In September 1952, a new class joined Columbia, finding a campus community eager to welcome it. One student, however, wasn’t so happy with his reception.
Jerome Tarshis, a Columbia College graduate of the class of 1957, wrote a scathing piece in the September 17, 1952 edition of Spectator. He complained of a “primitive” orientation week, citing complaints from an “anonymous” freshman who had been stopped at knifepoint by two upperclassmen. They pointed at a sign with rules printed on it and forced a hat onto his unwilling head.
But this wasn’t just any hat—it was the infamous “freshman beanie,” a cap meant to mark new students’ status in the larger community.
Tarshis also claimed that upperclassmen made loud noises all throughout the first night of orientation to prevent first-years from sleeping, and then proceeded to wake up the unfortunate students at 7:30 a.m.
These unpleasant rituals were part of a larger Columbia tradition dating back decades, and they weren’t hated by everyone. In fact, Tarshis’ byline in Spectator derisively refers to him as a “lone frosh,” with editors claiming that they “feel he mistakenly entered the Spectator offices.”
Going off to college is a major coming-of-age ritual in the American imagination. Although less than a third of undergraduates in America are students at full-time, primarily residential institutions, their transition to college is perhaps the most dramatic change a student can face, as they suddenly find themselves living away from home, often for the first time, in the midst of complete strangers. The organized induction and welcome of these new, apprehensive community members can reveal a lot about how an academic institution views itself.
Buried deep in Butler Library’s Columbia University Archives, there is a collection of “Blue Books” from every year between 1877 and 1953, meant to introduce first-years to the community.
At the time, the School of General Studies did not exist. Barnard’s orientation program was organized separately until 1971. Much like today’s New Student Orientation Program content, this publication sought to inform students of both the opportunities they could use and the community norms they were expected to meet.
The 1916 Blue Book opens with a message from then-University President Nicholas M. Butler, who encourages the (definitely male) reader to “take hold of the many hands that are stretched out to greet him,” listing resources such as the Chaplain, the University Medical Officer, and the YMCA.
This academic year’s NSOP brochure, printed exactly one century later, is remarkably similar in function. Both documents seek to introduce new students into their new communities.Although today’s “themed” NSOP is a new development—the Blue Books had little variation in the years of 1915 and 1917—much of the message remains the same 100 years later.
For example, Butler’s welcome message emphasized the importance of each incoming student: “The individual student with a soul, a mind, and a body of his own is a precious thing to be cherished and cared for at all costs. It is out of individuals that communities and institutions are made.”
Although the 2016 NSOP guidebook also encourages individualism in a similar way, it emphasizes the individual before the community: “Your voices are ringing from all corners of the globe, echoing your individual experiences, backgrounds, and personalities. Columbia and Barnard are a symphony of voices, each one unique and special, resounding with its own tune.”
But aside from these surface similarities, the induction of first-years to Columbia in 1916 had an additional, less encouraging element that distinguishes it from orientation today: the “Columbia Rules for Freshmen.” Published in the Blue Books and occasionally on physical signs (the Columbia University Archives has one from 1914), these rules, which included three requirements and eight prohibitions, cover everything from the clothes freshmen were allowed to wear—no prep school or college insignia, no bright-colored socks or scarves—to the areas they were allowed to sit—anywhere but on Low Steps, the railings in front of Hamilton Hall, or the Class of 1886 bench. In essence, new students were placed at the bottom of the totem pole—a far cry from the inclusivity promoted during today’s NSOP programming.
Although many of the rules seem arbitrary, a Blue Book from 1929 explains their purpose. "Remember that your first lesson [as a first-year] is humility," it proclaims—a message that seemingly contradicts Butler’s encouragement of individualism.
One first-year orientation tradition in particular—the “beanie” rule described in Tarshis’ piece—served as a constant reminder of freshmen’s subordination to upperclassmen. First-years were instructed to wear “the regulation cap with the white pearl button” at all times when they were in Morningside Heights. This cap, referred to in later years as a beanie, was to be purchased from the bookstore along with a copy of the rules for $1.
(Adjusted for inflation, that is a little over $20 today.)
Some of these rules weren’t as visible to the casual observer. The third rule, for example, stated that students should “be able to sing or recite every Columbia song in the Bluebook [sic], upon request, on or after October 16, 1916.”
The consequences for failing to comply were vague. The Blue Book simply states that “infractions of these rules will be severely dealt with.” Presumably, upperclassmen would dole out some kind of nastiness—left unmentioned in the Blue Book itself for obvious reasons, although Tarshis’ 1952 piece hinted at it.
Saul Yasler, as quoted in a 1955 Spectator article about the beanie tradition, touched upon another piece of lore about such nastiness: “I'm glad I don't have to chew the pearl button off the top of my beanie, like the members of the Class of 1913 had to do.”
While many recipients of this treatment certainly did not enjoy it at the time, the perpetrators of such hazing didn’t necessarily see themselves as villains, and the “victims” for the most part did not retroactively see themselves as such. To the Columbia community of the 20th century, an unpleasant introduction to college life was a shared coming-of-age ritual that allowed each successive class to bond.
Indeed, it appears that the Freshman Rules Committee in 1915 was a sophomore-run institution. The participation of sophomores in planning freshmen orientation was such an ingrained tradition throughout the 20th century, in fact, that the 1962 appointment of a junior as “Freshman Week Co-ordinator” was seen as a completely unprecedented breach of protocol.
The students essentially responsible for introducing new students to the community were thus only a year removed from the incoming students’ situations. They understood the anxieties and opportunities faced by new Columbians—meanwhile, the new students would soon be entrusted with first-years of their own after two semesters.
Sophomores in particular also engaged the incoming first-year class in other ways beside preliminary introduction. The Blue Book mentioned planned “scraps” or “rushes” between the first-year and sophomore classes, in which each class attempted to best the other in contests such as tug-of-war, flag rush (capture-the-flag), and something ominously named the “cane spree.”
I did look into the nature of this mysterious “spree,” which turned out to be an intramural wrestling match between freshmen and sophomores over walking canes. Spectator archives include a photo of the 1916 cane spree team posing menacingly with canes. An article from Princeton’s official history suggests that the game originated there and became a campus tradition for freshmen and sophomores during their orientation.
At Columbia, as the 1916 Blue Book advertises, these competitions “offer the Freshman the greatest opportunity to get acquainted with his fellow class-mates. [sic] Remember that the way you fight the Sophs [sic] is a good indication of of how you are going to face future problems in College.”
Today, there is no singular ritual binding together the first-year and sophomore classes during orientation week, nor does the primary responsibility for initiation fall on sophomores. Two of the three NSOP committee chairs in 2016 were juniors, and the remaining chair was a senior. Indeed, although a lot of good has been done with the loss of hazing, there seems to be a sense of common tradition that has gone missing as well.
In modern times, widespread “post-NSOP loneliness” has been documented more than once in Spectator alone. This doesn’t mean that it’s a new phenomenon—perhaps it just wasn’t as talked about in 1916. However, it’s also conceivable that resurrecting shared rituals would better integrate the former into the Columbia community.
(Just, hopefully, not the cane spree. Or the hazing.)
The trite advice of the Blue Book, “in case you come to the College without many friends, make friends as fast as you can,” was backed by a system in which every freshman was forced to endure common tribulations with his classmates.
For whatever was lost with the death of these rituals, it is also important to remember that Columbia was a very different place in 1916. Where NSOP today focuses on inclusivity, traditions from orientation then were exclusive in their very construction.
As you may or may not have noticed, throughout the article I have made heavy use of the pronoun he for Columbia students in the 20th century. This is no accident—Columbia was initially an old boys’ club, emphasis on the boys.
Women could only study in Morningside Heights starting in 1889, when Barnard College was created—a full two years after the Blue Books entered existence. Columbia College itself did not become co-ed until 1987, at least a generation after the Blue Book era.
The one exception to the Rules for Freshman reflects this traditionally masculine environment. A single sentence from the Blue Book contains a host of assumptions about Columbia’s norms in 1916: “The Rules are in force every day and every night, with only one exception—at evening events, when accompanied by a lady.” Clearly, women couldn’t be trusted around “locker room talk” and the rituals of male hierarchy.
And the old system of hazing had a less politically charged flaw: Incoming students who were not first-years would be completely neglected. Transferring (as I did) and studying abroad are already complicated processes—modern-day NSOP much better attempts to accommodate and acclimate students outside of the traditional four-year college progression.
The transition to today’s NSOP did not take place in a single day, as the fate of the “beanie” demonstrates. Initially required to be worn an entire semester, the beanie’s allotted lifespanshrank to the duration of Freshman Week, the 1950s equivalent of NSOP, before ultimately going extinct.
The beanie was briefly revived by Nick Sewer, the Freshman Orientation Coordinator for 1977. It gained steam again as a day-long tradition, and in 1983, a more voluntary tradition called “Freshman Beanie Day” was created: Any first-year wearing his (or her) cap would gain free admission to the football game. However, this tradition was replaced by a headgear-neutral pep rally called the Baker Blast in 1990. The old ways just wouldn’t stick.
Freshman Orientation seems to have transitioned to NSOP some time during the ’80s. The Spectator classified ads in fall 1986 make first use of the current title of “New Student Orientation Coordinator,” although the terms Freshman Orientation and New Student Orientation would be used interchangeably over the next few years, with the latter getting its own acronym by 1992.
One of the last photos of the “freshman beanie” was taken on August 29, 1983. It’s part of a feature on the Class of 1987, published in the spring 2012 edition of Columbia College Today. In the photo, a smiling man and woman pose together with their beanies and a copy of the Spectator that reads: “Coed At Last.”
At the twilight of one era is the dawn of another.
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