#ThrowbackThursday: To Build a Bonfire

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Coach Charlie Caldwell ’25, left, and captain Frank McPhee ’53 prepare to light the 1952 bonfire with a flaming broom. (Photo: PAW Archives)

Princeton’s tradition of celebrating big football victories with a bonfire dates back to the late 1800s, and the current practice of reserving the bonfire for the years when Princeton beats both Harvard and Yale also has a long history. But one part has changed over the years: Stacking the wood used to be a job for the freshmen; now, all four classes participate. This year’s bonfire on Cannon Green is scheduled to begin Sunday, Nov. 24, at 7 p.m.

What goes into the fire? Effigies of Bulldogs and John Harvard (though probably not this year), wooden pallets, painted plywood signs, and whatever else will burn.

John McPhee ’53, the Ferris Professor of Journalism and longtime New Yorker writer, penned an excellent description in a PAW student column about the 1952 bonfire, celebrating Princeton’s sixth consecutive Big Three championship:

“The A.A. [athletics association] contributed a .1-mile outdoor running track (more than 12,000 board feet). The New Jersey State Highway Department donated a supply of pruned limbs (vegetable). And — the inevitable pièce de résistance — a privy (dual) was graciously volunteered by the sixth townsman to be so immortalized in as many years. Inside the antiquated commode was a piece of conventional crockery symbolizing the Yale Bowl.”

Below, watch video of Princeton bonfires from 1926, 1948, 2006, and 2012.

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