Memory Lane meets Webster Avenue: a history of Greek life

by Eileen Brady | 9/10/18 9:00am

What do a small independently-run library and a noisy, sticky-floored basement have in common? They are both iterations of Dartmouth’s Greek Life system, according to College archivist Peter Carini.

Greek life has long been an important part of the College’s culture. But the history behind the parties and pong tells a story of Greek life that is far from one-dimensional. Dating back to the 1780s, Dartmouth’s Greek system originated with two literary societies, Carini said: the Society of Social Friends, founded in 1783, and the United Fraternity, founded three years later.

These organizations housed their own libraries, purchasing books that the College didn’t have or wouldn’t buy. The collections moved between students before the College eventually granted the organizations space in residence halls, Carini said.

“Those organizations were social, but not in the sense of a frat basement,” Carini explained. “It was more like getting people together for studying and light socializing, and then the other big thing was the libraries.”

The two libraries were eventually merged, and the books were later incorporated into the College library system, Carini said. Today, many of the books originally owned by Social Friends and the United Fraternity reside in Dartmouth’s Rauner Special Collections Library.

The first Greek letter organization came to Dartmouth when a Phi Beta Kappa chapter was established at the College in 1787. The organization was based on academic ability and often hosted debates for members, Carini said. The debates likely included political and philosophical topics, he added.

The oldest of today’s fraternities is Psi Upsilon, founded at Dartmouth in 1842. It was followed closely by Kappa Kappa Kappa, also founded in 1842. Both of these organizations originated from groups that split off from United Fraternity when the literary societies started to decline.

Between the 1840s and the 1900s, many Greek organizations developed and membership in the houses became more popular. Still, however, it wasn’t until the 1920s that the fraternities started to take their current form.

“It probably wasn’t until the 1920s that the drinking really started,” Carini said. “Before that, they had dances, but it was more toned down.”

He added that women from other schools were probably introduced to Dartmouth’s Greek life around that time. They came to Dartmouth for “big weekends” such as Homecoming and Winter Carnival, when fraternities would host large parties in conjunction with the College-wide festivities.

Shortly after fraternities took up a more social form, they started fighting many of the discriminatory clauses set by the national organizations, said College library head of special collections Jay Satterfield. In 1954, the Undergraduate Council required that Dartmouth’s fraternities either do away with discriminatory clauses or localize, creating their own organizations separate from the national organizations and their prejudices. This mandate, in large part, led to the mostly local fraternity system that Dartmouth retains today.

“A lot of the fraternities went local because they couldn’t get their national chapters to change the policies, and that’s sort of what creates the local fraternity system here,” Satterfield said. “Of course, the irony of that is that a lot of the problems we have with Greek life at Dartmouth are because it’s a local system and there aren’t the same checks that fraternities have at some other places.”

Although the first freshman class of women entered the College in 1972, there were still no sororities when they graduated. Former vice president for alumni relations Martha Beattie ’76, a member of the inaugural class of women, attributed this largely to women trying to assimilate into other areas of academic, athletic and extracurricular life at Dartmouth.

“Nobody was really talking about sororities,” she said. “I think, quite honestly, the women that came in my year [and the following years] knew they were going to a college that had no sororities, so Greek life wasn’t really on their list in what they wanted in terms of a school.”

She added that, despite the lack of sororities, fraternities continued to play a major role in the social life on campus, even for women. Beattie said that fraternities would host parties, dances and live music on the weekends, and that these were the pillars of Dartmouth social life at the time.

When public events weren’t being hosted at fraternities, however, Beattie said that women did not frequent fraternity basements.

“I never really went into a fraternity when there wasn’t a band and sort of a public event happening there, unless my fellow ski patrolmen were inside,” Beattie said. “There were sort of the public events where women always felt very welcomed and they were really great fun, and then there was sort of the private spaces that were more all male.”

Beattie added that although there were no official sororities, some of the all-female dorms, such as North Massachusetts Hall, fostered strong bonds between women. These became like the first sororities, she said.

Don Cutter ’73, a former Psi Upsilon brother, facilities manager and advisor, said that he and his fraternity brothers welcomed women as soon as they came to Dartmouth.

“There were a lot of female students that came to the house regularly, even though they obviously weren’t members,” Cutter said. “They were welcomed. I don’t think we had any problem with it.”

Cutter added that although he has observed changes in traditions during his long involvement with Psi U, the camaraderie he felt as a student in the 70s persists among brothers today.

David Herrera ’18, former president of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity confirmed this assessment.

“When I started getting more involved [in Sig Ep], I felt like I got a lot out of it: some of my closest friends, some of the people I looked up most to on campus and a lot of academic stimulation came from my fraternity,” Herrera said, adding that he thinks that’s been a common sentiment among Sig Ep brothers for a long time, based on conversations with alumni.

Although less time has passed since his graduation, Herrera told similar stories of meeting up with fraternity brothers in post-college life, describing the bonds that he continues to share with his Sig Ep brothers.

Today, these relationships also exist for many women who have joined sororities at Dartmouth. Kathy Oprea ’10, a sister of Alpha Xi Delta during her time at the College, explained that sororities have become a place where women can learn from one another and bond.

Oprea added that the Greek system continues to be a great way to meet new people and explained that even today at reunions or other Dartmouth events, she recognizes peers that she may never have met if not for Dartmouth’s famed basements.