- Historic Sites
The Lower Depths Of Higher Education
Do today’s turbulent college campuses make you long for the good old days? The facts may dampen your nostalgia
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
The early-morning religious services were seldom conducive to piety. Missiles, including prayer books, were likely to fly in the half-dark. The chapel was unheated; many famous presidents, including Timothy Dwight of Yale, preached in overcoat and mittens. President Robert Bishop of Miami (in Ohio) was famous for praying with one eye open; he would take a flying leap from the platform, clutch a troublemaker, and return to his post without a pause in supplication.
After chapel breakfast was welcome. It was, however, usually scanty: at Harvard merely a roll and coffee, at Princeton bread, butter, and coffee, and radishes in season. Colby added mush and molasses; the University of Georgia, bacon or beef; Yale, occasionally, oysters. The noon dinner was likely to be ample. Georgia offered soup, vegetables, corn bread, and molasses; Colby, beans twice weekly, fish once, meat four times. Harvard’s daily ration was lavish—one pound of meat, and potatoes, cabbage, greens, pudding, and cider. (But Harvard operated also a cheap “starvation commons” with meat only every other day.) Curiously, when Harvard served fresh peas, the students were required to shell them; if anyone dodged the duty, the pods were collected and thrown in his room. Supper was surprisingly light—usually just bread, butter, and tea or milk (though milk was generally thought to be fit only for infants and cats). Colby sometimes added cheese, applesauce, or apple pie; Yale provided pies once a week. At Harvard no regular supper was served; the student carried a bowl to the kitchen to be filled with bread and milk, and returned with it to his room. This was rather annoying in a heavy rain.
In general, student manners, which were ruled by formality, seem to have been good. The boys were required to doff their hats in the presence of the faculty. At Yale the rule was that undergraduates must uncover within five rods (82.5 feet) of a tutor, within 132 feet of a professor, within 165 feet of the president. The laws of Princeton in 1783 forbade anyone, during the hours of study, to speak to another except in Latin. The rule lapsed with the new century. Manners, however, are superficial cultural forms, variable with time and place. An English visitor to a class at the University of Cincinnati in 1823 was shocked to see the students spitting tobacco juice around the room. The faculty spat with the students. The great President Francis Wayland of Brown was a renowned sharp-shooter. A college publication of 1855 said, only partly in jest, “Dr. Wayland, with his accustomed accuracy, will now snuff a candle with tobacco juice at a distance of five paces.”
Hygiene was little regarded. Harvard had no bathtubs until the early 1870’s, and showers were still unknown. A student determined to bathe had to carry the water from the college pump and heat it on his own stove. Athletics were at first merely tolerated, if not forbidden as at Princeton in 1787. The young University of Virginia recognized only quoits and marbles. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the 1820’s running, jumping, climbing, and scuffling were banned as detracting from “that dignity of deportment which becomes a man of science.” In 1826 a German instructor at Harvard was permitted to establish a gymnasium, but enthusiasm for it soon lapsed. Other college gymnasiums appeared after 1840. A rudimentary form of football, adaptable to any terrain and any number of players, was popular. The first intercollegiate contest was a boat race between Harvard and Yale clubs on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, in 1852. This historic event was organized by a railroad passenger agent, who saw a great opportunity in excursion fares from Boston and New Haven.
The lack of vigorous physical exercise certainly had a deplorable effect on student health. We moderns are inclined to think of our pioneer forefathers as without exception mighty-muscled wood choppers. But there is much evidence that the urban civilization of the 1800’s produced a class of sickly, desk-bound workers. Thomas Wentworth Higginson spoke of “this white-blooded degeneration to which we all tend.” Nathaniel Parker Willis, in 1849, described Americans as “a hollow-chested, narrow-shouldered, ill-developed looking race.” And Oliver Wendell Holmes said: “Such a set of black-coated, s tiff-jointed, soft-muscled, paste-complexioned youth as we can boast of in our Atlantic cities never before sprang from the loins of Anglo-Saxon lineage.” In the circumstances rioting was a form of healthy outdoor exercise, with faculty-student encounters the only physical education.