Stories, scandals and freshmen hazing rituals from a century ago.
The new school year at Stanford University commences this week, and as an annual Six Fifty tradition we like to take the opportunity to dive deep into the school’s historic photo archive to give current students a glimpse back into campus life (and the world, in general) from exactly 100 years earlier.
In addition to finding a wide range of engaging imagery, we always encounter some genuinely curious contrasts and comparisons to the modern world of our current calendar year (not to mention more than a few out-and-out oddities). So please join us as we take the trip back….to 1919….
Labor strikes, race riots, anarchist bombings…and the great Boston Molasses Disaster?
Before you reach for the plutonium and punch the numbers 1–9–1–9 into the DeLorean, be warned — this particular year that new students would be venturing out into was an eventful and often conflict-riddled 365, and the American experience of the time was marked by frequent upheaval. Yes, on one hand, 1919 finally saw an official conclusion to World War I, which had raged for more than four years throughout Europe and Asia, redrawing maps, toppling empires and decimating a generation of young men amid the trenches. Yet even as peace was achieved internationally, the United States was besieged by strife and violence throughout the year.
The year kicked off with a strange and tragic incident in January, when a massive storage container full of molasses exploded in Boston, and unleashed a 25-foot-high river that moved at 35 mph down Commercial Street. It claimed the lives of 21 victims (who were entombed beneath the flood once it hardened in the winter air) and injured more than 150, becoming known as the infamous Boston Molasses Flood. The factory owners blamed an anarchist bombing, but labor leaders pointed towards profit-driven business men who had cut corners.
Of course, 1919 was in fact marked by a wide-ranging series of anarchist bombings throughout the year, including a sizable mail bomb campaign to prominent national figures (including JP Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and Oliver Wendell Holmes). On the labor front, massive strikes surfaced frequently around the country, including a nationwide steel worker strike (which ultimately failed) and a general strike in Seattle that involved more than 60,000 workers. More notable still was an array of bloody race riots that raged around the country and which came to be known as the Red Summer.
As if this weren’t all enough to drive a citizen to drinking — the nation banned booze! Yes, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was passed and prohibition was officially put into law. (Of course, Leland Stanford had made Palo Alto into a dry town—and it would technically remain one until 1972—so Prohibition may not have hit so hard locally.) But wait, some things did move forward: the 19th Amendment—giving women the right to vote—was (finally!) introduced by Congress in the spring and would be ratified in the following year.
In the sports world, it was an eventful year for baseball.The Boston Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for the unprecedented sum of $125,000…and an epic curse would plague the team for more than eight decades (straight through Bill Buckner’s legs in ’86 until they finally won in ’04). 1919 was also the year of the infamous Chicago Black Sox episode, one of the greatest scandals in sports history in which the team accepted payment to lose the World Series (“Say it ain’t so, Joe!”). But wait, even as Shoeless Joe received a lifetime ban, redemption was afoot: in Georgia, the Robinson family saw the birth of their new boy Jackie.
Other notable births that year included Catcher in the Rye author J. D. Salinger, musicians Nat King Cole, Liberace and Pete Seeger, as well as Bay Area literary trailblazer Lawrence Ferlinghetti (who, by the way, is still doing his thing over in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood). In the more two-dimensional universe, Felix the Cat made his first appearance, and would become the world’s first famous cartoon character.
Finally, the nation mourned the death of Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who passed at the age of 60 (check out the photo of him when he visited the Stanford Campus seventeen years earlier).
Rejecting Rugby, Not-So-Sweet Jane and old school hazing rituals
On campus, football finally returned to Stanford after a twelve year shift to rugby in the wake of national concern over the dangers of the sport. The team posted a respectable 4–3 record amid a truncated season and lost the 25th annual Big Game to Cal 14–10. However, Stanford football would soon pick up steam during the 1920s to be both successful and wildly popular. In fact, this was a become a golden era for the annual Big Game, which developed the fierce rivalry (not to mention the advent of the axehead hoopla) that it became so famous for.
As football ascended during this era, female enrollment sunk to new lows, and not by accident. Jane Stanford, wife of the school’s founder Leland Stanford, enforced a cap on female enrollment (to the tune of 500 per year) at the start of the century. Although coeducation had been a tenet of Stanford University dating back to its inception, Jane Stanford desired to see the school align closer to the perceived prestige of Harvard and Oxford, both of which did not allow women. So by 1919, female enrollment bottomed out to just 143 women. Years later—and despite ongoing criticism from suffragist figures around the world—Jane considered an outright ban of women at the university but balked in the face of a rebellion from the school’s trustees. The cap would gradually be rescinded beginning in 1933 when one trustee wrote,“For over thirty years the most outstanding handicap in the operation of Stanford University had been the limitation of women to 500.” Even still, sex-based enrollment restrictions would remain within the school’s governing documents until 1973.
Meanwhile, the University finished construction of a new building to house its main library, which had been been shifted around to various locations on campus before being annihilated by the 1906 earthquake. The new building officially opened in 1919 and was renamed the Cecil H. Green Library (which is still housed in the same building today).
Stanford’s photo archive also has a few curious oddities bumping around under the search term “1919,” including some colorful pics of campus life, most notably the Frosh-Soph Tie-Up.
It’s pretty clear from the photos that the Tie-Up was a kind of hazing ritual for new students, and looking through the imagery from 1919, the annual campus event (which would appear to date back to at least the early 1900s) at first seemed like a rowdy version of a three-legged race. Yet, upon a wider search of the Tie-Up from that era, it appears an awful lot more like the sophomore’s are just beating the living shit out of the freshman (or as a flier in the archive pegs it: “wallop you to a frazzle”). Photos show some pretty intense wrestling out on the football field and some of the caption info refers to it all as simply “the fights.” Even more peculiar are pictures which show a sizable crowd of older spectators dressed up nice and just taking it all in.
We couldn’t find much info on this ritual, though it appears to have wound down by 1930, because we did find an opinion piece in the archives of the Stanford Daily titled: “Frosh Hazing Was Really Tough Back in the ‘Good Ole Days,’” with the subheading— “Water Nozzles Jammed In Protesting Throats By Sophomores”. (We were excited to glean some details about the Tie-Up from that particular article but it’s written in some sort of 1930s hipster jive.)
So as we safely return to our present-day world of 2019, we encourage all of you current students to make the most of your school experience. Whether you’re attending Stanford or elsewhere, as a freshman or senior, embrace your era and seize the day. And remember—no matter how hard this coming school year may get, give thanks that you’re not fleeing a tidal wave of molasses or getting hog-tied by your upperclassmen!
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More local history from The Six Fifty:
- “An island of sobriety”: getting to the bottom of Palo Alto’s non-alcoholic history
- Were you there? Revisiting the 8 most legendary rock concerts performed at the Cow Palace.
- Remembering Silicon Valley’s trailblazing “Troublemakers”
- The Palo Alto home where the Grateful Dead chose their iconic name is up for sale.
- Stanford vs. Cal: A visual history of the Big Game
- Check out 15 years worth of Bridge School Benefit concert photography