The “Down South Kitchen” and Family Life in Princeton University’s Isabella McCosh Infirmary

When I wrote about the myth of slave quarters in Princeton University dormitories, there wasn’t room to tell you about the service workers who did sleep under the same roof as Princeton students for half a century. Today’s post considers the home one Black family made at Isabella McCosh Infirmary while they cooked and cleaned for students sick in body or in soul as well as the medical staff. Theirs was in some ways a typical life for African Americans of their time, a generation removed from enslavement yet still constrained by sociological factors that meant few other roles would have been possible for them than what the U.S. Census usually recorded as their occupation: “Servant.”

It began with Mabel Hillian, who came to Princeton to visit relatives in the fall of 1916. Her age at this time is a bit unclear; different sources would either have her as about 25 years old or as about 19, but based on most sources it seems she was probably 19. In January 1917, she started working in McCosh Infirmary as a dishwasher. It was not her first job. She’d previously worked picking cotton in Cheraw, South Carolina, where she was born, and where she had an apparent reputation for picking more cotton faster than any of the other roughly 100 farmhands who worked alongside her. Her younger sister, Bessie Hillian, then just 14 years old, soon joined Mabel in Princeton as an infirmary dishwasher. Even at that young age, Bessie arrived with her own work experience, because she, too, had been picking cotton in Cheraw. Though they both started as dishwashers, they quickly took over the kitchen. Mabel remained head cook until her retirement, when Bessie assumed the role.

This 1932 photograph is the earliest one I’ve been able to find of Bessie and Mabel Hillian, shown here in the Isabella McCosh Infirmary kitchen. Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

Helen Gross was the Infirmarian at the time. Gross’s brother, John M. T. Finney, was a doctor. Gross and Finney, Bessie later told the Princeton Herald, had told the Hillian sisters to move in to the infirmary, which the Hillians commonly referred to as a hospital. “They said we should live at the hospital and make it our home, and we always have.”

McCosh Infirmary, 1910. In 1925, this first building was replaced with the one that still stands today. Historical Postcard Collection (AC045).

The sisters weren’t alone in the infirmary overnight. In addition to students who stayed there when they were ill, census records show that other service staff and several nurses also lived in McCosh Infirmary, all of whom where white; many were immigrants. The sisters soon expanded their own family’s presence there, too. Around 1928, Bessie married Harley Dargan, who also moved into the infirmary and worked as a waiter, and their younger brother, Thomas Hillian, moved in with them as well and began working as an orderly. Another relative, Rosa Malachie—known as “Big Rosa”—joined them in 1928, too, helping with the cooking and cleaning. In 1942, their niece, Lucy Rosa Malachie—known as Lucy or as “Little Rosa”—moved in. Because the family was from South Carolina, they called the kitchen Mabel ran the “Down South Kitchen.”

When World War II food shortages began to make the job of cooking for the students more difficult, the family had an idea. They wrote to Princeton’s president, Harold Dodds, to ask permission to start a garden. He assented and asked the greenhouse manager to set aside a few acres on the path to Lake Carnegie for them. The greenhouse manager asked Mabel why she hadn’t just come to him in the first place rather than going straight to Dodds. “Well, Mr. Dawson,” Mabel said, “you see we knew the president and we didn’t know you.”

With Tom as the “Head Man” in charge of the garden, and the dedication of the rest of the family, the enterprise was a resounding success. Princeton did not have to buy any fresh produce at all for the infirmary in 1943. It was instead supplied from the array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, said to include every common variety known in the area except parsnips, in the “Down South Garden.” They worked to preserve what didn’t get eaten fresh, canning vegetables, pickling cucumbers, bottling sauces, and making jams and jellies. It does not appear that Princeton compensated the Hillian-Dargan-Malackie family for the food, though they did get some support in the form of fertilizer and $25 to spend on equipment, and were allowed to continue gardening through the Korean War.

“Big Rosa” Malackie; Mabel, Bessie, and Thomas Hillian; and “Little Rosa” Malackie in the infirmary store room displaying the produce of the “Down South Garden,” 1951. Photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly.

The effort was significant. Every day from 2:00-4:00PM after lunch duties were finished, they worked in the garden, then took a break from gardening to “get supper ready for the boys and the nurses and everybody” and serve it, and then would return to the garden to work until dark. When school was no longer in session, they took advantage of the two-month break to start canning everything. When the Board of Trustees met, the family would put the year’s bounty on display in the infirmary store room. In 1950, they preserved a record of 981 quarts of food. Their garden consistently produced more than the population of sick Princeton students and the infirmary staff could eat, so the group began giving food away to the sick and needy in the area.

Thanks in large part to the Hillians, the infirmary had a family atmosphere. They treated the students like their own relatives—and indeed, as time went on and Princeton’s exclusionary practices toward African Americans began to change, some of them actually were. Robert Rivers ’53 was their nephew and sometimes he, like other students, sought out meals at the infirmary as its own sort of medicine when the stresses of college life got to him. This became an important refuge for Black students at a time when there was little sense of community for them on campus. But white students also considered the Hillians an important part of their college experience. When they returned for Reunions, alumni would bring their children and later even their grandchildren to meet the Hillians.

Bessie Hillian discusses the infirmary menu with Dr. Willard Dalrymple, director of University Health Services, 1967. Photo from Town Topics.

The family had their own cures on offer alongside the medical staff’s. Bessie, for example, would treat homesickness with cake. Milkshakes and cold juices soothed sore throats. On one occasion over the winter holidays, the Hillians said they learned of a student left on campus over Christmas who was alone in his room and sick. Tom went to get him and brought him to the infirmary, where Mabel and Bessie called the doctor to secure permission to give him some medicine and they kept him there for Christmas dinner. They told journalists about students who would come to the infirmary just because they were tired of the food elsewhere, just to be fed. The farm-to-table approach at McCosh Infirmary, with its fresh herbs and high-quality produce, was a far cry from the University Commons, after all. Mabel described one student as having claimed to be very ill, but his roast beef dinner “must have cured him, because he never even saw a nurse or a doctor.”

Tom was a dedicated football fan, attending nearly every home and away game, though he did not travel with the team, even making it to Cambridge for a match against Harvard in a hurricane. During the games, Tom sat with the team and assisted the team doctor in treating injuries. His major responsibility was to hold fractures in place while the casts were put on. When he became too ill to sit on the bench, he watched the games from a car parked in the end zone. Bessie also enjoyed football games, though she was less of a fixture at them than Tom.

The stories that have been preserved of the Hillian-Malackie-Dargan family present familiar patterns in African American history, especially the narratives about the Hillian sisters. At a time when they were younger than the “boys” they served, they took on a nurturing, even maternal, role for Princeton students, at least in the retrospective tale as it was usually told. Stereotypes of Black women as nurturing, strong, untiring, and selfless reverberate from what journalists chose to record about them in their lifetimes. Similarly, though perhaps to a lesser extent because the stories appeared less often, we can see a reinforcement of messages about the ideal Black man being subservient and accepting of his lower-class status in the accounts of Tom’s devotion to the football team and the garden. The legacy of the “Mammy,” “Aunt Jemimah,” and “Uncle Tom” tropes of white American imagination are pervasive in what aspects of their lives have been recorded and venerated.

This is not to say that the Hillians themselves were not nurturing, hard-working, or generous in their service to Princeton; it appears they were and took pride in it. However, those who encounter these stories in our records would do well to remember how much the role they played was one constrained by racialized expectations, with the daughters of illiterate parents who picked cotton in South Carolina leaving home at a very young age to serve white elites, without having many other options. There is unquestionable exploitation inherent in the story of their lives, regardless of how much one may admire their service to Princeton. Bessie Hillian’s long career is rightfully distressing to those who read about it today, when both social attitudes and a network of laws would expect a 14-year-old girl to be in school and living with her parents, not washing dishes as a live-in servant at a college infirmary alongside her older sister. Such reflections do not appear to be present in the archival record, but are an important part of interacting with the materials we have.

I’ve been unable to track down the fate of “Big Rosa” or Harley Dargan. “Little Rosa” moved to Rocky Hill in 1959, where she lived with her husband, Roy E. Ross, until her death in 1978. Mabel retired in 1963 after 46 years of running a kitchen, leaving Bessie to take over as head cook, but she continued to live in McCosh Infirmary with her relatives after her retirement. Tom died of an illness in 1967 after 45 years of service to Princeton at the age of 64. Bessie was the longest-serving Hillian, retiring in 1968 after 51 years. At that point, she and Mabel moved off campus, relocating to a house on Mt. Lucas Road in town. Mabel lived five years there before her death in 1973. Bessie’s death followed in 1981. With them, they took the memory of a side of Princeton unknown to us in this century. Lewis Thomas Laboratory now sits on the land formerly occupied by the “Down South Garden,” the food served to inpatients at McCosh Clinic is similar to the fare found elsewhere on campus, and the staff don’t make their homes in the infirmary.

 

Sources:

Historical Postcard Collection (AC045)

Papers of Princeton

Princeton Alumni Weekly

Princeton Directory: A General Directory of Princeton, N.J. and Vicinity

United States Census Records, 1900-1930

For further reading:

Walker-Barnes, Chanequa. Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. Cascade Books, 2014.

Dear Mr. Mudd: How Did Princeton Students Treat Campus Servants?

This post is the second in a two-part series.

Dear Mr. Mudd,

If Princeton University dormitories could not have housed enslaved persons, why does the rumor persist that they did? What were the experiences of campus servants really like? How did students treat them?

 

Last week, I outlined the factual evidence that proves that dorms at Princeton were not designed with enslaved residents in mind, and that enslaved people did not live with students in dormitories. Though fictional, however, the myth does hint at some of the hidden truths of marginalized lives spent within the walls of buildings on campus. Today’s post considers the levels of personal service students were given and the dehumanizing treatment many employees endured from Princeton students in the past.

Though it is unclear how this rumor originated, there are some historical clues. Family tradition holds that Charles Haile, Class of 1855, brought an enslaved valet, William Doby, Jr., with him to campus, though it is clear that he would not have been able to have had Doby living with him under the campus rules at the time. In 1924, the Daily Princetonian ran an interview with George McGow, a Black resident of Princeton, then 75 years old, who said he had been Woodrow Wilson’s personal valet:

“He stopped me on Nassau Street,” he said, speaking of his first meeting with the great man, “and asked me if I would keep his room in Witherspoon Hall for him. I began that way, but soon became his personal servant, a thing I guess the boys don’t have now; but lots of southern lads in those days brought their own servants with them from home.”

McGow is listed on the 1920 census as having parents from “The South,” but without a state specified. I’ve been unable to determine where he lived before that. If McGow did act in this capacity, or others acted in this capacity for other students, they would not have lived with their employers if they were living in dorms, as Wilson was in Witherspoon Hall, even if McGow was cleaning Wilson’s dorm room periodically.

Waitstaff is visible in this photograph of graduate students dining in Proctor Hall ca. 1950s. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP191, Image No. 5162.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: Did Enslaved People Live in Princeton’s Dormitories?

This post is the first in a two-part series.

 

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Rumor has it the dorms at Princeton were designed to allow students to bring enslaved people with them to live in adjoining rooms and serve them. Is this true?

 

Though one often hears a rumor about enslaved people accompanying students to campus and living in dorms with them, there is quite a bit of evidence that this could not have taken place, and we have never found any evidence that indicates that it did. Indeed, as is detailed below, any building currently used as a dormitory was constructed after slavery was illegal in the United States. The rumor’s persistence despite this probably reflects the legacy of the social hierarchies of prior generations of Princetonians. In this first of a two-part answer, I will outline the evidence for why this is not factually correct. Next week, I will provide more context for the emotional truth about histories of oppression on campus held within this myth.

There were enslaved people present on Princeton’s campus; this is well-established and interested researchers can find a wealth of information on the Princeton and Slavery website. Nonetheless, the only enslaved people known to live on campus lived in the President’s house, not in student dormitories, and were legally considered the private property of the institution’s presidents. Slavery was not fully outlawed in New Jersey until the Civil War, and Princeton itself was friendly to Southern ideas about race, enrolling many students from slaveholding families. There was also a need for what was then termed “servants” and what we know today as staff in a wide range of roles who provide meals and maintain and clean campus buildings. However, the individual students would not have brought enslaved persons with them, and having personal attendants living alongside them was prohibited.

It was the role of the Steward to ensure adequate staffing in service roles on campus, as Jonathan Baldwin’s contract spelled out in 1768, and students paid a fee for the college servants to make their beds and sweep their rooms unless they agreed to handle these matters themselves. Meanwhile, outside this specific service provided to them in their housing contracts, students were required to clean their own rooms and shoes. The Board of Trustees formally approved this rule in 1757, at their first meeting ever held in Nassau Hall, the first building that functioned as a dormitory as well as a chapel, library, refectory, and recitation hall.

Image of Nassau Hall, 1764. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

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When the Great Blizzard of 1888 Hit Princeton

One of the worst storms ever to hit the United States is typically known as “Great Blizzard of 1888,” but you may find it referred to as the “Great White Hurricane.” In it, Princeton students played a historic role in rescuing passengers aboard a train stuck in a snowbank, people were trapped inside for a week or more in most northeastern cities, and residents of the Atlantic coastal region had stories they would tell for generations.

Princeton students freeing a trapped train during a blizzard, March 12, 1888. Historical Photograph Collection, Student Photographers Series (AC163), Box SP1, Image No. 39.

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Foodways for Princeton Students, Part II: Diversified Menus, 1855-2010s

This is the second post in a two-part series examining student foodways at Princeton.

As mentioned in the conclusion of last week’s post in this series, the campus refectory was no longer an option after the Nassau Hall fire of 1855. This meant that eating clubs became entrenched in Princeton’s traditions. There were many transient clubs with fanciful names at first, most of which simply pooled resources to engage the services of local boarding houses. In spite of the theoretical market forces that might have acted upon these establishments to encourage higher quality, W. F. Magie (Class of 1879) described “generally miserable eating conditions,” “poor food,” and “coarse service.” This motivated the formation of Ivy Club as a more permanent fixture in 1879 that would employ its own staff. Several other eating clubs followed suit, eventually building clubhouses along Prospect Street.

“A Baker’s Dozen” was one of many eating clubs that have come and gone in Princeton’s past. It was made up of members of the Classes of 1891 and 1892. This illustration is taken from the 1890 Bric-a-Brac.

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Foodways for Princeton Students, Part I: The Refectory, 1760s-1855

This post is the first in a two-part series examining daily foodways at Princeton.

Today, most Princetonians are likely to take it for granted that they can have a bagel with cream cheese and lox in the morning, pick up Chinese takeout for lunch, and relax over a dinner of spaghetti, but all of these things were unheard of for most of Princeton’s past. Indeed, many of the things considered standard American fare today were once mysterious and exotic. The converse is also true—we don’t expect many students today to have much experience with turtle soup or roasted peacocks, for example.

It can be a challenge to figure out what people actually ate on a day-to-day basis in earlier centuries. Many of the menus available in our collections are more of a guide to special occasion fare than they are for the everyday meals people ate to fuel studying, research, and teaching. However, through letters, diaries, editorials, advertisements, and other documentation in the University Archives, we also find glimpses of a changing palate that maps well onto a broader history of American foodways. This two-part series looks back at centuries of expansion from the daily snacks of bread and butter with “small beer” the Board of Trustees authorized in 1765 to the sushi and falafel delivered to dorms in the late 20th century. This first post considers the antebellum student’s diet, while the second will unveil the postbellum diversity in options for meals. When one looks into what was available in the antebellum period, economic concerns had a clear influence on foodways at Princeton, but consistent themes emerge in spite of this.

Full menus were not printed for everyday meals, but we do find representative special occasion menus in our collections. This is the reception menu for the celebration of Princeton’s centennial in 1847. All of the items listed on the menu, including the fruit, would have been special treats for students. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 307, Folder 11.

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The Horses of Princeton

When we say someone or something is a “workhorse” these days, it signifies working hard for a long time, but we rarely mean an animal. For most of Princeton’s past, however, this term would have referred to literal horses. Horses were a vital part of daily life well into the 20th century.

Horses with wagons and buggies on Nassau Street, ca. 1915. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box AC05, Image No. 8621.

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George Morgan White Eyes, Racial Theory at Princeton, and Student Financial Aid in the Eighteenth Century

In 1779, a group of Delaware set up camp on Prospect Farm, owned by George Morgan, along a dirt walkway that separated them from the campus of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton University was named until 1896. They brought a boy with them who was about eight or nine years old. His father had named the boy George Morgan White Eyes after the man whose farm the Delaware now occupied. Koquethagachton, also known as the elder White Eyes, had just been murdered by the United States Army troops he had served as a guide, but the government hid this fact from the Delaware. The young White Eyes thought his father had died of smallpox, not of a gunshot wound to the back from a white American soldier.

Their chief now dead, the Delaware received an order from Congress: Pick a new leader and arrange for Koquethagachton’s children to be educated in the English language and white culture, so they could be better equipped to lead them as adults. Morgan was charged with the care of White Eyes and two other indigenous minors as wards of the United States Congress. It was not long before White Eyes was living with the Morgan family on Prospect Farm. His presence in Princeton would provide a local professor with an opportunity to philosophize about why some races were darker than others.

William Tennant, “A North-West Prospect of Nassau Hall with a Front View of the President’s House in New Jersey,” 1764. From this viewpoint, George Morgan’s farm was on the left side of Nassau Hall, outside the view this drawing offers. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 2, Folder 5.

Moravian missionaries had taught White Eyes English, but further efforts at assimilation were in store. Morgan hired Josiah Harned to make him trousers and enrolled him in the Nassau Hall Grammar School to prepare for college. White Eyes entered the College of New Jersey as a freshman in the fall of 1785. As a ward of Congress, White Eyes was America’s first recipient of government-based student financial aid (although Congress had stipulated that they expected a land grant in return).

Then about 15 years old, White Eyes became an immediate curiosity to professor Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was looking for evidence to support his racial theories. Some accounts say White Eyes had a white mother, but Smith thought his lighter skin had a different explanation. Smith believed that the skin color of the indigenous peoples of North America, like that of the peoples of Africa, was derived from too much sun and “savage” ways of living, saying in an essay published in 1788:

A naked savage, seldom enjoying the protection of a miserable hut, and compelled to lodge on the bare ground and under the open sky, imbibes the influence of the sun and atmosphere at every pore. He inhabits an uncultivated region filled with stagnant waters, and covered with putrid vegetables that fall down and corrupt on the spot where they have grown. He pitches his wigwam on the side of a river, that he may enjoy the convenience of fishing as well as of hunting. The vapour of rivers, the exhalations of marshes, and the noxious effluvia of decaying vegetables, fill the whole atmosphere in an unimproved country, and tend to give a dark and bilious hue to the complexion. And the sun acting immediately on the skin in this state will necessarily impress a deep colour.

It so happened that White Eyes was at Princeton at the same time as two distant descendants of Pocahontas (7 generations removed), brothers John and Thedorick Randolph (both Class of 1791). Society generally took the Randolphs to be white. Smith, nonetheless, asserted that the Randolph brothers had lost all characteristics of the indigenous people of North America (other than dark brown eyes) through their life among the people of a “polished” nation, not because their ancestry was predominantly European. John Randolph’s account of Smith’s attitude toward them might give us some insight into how Smith may have treated White Eyes:

He called us into his library and interrogated us about our Indian descent—we knew nothing more than that we derived it through our grand-mother, whom it suited him to make the daughter of Pocahontas, in order that we might be in defiance of time and fact in the fourth descent from her.

Smith wrote that he had closely examined White Eyes, whom he did not name, studying his features and physique to compare them to those of white students, in all probability summoning him to his library for inspection as he had the Randolph brothers. In all of these young men with mixed ancestry, Smith contrived support for his theories that exposing indigenous peoples to European ways of living would alter their features and whiten their skin, which he called “discolored.” Smith said he had observed this taking place with White Eyes.

There is an obvious difference between him and his fellow-students in the largeness of the mouth, and thickness of the lips, in the elevation of the cheek, in the darkness of the complexion, and the contour of the face. But these differences are sensibly diminishing. They seem the faster to diminish in proportion as he loses that vacancy of eye, and that lugubrious wildness of countenance peculiar to the savage state, and acquires the agreeable expression of civil life. The expression of the eye, and the softening of the features to civilized emotions and ideas, seems to have removed more than half the difference between him and us.

We know very little else about the experience White Eyes had at the College of New Jersey. On December 23, 1787, he and several other students were called before the faculty on an accusation of being insolent toward a tutor, after which all were admonished before their classes. Morgan thought that White Eyes might have been acting out because he’d just received news that his mother had been murdered by white men disguised as natives who robbed her of animal skins she was bringing to sell at a market, as well as finally learning the truth about his father’s murder. He urged Congress to consider that “his mistakes and misconduct have been far surpassed by white boys of his age, who have the superior advantage of enlightened and tender parents to guard over them,” and to continue to support his education. Morgan worried that Princeton itself had become a bad influence, however, and suggested White Eyes finish at Yale. Congress was unresponsive.

Frustrated by the delay in response from Congress, White Eyes wrote to George Washington for help. Again not getting a response and complaining that the government had not even given him enough clothing to keep warm in the winter, White Eyes walked to Princeton from New York to pick up clothes he’d left at the Morgans. He found that John Morgan (Class of 1789), George Morgan’s son, had taken his clothes and had totally worn them out. The Board of the Treasury reprimanded White Eyes for going to Princeton without permission, but gave him no chance to explain or apologize. White Eyes then asked for a job in service to the government if he could have no further education, and thus find a way to support himself, pointing out that he had no recourse and felt he’d been subject to a double standard:

I was not without Faults I acknowledge, but they were in my boyish days, & they not greater than what I see committed by Children of many Parents—In me they could not be overlooked—Many a time I reflect on the happy Situation of Children who have Parents tenderly to advise them—I was deprived of that Blessing.

As Congress continued to drag its feet, White Eyes wrote to Washington again, saying he just wanted to go home. “I believe they are tired of doing any thing for me & I am tired of waiting for their duty…” Washington seems to have arranged for White Eyes to have a line of credit until Congress would act so that he could buy some clothes, but the Board of the Treasury, according to White Eyes, disputed the charges and made him feel “not of as much Consequence as a Dog.” Congress finally authorized payment for the debts White Eyes had incurred on August 12, 1790.

White Eyes returned to his people in Ohio one year short of a college degree. On May 27, 1798, a white man shot him to death while White Eyes was rushing toward him with an uplifted tomahawk. He had never finished his education, but at least one account claims he kept his books and was proud of them, showing them off to visitors. This might have surprised John Witherspoon, president of the College, who apparently considered White Eyes the end of a failed experiment in educating indigenous students and further efforts a waste of time. In an essay later published after Witherspoon’s death, he wrote,

The chief thing that a philosopher can learn from the Indians in New Jersey is, that perhaps the most complete experiment has been made here how they would agree with civilized life. … On the whole it does not appear, that either by our people going among them, or by their being brought among us, that it is possible to give them a relish of civilized life. There have been some of them educated at this college, as well as in New England; but seldom or never did they prove either good or useful.

White Eyes was not the first indigenous student to attend Princeton, but our records indicate that he was the last for his century. After White Eyes, the institution would not have another Native American student for another five decades, when the Ross brothers—nephews of the Cherokee chief—arrived in the late 1830s.

 

Sources:

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118)

Papers of the Continental Congress. United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.

Randolph, John. “Original Letter of John Randolph.” Albany Argus 7 June 1833.

Smith, Samuel Stanhope. An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species to which are Added, Strictures on Lord Kames’s Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind. Edinburgh: C. Elliot, 1788.

Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104)

Witherspoon, John. The Works of John Witherspoon, Vol. 9. Edinburgh: Ogle and Aikman, 1805.

 

For Further Reading:

Bush, Alfred L. “Indians, Slavery and Princeton.” Princeton & Slavery.

Bush, Alfred L. “Otterskins, Eagle Feathers, and Native American Alumni at Princeton.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 67, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 420-434.

Guyatt, Nicholas. “Samuel Stanhope Smith.” Princeton & Slavery.

Looney, J. Jefferson and Ruth L. Woodward. Princetonians 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Woodward, Ruth L. and Wesley Frank Craven. Princetonians 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Marriage and Undergraduate Life at Princeton University in the 1970s

By Iliyah Coles ’22

Married undergraduates have been at Princeton for decades, even though they might appear to be relatively scarce at the University now. In fact, students who got married before attending college weren’t even allowed to be admitted until around 1970, most likely in part due to the difficulty in finding adequate housing for couples. Because of this rule, many students waited until they were enrolled to get married, which still presented a problem for the University in terms of living situations, especially since the number of married students was steadily increasing. The 1970s saw a substantial rise in the number of married undergraduates at the university. The problem was that married students wished to live with their spouses, even though some of them did not attend Princeton, and the University claimed that lack of availability and finances prevented this arrangement from occurring. 

Clipping from the Daily Princetonian, April 3, 1975.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: War, Epidemics, and Suspended Classes at Princeton

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Has Princeton University ever had to close the campus before? Or have a lot of students been displaced and had to leave and/or study at home for some other reason in the past?

A. In 2020, Princeton University suspended residential instruction after Spring Break due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It was probably the first time anyone within the Princeton community could remember something much like this happening, but within the full history of Princeton, it was not unprecedented. Due to war or epidemic, Princeton has ceased normal operations several times.


1776-1777: Revolutionary War

The earliest records we have found related to students leaving campus because of a threat are from 1776. On November 29, 1776, John Witherspoon called the students of the College of New Jersey (Princeton) together to formally dismiss them so they could flee the rapidly approaching British army. Taking only what they could carry with them and leaving the rest to become spoils of war, the students said good-bye to one another and left campus.

Nassau Hall, New American Magazine, 1760. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

 


1832: Cholera

The first illness to have caused campus to close that we know of was a global cholera pandemic. Classes ended early and Commencement was called off. The Board of Trustees recorded this in their minutes for their September 25, 1832 meeting:

Excerpt from the Minutes of the Board of Trustees of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), September 25, 1832. (See transcript below.) Board of Trustees Records (A120), Volume 3.

The Committee appointed to attend the examination of the Senior Class Reported, that by reason of the alarm occasioned by the threatened approach of Pestilence, it became impossible to keep any of the College Classes together, in consequence of which the examination was omitted.

The minutes of the Faculty for August 7, 1832 and September 12, 1832 give more details of what happened:

Excerpt from the Minutes of the Faculty of the College of New Jersey (Princeton), Summer Session 1832 (see transcript below). Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118), Volume 3.

[August 7]

Agreeably to a resolution of the Faculty a printed letter was sent to the parents & guardians of the students informing them that, in consequence of the dispersion of nearly all the students, the Exercises of College have been suspended, & that, whenever it shall be deemed to be safe & expedient for the students to return, due notice will be given.

 

[September 12]

By order of the Faculty, letters were sent to the parents & guardians of the students, giving them notice that the next session of College will commence on Thursday the 11th of October next.

Degrees were awarded to the Class of 1832 in absentia.


1861-1865: Civil War

We’ve previously told you about the significant number of students who left Princeton in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War. Although classes were still being offered on campus, some students, like Josias Hawkins of the Class of 1861, had to complete their degrees at home.


1871: Smallpox

Panic among parents after a student was diagnosed with smallpox in 1871 promoted James McCosh to end the school year two weeks early. The Nassau Literary Review observed

Everybody feared, or pretended to fear everybody else, and ‘vaccination’ and ‘small pox’ were the principal topics.


1880: Typhoid

In 1880, a typhoid (“enteric fever”) epidemic killed 10 (out of the total 473) students at Princeton, which among other things meant that the semester ended a few weeks early. From April through July, about 40 Princeton residents fell ill with what public health officials later deemed to have been typhoid. The cause was apparently a combination of contaminated well water and improper drainage of sewage from campus buildings and boarding houses.


1916: Polio

The start of classes was delayed until October 10 in 1916 in an effort to curb a particularly deadly polio epidemic. Five days after the late start of classes, a 17-year-old freshman who had entered that week as part of the class of 1920, Eric Brünnow, died of polio. This was the only case of polio among student body and among the families of faculty and staff. Although the infirmary’s physicians traced the point of infection to Brünnow’s travels that summer (including a trip to New York), rather than having been contracted locally, the campus naturally felt a strong sense of alarm.The Princeton Alumni Weekly attributed a drop in freshman enrollment, down 14% from the previous year, to widespread concerns about the polio epidemic.


1970: Vietnam War

In 1970, following the U.S. invasion of Cambodia, the University suspended final exams in May as part of an overall university protest strike, and students were allowed to complete their work the following October.

A large group of people, some holding flags. In the foreground, a man is wearing a t-shirt with "STRIKE" written over a closed fist on the back.

Strike Rally at Princeton, May 1970. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP095, Image. No. 1942.

 


Though wars and epidemics have shut Princeton down several times over the past centuries, Princeton weathered others by significantly adjusting operations. Classes went on during the flu pandemics of 1918 and 1957 and World War I and World War II, but daily life on campus was radically different for those who were here then. In an institution with a history as long as ours, it is perhaps more surprising that significant disruptions have been as uncommon as they have been.

Sources:

Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Fourth Annual Report of the Board of Health of the State of New Jersey, 1880. Camden: Sinnickson Chew, 1881.

Office of the Dean of the Faculty Records (AC118)

Papers of Princeton

 

For further reading:

Armstrong, April. “1957 Epidemics at Princeton.”

Armstrong, April C. “‘The Present Unsettled State of Our Country’: Princeton and the Civil War.”

Armstrong, April C. “The Year Princeton University Delayed the Start of Classes until October 10.”

Armstrong, April C. and Allie Lichterman. “Princeton University During World War II.”

Bernstein, Mark F. “Why Princeton Was Spared.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, December 17, 2008.

Shen, Spencer. “Princeton University During World War I.”

van Rossum, Helene. “The Princeton Strike, 1970.”