Princeton alumni have a passion for college reunions that is hard to find at most institutions. Each class descends upon the campus every May, as they have for generations. In its early years, College of New Jersey (Princeton) drew alumni back to campus for Commencement, to meet classmates, to reunite with friends, and/or visit with favorite professors, both informally and at organized events. In 1826, alumni returning for Commencement formed the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall to “promote the interests of the college and the friendly intercourse of the graduates, and meetings were to be held annually in the Prayer Hall on commencement day.” James Madison, Class of 1771, was the Association’s first president, and future College president John Maclean was secretary.
After the Civil War, classes began giving gifts to the University as part of their reunion celebrations. The Class of 1859 endowed a senior prize in English for its tenth reunion. The Class of 1860 followed with a graduate fellowship in experimental science and the Class of 1866 with a clock in the cupola of Nassau Hall, each for their tenth reunions. Reunions grew in popularity. Over 2,000 alumni joined the sesquicentennial celebration in 1896. As attendance increased–with five-year reunions more heavily attended than so-called “off-year” reunions–programs expanded. Classes began arranging temporary housing, hiring entertainment, and coordinating a wide range of activities for alumni. To help identify themselves, individual classes began to adopt banners, hatbands, blazers, and costumes, making Princeton reunions vibrantly colorful.
The tradition of publishing a commemorative “reunion book” began with 1888’s Biography of the Class of 1835 of the College of New Jersey, including poems and biographical information on alumni. For their first anniversary, the Class of 1889 published a list of its members, their occupations, and addresses. Over the next 50 years, the amount of information included in these “reunion books” increased to include class history, biographical sketches, and memorials. This tradition continues today, with the 25th and 50th reunion books being the most elaborate.
Classes also started to compete for the best attendance at Reunions. In 1912, the Class of 1901 gave a silver cup to be awarded annually to the class having the highest percentage of its living members registered at a major reunion. Attendance winners have ranged from 52 percent (the Class of 1919 at its 50th) to 77.3 percent (the Class of 1898 at its 25th). In the 1930s, more attendance awards were established, with the Class of 1921 Plaque given to the major reunion class with the largest number of its members registered at a reunion and the Class of 1894 bowl for the off-year class with the largest percentage of classmates registered. The Class of 1915 cup is given to the off-year class with the largest number of its members registered at an off-year reunion.
One of the most popular reunion events is the P-rade, celebrating each class. Though a century ago there were many student parades that took the name “P-Rade,” today the term only refers to the one at reunions. Two separate but closely related reunion events preceded the modern version. The first was a procession to the reunion dinner when classes would gather and walk together to the meeting. The second was an informal “march” to the Princeton-Yale baseball game (a rivalry that began in 1868). The game, held during reunion festivities, was popular among alumni and their families. (Video of President George H. W. Bush talking about his experiences at the 1948 Princeton-Yale game as Yale’s first baseman amidst the throngs of Princeton alumni can be viewed here, about nine minutes into the clip.) Classes would assemble and often hire a band to lead them to the game. During these two processions, alumni would wear class pins and ribbons and carry banners.
In 1906, reunion planners were faced with a growing problem: how could they seat all of the alumni at the baseball game and prevent the mad dash for the best seats? They decided to take advantage of alumni fondness for marching and proposed a formal procession to the game. With enthusiastic support from alumni, the reunion parade was born. Elaborate reunion costumes quickly replaced class pins and ribbons. One of the earliest was unveiled at the Class of 1898’s tenth reunion, when members dressed as Roman soldiers, complete with tunics, buskins with orange lacing to the knee, and shields with their class insignia. Other early costumes included Dutch boys, Apache dancers, devils, Scottish highlanders, monks, and (of course) tigers.
Reunion costumes also reflected the social climate of the time. In 1910, the Class of 1900 dressed as suffragettes and wore long dresses. “Big Bill” Edwards, former football star, led them on horseback dressed as Joan of Arc. Other classes would often hold up signs supporting the U. S. President or questioning a political decision. For example, one class held a sign that read “FDR is a Harvard man with a Yale honorary degree.”
Alumni costumes were not the only attraction. Live animals often participated in the P-rade. The first formal P-rade (1906) featured a troupe of trained lions. Two tigers marched in 1923, and three elephants led the Class of 1944 “clowns” down Nassau Street in 1949. Classes celebrating major reunions often have bands march with them as well. Bands include bagpipes, brass bands, and fife and drum corps. Some P-rades have had as many as thirty bands march with the classes.
At first, only undergraduate alumni could march in the P-rade, but demand to allow alumni families to participate grew. In the 1920s, children were allowed to march, though women did not officially join the P-rade until 1969 when Princeton began admitting women. The last group to join the P-Rade was Princeton’s graduate alumni, who began participating in undergraduate Reunions fun around 1962. The first graduate Reunions were held separately, beginning in December 1949, and had a much more serious, two-day conference format for their early years.
The original catalyst for the P-rade, the Princeton-Yale baseball game, came to an end in 1966 when Yale announced that it could no longer keep its baseball roster full after graduation. A game between the Princeton varsity baseball team and an alumni team replaced the Princeton-Yale game. In 1968, the scheduled game conflicted with the funeral of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. After the University canceled the game that year, it was never played again. Today, the Grand Marshall and two flanking marshals open the FitzRandolph Gates and proceed to Nassau Hall where they are joined by the University President, the Chair of the Board of Trustees, the President of the Alumni Association, and the Chair of the Committee on Reunions. This group leads the Princeton University Band and the alumni reunion classes through campus.
The order of the classes is as follows: first, the 25th reunion class; then the oldest returning alumnus (this person carries the Class of 1923 Cane which is awarded to the oldest member of the oldest class present at Reunions); then the Old Guard; the other reunion classes follow in reverse chronological order until 26th reunion; then graduate alumni; the 24th reunion class is next, followed by the remaining classes in reverse chronological order; and, finally, the graduating senior class ends the procession.
At times, the nation’s mood has put a damper on this lighthearted tradition. During both world wars, all festivities were cancelled. A controversy also surrounded the P-rade of 1970. The senior class voted not to participate in something as jovial as a parade during a time of anti-war demonstrations and campus unrest. The P-rade went on as scheduled, and some members of the Class of 1970 did march with the reunion classes despite the senior class boycott. During peacetime, however, Reunions continue to be the most heavily attended event held at Princeton.
We currently have a small exhibit case in our lobby featuring Reunions memorabilia from selected classes, 1860-2000. Stop by to have a look!
Class reunion books
Memorabilia Collection (AC053)
Wertenback, Thomas Jefferson. Princeton: 1746-1896. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1946).
White, Dan. “The Festival and Fantasy of Princeton Reunions,” Princeton Alumni Weekly, May 8, 1978.
This post was originally written by Nancy Shader for our FAQ page on our old website. It has been revised and expanded here as part of our launch of our new website.