or Springfield. Is one of them hurt in practice — ‘Ah, yes, hard luck, but he couldn’t have made the team anyhow;’ and perhaps not the least of trials is the indifferent encouragement of a coach, when blame would imply potentiality worth disciplining. The college, which stands about under the cold November sky and measures out impartial criticism at the Field, may praise their efforts, but it is always as efforts, never as results, and no reverent posterity can ever honor them as ‘the tackle of ’84’ or ‘the man who kicked the goal from the forty-five yard line.’ They represent unselfish loyalty, striving in full consciousness that the heights of fame lie above their climbing, but bringing to the struggle all the enthusiasm, all the devotion, all the persevering courage which are the true spirit of Yale.

There is no mention in these pages of the organization of the University, or its development and progress under President Dwight; nothing of the Sheffield Scientific School, whose growth has doubled the number of undergraduates, of the Divinity, Law, and Medical Schools, of the material expansion of the college, or of commodious and elaborately equipped buildings. These are but random and incomplete allusions, jetsam of the stream of college life and history, and there is in them no effort to order the factors of the complex whole. Some glimpses of the life of the college have been here suggested — as one can sometimes learn more of the inhabitants of a distant country from a song or a story than by the aid of a Baedeker; but curriculums, professional schools, or athletic records have no graphic force. Most college graduates, men who have felt the spring in their blood, and tasted the subtle sweetness of college days —

Days that flew swiftly, like the band
That in the Grecian games had strife
And passed from eager hand to hand
The onward-dancing torch of life —

know how ethereal and intangible is the spirit of their Alma Mater; to all others knowledge can come, not by study, but by inspiration.

Still less to be desired is the trumpeting of virtues. The names of the famous sons of Yale are in the catalogue of graduates for the curious to see. Her learning has been garnered into books, and the love of her offspring has been builded into bronze and stone. But the origin itself of that love, the devotion of the sons, the wisdom of the ‘kindly mother,’ are things too fine, too spiritual for deliberate exposition. There is no master-word by which they can be unveiled to stranger eyes.”
-Excerpt courtesy of Archive.org, Google, University of California, Santa Barbara College Library, Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. XXII, No. 1, “Undergraduate Life at Yale,” by Henry E. Howland, with illustrations by Orson Lowell, July, 1897. (top) Image courtesy of The Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, “Life at Yale in July Scribner’s,” by Orson Lowell, 1897

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