For much of its history, Amherst College was a much smaller place than it is today. Enrollment 100 years ago was just 420 young men; today it is over 1,800 and about evenly divided between males and females. (The student body didn’t expand to anywhere close to its current size until the swell of post-World War II returning soldiers and their subsequent baby-boom offspring made the growth seem inevitable.)
So 19th and early 20th century Amherst was a much quieter place, more intimate — and, one might venture to suppose, more oppressive for that reason. Among the students there was virtually no cultural diversity to speak of; where very little actual distinctions existed, there seemed to have been a need to invent artificial ones. This is how I explain to myself the extremely elaborate system of social rules and distinctions that are documented in the College Archives: seemingly arbitrary rules and distinctions that were erected by the undergraduates themselves.
This week, as the current batch of Amherst freshmen (or “first years,” to use today’s more accurate, though more ungainly, gender-neutral term) are just finishing their first week of classes, seems an appropriate time to catch some glimpses of how newcomers were expected to behave over a century ago.
Take the issue of hats and canes, for example.
We have a good dozen or so specimens of student canes or walking sticks in our Objects Collection. Some of them are quite plain, others very ornate, sporting hand-carved designs and beautiful brass handles and tips. Their significance in the social history of undergraduate life is not to be underestimated. The top hat and cane were acknowledged to be the distinguishing mark of a gentleman. As freshmen were, by definition, quite the opposite of gentlemen (or, as in the notice seen at the beginning of this article, “lower orders of creation”), a rule forbidding freshmen from carrying canes was rigidly enforced. Sophomores savored their hard-won liberty to declare themselves as upperclassmen by going out with their canes in public.
Hats, too, were accouterments turned into the objects of class stigma. Even some living alumni can still remember the burden of having to wear a freshman beanie when walking on campus. The beanie — or, to use its more formal designation, the “pea-green Eton cap with its black button” — seems to have been designed to look as homely and unfashionable as possible, a garment befitting the execrable state of immaturity and sub-humanness that embodies a freshman.
The Student Handbook, issued annually to Amherst freshmen for most of the college’s history (and still today) , laid down rules and advice intended to tell freshmen, in no uncertain terms, their place in the social order. This excerpt from the handbook of 100 years ago (PDF) includes these items:
- Do not talk too much.
- Do not smoke on the street.
- Do not acquire the “Hamp” habit [i.e., traveling to Northampton to visit the women at Smith] too soon. Time enough for that during the last three years.
- Do not try to impress any fraternity with your preeminent worth. They will discover it if it is present.
- Do not be afraid of overworking, for it is the Freshman year that counts in making your reputation as a student.
- Freshmen shall be required to wear the regulation pea-green Eton cap with a black button not less than one and one-half inches in diameter, from the day college opens until the 22nd of February.
- Freshmen must wear the regulation caps within the town limits at all times except Sundays until the 22nd of February.
And so on. What is most interesting to me about these rules is they were not issued by the administration or faculty, but by the students themselves, for their fellow students. In the small, homogeneous Amherst of earlier times, these distinctions mattered.
By contrast, let’s take a look at how generations of incoming Amherst students were advised and inducted into college life by an actual member of the faculty. Edward “Old Doc” Hitchcock (AC 1849), Amherst’s much-beloved college physician and professor of physical education and hygiene from 1861 to 1911, bore the responsibility of instructing the freshmen in a series of lectures intended to begin the work of fulfilling the college’s stated aim to “develop and cultivate the whole man” — mind, body and soul.
Hitchcock’s lectures (excerpt, PDF) covered the following topics: Hygiene and Physical Education, Care of the Muscles, Food and Digestion, Alcohol, Tobacco, Skin, Breathing and Vocal Organs and Fresh Air, Brain and Mind, Eyes, and Reproductive Organs. The lectures belie any notion of 19th-century rigid callousness or rule-bound oppressiveness on the part of the college administration. They are marked by sensitivity, genuine fondness, and interest in the success of every Amherst student.
In his introductory remarks, Hitchcock emphasizes the autonomy of each student to determine his own success in college.
Difference between College and Other Students. – (a) Greater things are expected of them. (b) Supposed to be intelligent gentlemen. (c) Placed very much under self-control and are not amenable to petty punishments, restraints, or supervisions. (d) In the determinative period of life. (e) Habits, manners and methods in college generally mark a man through life.
Still, he reminds the freshmen of the importance of respecting upperclassmen:
Relation to other Classes. No disgrace that you are Freshmen, but still you are the youngest class. Yield proper respect to older classes, but this does not imply the tolerance of insult or abuse. Never be too quick to scent an insult. Show a Christian manliness whether it is manifested to you or not.
Hitchcock’s advice certainly makes the student-issued rules about canes, hats and smoking seem petty and ridiculous. We simply hope that his twinkling fatherly wisdom was taken seriously, while the other rules merely tolerated with a grin.
Good wishes to college first-years everywhere!