1897 One Hundred Years Ago

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The April 17 issue of Harper’s Weekly addressed a growing social problem that in some quarters had come to overshadow tariffs, the Cuban crisis, and free silver. Under the headline WHY HARVARD DOES NOT WIN , John Corbin, class of 1892, struggled to account for the Crimson’s “consistent failure in athletics.” He considered and dismissed such possible causes as inadequate coaching, poor conditioning, and “the fog on Soldiers’ Field.” Instead, he concluded, “the prime source of Harvard’s weakness is social.”

The chief villain, Corbin decided, was Harvard’s byzantine club system. With social life centered on an assortment of arcane groups and subgroups bearing fanciful names like Dickey and Pudding, there was no chance for a university-wide esprit de corps to develop. The virtual elimination of required courses had also decreased social cohesion, as had the influx of students from outside the Boston area. The dreadful result: “At Harvard there is a large and growing element, even in the athletic set, that does not regard athletics as of supreme importance.” Later, in a tone more typical of his alma mater, the author sniffed: “Harvard’s very virtues as an institution of learning make it impossible to go in for sports with the all-absorbing enthusiasm of her rivals.” He suggested that as other, laggard colleges approached Harvard’s level of excellence, they would encounter the same athletic troubles.

A few weeks later Harper’s suggested another possible cause for the lack of interest in sports among Harvard men. They had, it seems, discovered better ways of passing the time. Edward Sandford Martin, class of 1877, reported that the university was finding it necessary to remind dormitory residents of “the unwritten but well-defined social rules that obtain in the community in which they are now living.” Specifically, Harvard’s frisky gentlemen had to be warned against entertaining ladies in their rooms without a chaperon, receiving them in the evening without notifying a proctor, or letting them wander through the dormitory halls unescorted. Whether the rules were meant to protect the ladies or the Harvard men was not disclosed, but Martin called them “very judicious” and said they presented “nothing which proper young men need resent.” Nonetheless they were resented.

Not to be outdone in athletic wimpiness, Harvard’s traditional rival came up with an even more shocking news item. A dispatch from Yale related the following “incredible story”: An oarsman had actually quit the crew following a disagreement with his coach. The skeptical writer called it “an impossible tale, and in direct contradiction of the Yale system, under which it has long been understood that men who can row must row.” He went on to predict a lifetime of shame for the recalcitrant Eli: “Where could he hide himself after graduation where the wrath of Yale would not reach him? What club would admit him as member? . . . What Yale man’s sister would he dare propose to?” Although peer pressure could not force the renegade back, Yale got the last laugh when its crew overcame his loss to defeat Harvard in their annual race. The reaction of Harvard’s student body is not recorded, but presumably they shrugged it off and returned to their Spinoza, or some other form of amusement.