Keep your eyes open for the September issue of The Blue & White, coming soon to campus. Until then, Bwog will honor our heritage/amorous affair with our mother magazine by posting highlights of the upcoming issue online. Among the treats to look forward to: a few reasons to visit the local businesses you never go to, a brief history of culinary labor abuses in the neighborhood, and a half-optimistic view on the campus music scene. This month, contributor Claire Heyison relives the innocuous initiation rituals of freshmen past.
Though this year’s freshmen may have had to navigate the perils of “mandatory” NSOP events and John Jay cuisine, they’re lucky to be entering the Class of 2015 instead of that of 1915. Freshmen of the early 20th century were beset by myriad (yet strangely sophisticated) hazing rituals from the second they set foot on College Walk.
Upon their arrival, incoming freshmen to Columbia College and the School of Mines (now SEAS … or CE depending on who you ask) were required by the university to wear a freshman beanie at all times, a tradition that lives on, but is only casually enforced (read: not), in SEAS. Though the beanie was intended to instill a sense of camaraderie, it was also an efficient way for upperclassmen to identify, and therefore torment, newcomers. As early as 1901, upperclassmen formalized frosh-baiting by distributing pamphlets entitled “Rules for Freshmen” along with the beanies. Though the content became more creative with each passing year, the classics included a ban on wearing Columbia colors, bringing girls on campus, and sitting on the grass or the steps. Freshmen caught flouting the rules were swiftly brought to justice.
If lucky, the offender was condemned to row crew with toothpicks or roll a peanut across College Walk with his nose. The less fortunate were kidnapped, taken to New Jersey, and paddled by a group of cloak-wearing sophomores who called themselves the Black Avengers.
The first-years were forced to gamble even more of their rights during the annual Cane Spree (or Cane Rush), wherein a freshman and a sophomore held onto one end of a cane—a common accessory for undergrads of the period—and were rushed by their entire classes. The class with the most hands on the cane at the end of the melee won the spree, but sophomores used the opportunity to wrestle and trample the freshmen. The stakes were high; if the freshmen did not win two out of three sprees, they could not carry canes or smoke pipes on campus. And, bereft of such paraphernalia, as noted in a New York Times article from 1901: “[The freshman’s] swagger must depart…for what college man can swagger properly unless he is with a pipe and walking stick.”
While the boys across the street were busy tugging their canes and spanking each other, Barnard ladies were at work composing an ancient burn book filled with bawdy and insulting poetry. In 1893, a group of sophomores decided to chronicle their first-year experiences in a scrapbook, the Mysteries, which was passed down to the younger class at an annual midnight ceremony. Incense, candlelight, flowing robes, and secret oaths were all present, used to spook gullible first-years, but the actual ritual consisted of nothing more than nostalgic toasts proffering advice, good luck, and “eulogies” for the death of their first year.
Though the Mysteries scrapbook is currently yellowing in the Barnard Archives and the professors are likely long dead, some of the verse sounds like an imaginative ancestor of CULPA:
In Latin we have Mr. Knapp
His course, it is really a snap:
For he does the work
And you, you can shirk
Or else you can take a short nap
Today, few (if any) campus-wide hazing rituals still exist; Columbia College students’ interest in freshmen beanies waned in the ‘60s, “Rules for Freshman” pamphlets disappeared after 1925, the Cane Rush was abolished by the sophomore class council in 1887 after the death of one of the participants and was replaced with less hazardous competitions, and the Mysteries were banned by the Barnard administration after a girl broke her arm. The freshmen of yore, however, would probably have chosen beanies and Cane Sprees over that most dreaded of modern freshman hazing rituals: Frontiers of Science.