This Week in Princeton History for July 20-26

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a beloved staff member dies, the opening of a new recreational center for military personnel on campus is announced, and more.

July 20, 1899—The Peary Relief Expedition arrives in the port of North Sydney, Nova Scotia with several Princeton professors on board. Their boat, the Diana, carries supplies for Robert Peary, who is exploring Greenland in his quest to reach the North Pole. The professors take the opportunity to conduct scientific research in the Arctic along the way.

Diana_in_Port_Jul_20_1899_AC012_Box_9

The Diana in port, July 20, 1899. Princeton Scientific Expeditions Collection (AC012), Box 9.

July 22, 1902—James Johnson, an escaped slave who became known as the “students’ friend” during his long sojourn working at Princeton, dies at the age of 87.

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James Johnson in the 1894 Bric-a-Brac.

July 23, 1797—In a letter to his ward and stepgrandson, George Washington Parke Custis, College of New Jersey (Princeton) Class of 1799, George Washington observes that “no college has turned out better scholars or more estimable characters than Nassau.”

July 26, 1943—In cooperation with the USO, the University announces the opening of a new recreation center in Murray-Dodge Hall for military personnel assigned to Princeton.

Soldiers_outside_Murray_ca1943_AC112_MP208_No._5495

Soldiers walking by Murray-Dodge Hall, ca. 1943. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP208, Image No. 5495.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

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Washington’s Birthday at Princeton

Generally ignored or barely noted by Princetonians today, Washington’s Birthday was one of the most important campus events during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The day was marked in a variety of ways such as athletic contests, musical entertainment, and plays. The celebration was capped off by an oratorical contest, where each class selected a representative to compete for a cash prize, usually sponsored by the Nassau Literary Magazine.

1897 Washington's Birthday Program
Cover of the 1897 Washington’s Birthday Program,
Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records

The character of the holiday’s celebration changed significantly over time. The first Princeton observance of the first president’s birthday was noted in the February 1794 minutes of the Cliosophic Society. Clio’s observation of the occasion included an oration by Brother Gamma, a.k.a. Henry Kollock ’1794, which includes few details other than that it was received “to the great satisfaction of all.” The tradition seems to have been revived decades later, as the Archives’ Washington’s Birthday Celebration Records (AC200) contain event programs from the years 1873 to 1909.

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Washington’s Birthday Parade, 1889
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series, Box SP1

For much of its lifespan, the celebration appears to have been raucous, emphasizing a spirit of class rivalry, especially between freshmen and sophomores. Inter-class hazing was frequent, and an element of humor permeated each program, especially in the oration delivered by the senior class speaker, who was permitted to digress from the patriotic speeches expected of the other three classes.

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