Student Customs are those traditional modes of behavior observed by students either by law or by choice. The early college laws, which left little to choice, required that no student of any class should enter the chapel or dining hall or pass through a gate or door before a member of a class above him. Students were forbidden to wear hats within the college walls, and outside the walls were required to doff their hats when passing any officer of the College.
Hazing was a system of initiating freshmen, usually performed by sophomores, who would call on a freshman in the middle of the night and demand that he stand on a table and deliver a sermon or sing a song for their entertainment, meanwhile surrounding the room with flower pots containing live coals and and the refuse from a floor of a cigar factory, which they kept smoking by blowing into the bottoms of the pots through long reeds. This traditional “smoking-out” was popular in the 1850s and inspired a poem by John Hay, which was actually a parody of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem “Brahma,” which had appeared in November 1857 in the first issue of the Atlantic Monthly. Hay’s poem was called “Sa!Sa!” and its first verse read:
If the hazed freshman thinks he’s hazed,
And that he’s passed his hazing pain;
He’s sold – too high his hopes are raised,
The soph’more goes but comes again.
When the class of 1861 became sophomores in 1858, they took pity on the freshmen and introduced reforms in hazing. They decided that a freshman could be visited only once by the class as a whole, and pipes provided by the freshmen rather than the flowerpots would be smoked. In this manner all of the freshmen would be visited in a few evenings. Unfortunately for the sophomores, their improvements only served to attract attention to the practice which had for years been ignored by the authorities, and President Sears expelled the whole class, only to readmit them when they apologized. Other traditions arose respecting class rivalries between the freshmen and sophomores, which were resolved by informal football scrimmages, wrestling matches, and flag rushes, in which the freshman class tried to take down a flag protected by the defending sophomores. In 1930, when the sophomores were busy listening to World Series scores and forgot to appear, the freshmen observed the tradition by splitting up into two teams and holding the flag rush themselves. In 1923 a sophomore vigilance committee took charge of punishing students for infractions of so-called “freshman rules,” by driving the offenders out into the country at midnight, giving them mud baths, and making them walk home. The vigilance committee could even bring cases of repeating offenders before the Cammarian Club.
Women students had their own traditions for the initiation of freshmen. In 1938 “Scut Week” was introduced with the announcement that the seniors and the freshmen were an “army” in which the seniors were the generals and the freshmen were the privates. Freshmen were obliged to wear men’s hats, charcoal moustaches, high heels with unmatched socks, and to carry a large paper bag. The freshman’s assignment was to salute seniors who were identified by yellow ribbons and to collect the signatures of eighty seniors. Scut Week continued for some years with variations in the requirements which were assigned to make the freshmen look ridiculous.
The president’s horse and cow played a prominent part in nineteenth-century student pranks. A story was told by George B. Peck 1864 in Memories of Brown, that one day President Asa Messer, presiding at chapel, was distracted by noise on the front campus and looked out to observe “that his old but faithful horse, ornamented with the letters ‘A.M.’ painted so as practically to cover each entire side, was being driven around haphazard by the crowd, which naturally interpreted the cabalistic symbols as signifying the bearer was none other than Asa Messer, or at the very least a Master of Arts.” On another occasion President Wayland’s horse was taken up to the belfry of University Hall and tied to the bell, which rang wildly. The presence of cows on the campus came to an end around 1880. Students who thought that the cows made the college look too much like a dairy pulled Governor Taft’s cow to the top floor of Hope College and tied her to an open window. The attempts of the authorities to get the cow down again resulted in an unfortunate fall down the stairs from which she did not recover, and also in the abolition of the pasturing of cows.
Bonfires were a popular form of entertainment. In The Old Back Campus, Walter Lee Munro 1879 recalled bonfires with relish:
“In the olden times bonfires were sporadic and broke out when some special occasion imperatively demanded them ... They were characterized by a wanton destruction of property in the shape of fences, gates, building materials from houses in the course of erection, in fact anything combustible within reach. They were accompanied by a veritable pandemonium of yells and were participated in by the entire student-body in residence. The college authorities, too, took an active part, though it must be confessed that their efforts were generally obstructive.”Anthony McCabe, longsuffering servant of the University, recalled:
“From 1877 to 1881 was probably the greatest time in the history of the college for cane-rushes, bonfires, blowing of fish-horns and explosions of gunpowder. Spring and fall were the principal times for this sport. When material was scarce, the students would take a mattress from a bed or an old lounge, saturate it with oil, and watch for a good opportunity to light it at a short distance from the buildings. They would then return to their room and shout “Heads out!” which would bring every student with a horn to the window. When the servants appeared with pails of water, the blowing of the horns and shouting would increase tenfold, and pieces of coal, inkwells, eggs and other missiles were thrown from the windows, increasing the sport of the students and endangering the safety of the servants.”The 1906-07 Handbook of Brown University published the following list of customs which had been been adopted by the student body:
- Seniors alone shall be allowed to occupy the seats of the Van Wickle Memorial Gates.
- Seniors alone shall be allowed to occupy the middle steps of East University Hall and the East steps of Manning Hall.
- No silk hat shall be worn by any undergraduate until Junior Week of his class.
- No freshman shall smoke upon the campus.
- No freshman shall wear a straw hat until Memorial Day.
- No freshman shall walk up or down the south side of College Street until the Sophomores lose to the Freshmen in the interclass baseball game.
- No underclassman shall be allowed to wear preparatory school insignia of any kind.
Freshman vs. Sophomore. An unofficial but strongly traditional conflict between the two lower classes yearly takes place on the night before the opening of college, sometimes on campus, sometimes on Thayer Field.
Flag Rush. Official meetings of the two lower classes, supervised by the Cammarian Club, are held on the first Wednesday afternoon of the college year on Thayer Field. The Sophomores defend, the Freshmen assault, the second year class banner.
Wrestling Matches. A series of wrestling matches conclude the class battles.
College Bell. Since Colonial days, the college bell atop U. H. has called Brown men to class, chapel, victory celebrations and mass meetings. When sounded off regular schedule it is the signal for a student gathering.
The President. The arrival or departure of the President of the University from chapel or a student gathering is marked by the rising of the assembly.
Welcoming Distinguished Visitors. In the past many leaders in thought and achievement both American and foreign, have been received at the University. It has been the custom for the undergraduates to form a double line, enclosing the path crossing the middle campus from Sayles Hall to U. H., through which the guest passes on his way to Van Wickle Gate.
Victory Celebrations. Great athletic victories are often the signal for victory celebrations in Providence on the Saturday evening after the game, if contest is played at home, or on Monday evening, if played elsewhere. Freshmen, by tradition, collect material for a victory bonfire, ordinarily held on Thayer Field. The University Band leads a student pee-rade, which terminates at the field with the setting of the fire.
Class Sings. Each Monday evening during Spring the classes gather on the middle campus for the traditional class sing. The Seniors occupy the chapel steps; the Juniors front the Union; the Sophomores gather before U. H.; the Freshmen convene opposite the Juniors. By custom the Senior class only sings Chapel Steps as the last selection before the entire group meets to sing Alma Mater.
Spring Day. Early in May there is yearly designated a Spring Day when the Seniors first appear in academic costume. The class orator delivers a quasi-humorous address from the steps of the John Carter Brown Library and presents to the University a class mascot. Following these exercises the Seniors race to the Union, led by the class president.
Senior Canes. Members of the Senior class are entitled to wear class canes in Spring before Commencement.
Junior Week. The Junior class sponsors a week-end early in May, which features a formal concert and dance by the University musical clubs on Thursday; a tea dance on Friday, the annual Junior promenade on Friday evening; a tea-dance following an athletic contest on Saturday, and a Junior frolic on Saturday night. All affairs are open to Freshmen.
College Dances. Custom decrees, in addition to the Junior dances: the Sophomore ball, late in May; the Senior frolic, early in April; the annual concert and dance by the University Band, in the Fall, and several dances sponsored by the Brown Union throughout the college year.
Discontinued Customs. Events that now exist only in Brown legend, formerly traditional, are: Freshman Banquet, last held by class of 1927; Junior Cruise, last given by class of 1927 in Spring, 1925; Junior Circus, last held in 1926 by class of 1927; Cap Burning tunnel rush, last held in 1929 by class of 1932.
The tunnel riot of 1929 was actually a tie-burning event, when the freshmen of the Class of 1932 intended to destroy the black ties they had been made to wear that year. The burning was to take place at Thayer Field after a march downtown with an illegal return through the East Side Tunnel. After a skirmish with the police at the Arcadia ballroom, the Class proceeded to the tunnel, having added to the rear of the procession a number of firemen who had been responding to alarms from all the call boxes passed by the students. They were blocked from entering the tunnel by policemen at both ends, and the arrival of Dean Kenneth O. Mason on the scene ended the festivities before the tie-burning. This last of the assaults on the tunnel was memorialized in song nearly ten years later to the tune of “Did your Mother Come from Ireland?”
Did you hear about the Riot?
Just before, it was so quiet,
Then the boys of ’32 marched down the Hill,
And before we reached the Tunnel,
Just like water through a funnel,
To the old Arcadia ballroom we did mill. ...
On May 9, 1962 there occurred a student disturbance that rivalled the tunnel riot. The weather was unusually hot and oppressive, and the students were restless with final exams only about a week away. Consequently, when a waiter dropped a tray in the refectory, the fun began. The diners began by throwing mashed potatoes, then overflowed into the Wriston Quadrangle for some recreational baseball, window breaking, and dropping of water bags, followed by invasion of Pembroke dormitories on panty raids. They also visited women’s dormitories on the adjacent Bryant College campus, and some marched through the bus tunnel. A crowd grown to about 1,000 jammed traffic on Thayer Street, cheering exuberantly as police and reporters arrived. Appeals by Dean Robert Morse did not move the rioters, but when they converged on the president’s house, an irate Barnaby Keeney dispersed them with an ultimatum, “If there is any student from Brown here in ten seconds, he will be thrown out of school.” The rioting waned, and seven students were fined for disorderly conduct. The most significant casualty occurred when a police dog bit his master’s hand. Social events were called off until Commencement, and the Advisory and Executive Committee, which had been expected to approve more liberal rules extending visits by women students to men’s dormitories to any evening, rather than just during approved social events, chose to defer this privilege until the student body was more prepared to accept new social responsibilities.
Students have always taken particular pleasure in the kidnapping of a rival college’s mascot during the football season. In 1973 the object desired for a football game was Harvard’s Big-H drum. Four Brown students representing themselves as Crimson reporters introduced a fifth Brown student to representatives of the Harvard band as a man from ABC who wanted to take the drum and a Harvard band member to Soldiers Field for the purpose of taking publicity photographs. After the Harvard band members had obligingly loaded the drum into the truck, the Brown students chose to abandon the accompanying bandsman and proceeded to drive their prize home on Route 95, where they were soon apprehended by state police and were removed to the Foxboro jail. They were later bailed out and all charges were dismissed against the students, who became known as the “Foxboro Four.”