‘Record’ archives recall present-day college life

Even current first-years realize how much the College has changed in the last 100 years. They’ll point to the gender integration and the abolition of fraternities, among other new policies, as examples of the College’s evolution. But despite what we consider rather large changes to campus culture, one look at Record archives from 1913 reveals that Ephs of a century ago had more in common with us than we think.

Just as Ephventures welcome first-years to campus life,  starting in the 1880s, the Cane Contest initiated first-years to life at the College. According to archives, “The Contest was a game of strategy, consisting of the attempts of the [first-year] class to bring a bundle of canes within the town limits while the sophomore class did all they could to thwart such actions. It took place on one of the first Saturdays in March and lasted from 5 or 6 [p.m.] to 11 [p.m.]. The required number of canes to be transported equaled that of the freshman class. If by 11 [p.m.] all canes were within town limits, the [first-year] class was named champion, winning the right to carry their canes. If, however, they were not successful, the competition canes were granted to the sophomore class.” (“Cane Contest,” Williams College Archives and Special Collections, Amber LaFountain ’09).

Participating Ephs pulled out all the stops. Classes communicated through telegraphs and fireworks. In 1913, sophomores even intercepted a bomb the first-years were planning to use as a means of communication. The bomb, which was housed in a cabin on the Hoosic, would have been “of sufficient power to dislocate the Williams lighting service” according to the Record (“Naked Committeeman freezes in Hoosick,” March 15, 1913). The first-years  rotated the point person responsible for hiding the canes so that that the sophomores would have difficulty knowing who to go to for information.

The Springstreakers are known today for uplifting the campus mood every Reading Period, but the clothing-optional tradition of the College dates back a century. The Cane Contest typically closed with a parade and bonfire ceremony. The first-years of 1913, clad in nightshirts stolen from the sophomores, marched to the hill where the sophomores were waiting for them. “A revolver shot [was] the signal for the classes to grapple and to contend for the possession of the coveted night shirts, and a second shot [marked] the cessation of the struggle.” (“Enmity ends tonight,” March 17, 1913).” Afterward, the students threw a cardboard hatchet into the bonfire, “signifying the end of animosity between the two groups of students.” (“Cane Contest,” Williams College Archives and Special Collections, Amber LaFountain ’09).

While we now eagerly await the completion of Stetson-Sawyer Library, the Classes of 1914 through 1918 demanded the establishment of a new library of their own. According to a front page article from a 1913 issue of the Record  students were extremely dissatisfied with the 67-year-old Lawrence Hall, which served as the Ephs’ library at the time (“Williams must have new central library building without delay,” April 17, 1913). Some of the most critical issues were a lack of fire-proofing, overcrowding, inadequate shelving space for books, a sinking floor, not enough reading space and difficult student accessibility to valuable and important documents they believed they had a right to look at. Names familiar to current students, including Professors Mears, Goodrich, Milham, Kellogg, Perry and Pratt went on record among 24 faculty members to declare that something had to be done about the inadequate library facilities.

The Record also had its share of scandals in 1913. In mid-April, an Eph wrote a review of an organ recital, calling it tedious but worthwhile to attend. The concluding lines sum up the article nicely: “In general the recital was tedious. The blame, therefore, probably rests very little on the performer; rather on the selections and the fact that even a big organ is a monotonous instrument to listen to.” (“Heinroth Recital slightly monotonous,” April 12, 1913). In response, a scathing letter to the editor was published the following week claiming that the article was more criticism than review and that the writer, seemingly unknowledgeable about organ music, was unqualified to make the statements he did (“Communication,” April 17, 1913). In their extracurricular passions, class-wide traditions, and academic needs, it turns out the classes of 100 years ago were just like us.