When the Old Traditions Fail

by Jack Boger | 11/1/12 11:00pm

by Marietta Smith / The Dartmouth

Notable among these is the old tradition of freshman beanies. Incoming Dartmouth students were required to buy green caps emblazoned with their class numbers in large white text to identify themselves as new members of the community. The custom began in 1911 and continued until 1969, when freshman from the Class of 1973 last wore the beanies. On our contemporary campus, the wearing of the caps would likely be seen as hazing, especially because there was undoubtedly an element of degradation and subservience associated with the tradition.

Furthermore, freshmen specifically marked as "pea greens" were required to assist upperclassmen with chores and naturally stood out due to their goofy headgear. However, some alumni remember the beanies more positively, as a method of forming class identity and bonds.

John Engleman '69 remembered the freshmen beanies as "a unifying activity" for example, fraternities frequently enlisted freshmen to help spruce up their houses during Orientation. Engleman recalled spending an entire day trying to walk back to his dorm in Mid-Mass while constantly being pressed into service at several Greek houses on Webster Avenue.

"In this day and age it would certainly be called hazing," Engleman said, though he stressed the positive aspects of the experience. Beanies connected freshmen to their class as well as to earlier generations of Dartmouth men who had experienced the same thing.

They were "a great way to meet people and to feel a part of the Dartmouth campus and culture," Engleman said. Plus, he and his friends were paid for their work in beer.

George Potts '60 echoed Engleman's sentiment, saying that the beanies weren't about hazing but rather "self-identification." Their use as a bonding device was made clear later in the fall term, when the freshmen would be given the opportunity to get rid of their beanies if they could beat the upperclassmen in a game of tug-of-war on the Green. Opposition from the upperclassmen tended to be nominal if they believed the freshmen had been "a spirited, energetic group who bought into the history and traditions of the College," Engleman said.

It is unclear exactly why freshmen beanies now cease to exist, but many say that when the administration made them optional in 1967, the pea green caps quickly disappeared from campus.

Other traditions ended much more dramatically, causing offense or controversy. Fraternity Hums was an interfraternity singing contest held on the steps of Dartmouth Hall during Green Key weekend. Potts remembered Hums in the late 1950s as a "quite lovely" a cappella competition, with fraternities arranging American standards, Broadway songs and current hits, as well as original compositions. Formal dress was required.

As women began to attend the College in the 1970s, however, misogynist songs at Hums also began to appear. Theta Delta Chi fraternity's 1975 entry, "Our Cohogs," centered on a rude double meaning of cohog as coed and a crude reference to female genitalia, but it was declared the most original piece of the competition by a panel of judges including then-Dean of the College Caroll Brewster despite the misogyny of its lyrics, according to records in Rauner Special Collections. The ensuing uproar resulted in Hums eventually being shut down, though in 1979 the Inter-Fraternity Council sponsored a short-lived "Real Hums" in protest of College censorship that petered out eventually.

Traditions associated with the old Indian mascot also started disappearing starting in the 1970s. Graduating seniors used to purchase clay pipes for Class Day. Marching up toward the observatory as a class, the men would smoke and then shatter their clay pipes against the stump of the Dartmouth pine, symbolizing a break with "the ways of college life and a goodbye to Dartmouth," Potts said. In 1993, the College administration put an end to the pipe-breaking after Native American students complained about the misappropriation of the peace pipe image, a sacred symbol in many Native American tribes, according to a June 1993 article in The Dartmouth.

A male cheerleader dressed in stereotypical Indian garb, with body paint, buckskin chaps and a feathered headdress, used to lead the football team onto Memorial Field riding bareback on a pony, according to Potts. Although Potts said the sight was "awe-inspiring," it was banned, along with other uses of the Indian mascot, in a 1974 decision by the Board of Trustees.

As an additional tradition associated with game day, bonfires used to be a part of every home football game rather than just for Homecoming, and the bonfire from this year would pale in comparison to the massive structures Engleman described. Abandoned railroad ties provided fuel for the bonfire flames, and the College provided flatbed trucks for students to transport the wood. Bonfire building was "something that everyone looked forward to" as a "unifying activity" that provided an opportunity to meet classmates you might not otherwise get to know, Engleman said. As Hanover became better connected with the world at large and coeducation transformed campus, bonfires became less of a central activity and eventually were relegated to Homecoming weekend.

Today's cherished Dartmouth tradition may yet become tomorrow's historical footnote, remembered in some future Mirror article. We tend to lend more credence to the practices and rituals we participate in than those that have come and gone. Pong, for example, is not yet a half century old, yet we consider it an essential hallmark of Dartmouth culture. In 1911, when freshman beanies were introduced, The D declared in an article that the caps would add "a touch of the picturesque and a deeper hue" to campus, "worthy of continuing down the long years of the history of the College." The article noted that it was curious how little time was needed to cement a new custom and "give it all the authority of a habit handed down from antiquity," and the author predicted that the freshman cap would become a permanent part of undergraduate life. Will future generations still play pong? Is there an enduring nickname for Class of 1953 Commons? Only time will tell which traditions, old and new, pass or fail.