Dear Mr. Mudd: Why Do You Have a Piece of a Railroad Track in the Library?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Why do you have a “cross section of railroad” in your Memorabilia Collection (AC053)?


In 1855, for the second time in its near-century of existence, Nassau Hall suffered a devastating fire. At the time, Nassau Hall still served in part as one of Princeton’s dormitories. An undergraduate had gone to Maclean House and a burning log fell out of a stove in his room. As the structure ignited, flames lit up the sky for miles around. The interior of the building was almost entirely destroyed, with even the college bell, which had survived the 1802 fire, left in pieces among the ruins. Fortunately for those of us interested in documenting the institution’s history, faculty and students rushed papers, artwork, and other valuable property to safety before the flames fully engulfed the building. Aside from one student who fell and broke his leg, no one was hurt.

F. Childs lithograph of Nassau Hall, ca. 1860. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: Why Was There a Woman in Princeton University’s Texas Club Before Coeducation?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Looking at the photograph posted on the Princeton University Archives Tumblr of the Texas Club in 1960, I see a woman, but Princeton wasn’t fully coeducational until 1969. Where did she come from?

So far, we’ve been able to learn that the woman in the front row, far left, had the last name Riedel, but we haven’t been able to confirm anything about her specifically beyond this. Texas Club, 1960. Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box AD39, Folder 27.

Although to some extent this woman remains a mystery to us as well, there are other women we can see in photographs of extracurricular clubs at Princeton University in the early 1960s. The Bric-a-Brac provides some clues for us about who they may have been. Princeton University may not have admitted women as undergraduates until 1969, but women were on campus for a variety of reasons before then. In all probability, women in Princeton’s extracurricular clubs were students at other colleges in the area. Continue reading

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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Dear Mr. Mudd: Were Workers Killed Installing a Sculpture on Princeton’s Campus?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Is it true that people were killed during the installation of a sculpture the Princeton campus? Is the sculpture still there?

Indeed, this occurred, and the story is quite gruesome. In 1970, workers with Industrial Engineering Works, Inc. attempted to install a sculpture by Alexander Calder on campus, then known as “Orange Discs.” While they were leveling it, a cable on the crane used to lift it into place snapped. Robert J. Fuccello, age 37, was trapped under the fallen jib and hung from the structure for three hours before another crane could be brought in to lift it. The end of the jib also crushed the skull of Edwin Dillon, 57, when it fell. The accident killed Fuccello and Dillon instantly. Another worker, Daniel McVicar, 71, was also hit in the head, but his life was spared by a steel construction hat. He was taken to a hospital for treatment and later released. Reports in local newspapers say that the crane operator, Otha Hilliard, started sobbing and saying, “I couldn’t do anything. I should have done something. They’re dead.”

With what in retrospect seems like a strange premonition for his future, Fuccello had told Princeton’s Town Topics in 1963, “People are getting killed all the time in my profession and nobody says anything.” Fuccello’s widow filed suit against Princeton University following her husband’s death, saying they had required her husband’s employer to install the sculpture in an unsafe manner. The crane itself was able to lift 2.75 tons safely from the distance it was from the sculpture, but the sculpture weighs 4.5 tons. Dillon’s widow also sued Princeton. We have thus far not been able to determine the outcome of these lawsuits.

“Five Disks: One Empty.” Photo by Kingston Xu ’16 for the Daily Princetonian, 2015.

Witnessing the incident was traumatic for staff who worked in that area. For a while, the sculpture was removed for repairs, since it was bent in the accident. Though there was some discussion of perhaps not installing it in the same location, ultimately the administration concluded that because it had been commissioned for the math-physics complex, it should be put there anyway. A memorial plaque was later placed on a nearby balustrade.

After Calder visited the campus to see his work, he was horrified that Princeton had painted it orange and black. The original piece had one orange disk, but Princeton had painted all of the disks orange. Calder thought this was hideous, so he demanded that the piece be painted entirely black and the name be changed. After the repainting, “Orange Discs” became “Five Disks: One Empty.” It still stands in its original location.

Dear Mr. Mudd: Have Orange and Black Always Been Princeton’s Colors?

Dear Mr. Mudd:

Have orange and black always been Princeton’s colors?

There were no official school colors at the College of New Jersey (better known simply as “Princeton” as early as 1756) until it assumed the name Princeton University in 1896. Students complained about this in the June 1867 Nassau Literary Magazine, then the baseball team wore orange badges with black lettering in a baseball game that month. George Ward, Class of 1869, had suggested orange in honor of William of Orange and of Nassau, for whom Nassau Hall is named.

As can be seen in this 1889 menu for the Class of 1879’s tenth reunion dinner, the cannon was a longstanding symbol of Princeton and one that predates other symbols. In part, the cannon contributed the black in the orange and black color scheme eventually adopted (more information below). Woodrow Wilson Collection (MC168), Box 44, Folder 4.

The colors of William of Orange were orange and blue, and orange and black came about largely through repetition more than intent. In fact, the 1874 baseball uniforms had orange trimming against a “greyish blue,” perhaps reflective of the original orange and blue color scheme for the House of Nassau. Yet it seems unlikely that with blue’s already-close association with Yale that it would have achieved much popularity for Princetonians, who hoped to show their school pride by bearing their team colors at sporting events. A sea of blue on both sides would have been counterproductive.

Poster advertising the Yale-Princeton Thanksgiving Day football game, November 26, 1891. Office of Athletic Communication Records.

Faculty approved the wearing of orange ribbons with “Princeton” printed on them in black ink to represent the College of New Jersey on October 12, 1868. Students in the regatta at Saratoga, New York in 1874 wore orange and black ribbons on their hats, which had been purchased by William Libbey of the Class of 1877. Libbey popularized the wearing of the orange and black on campus.

Sample of orange and black ribbon purchased by William Libbey in 1873 (note the orange has faded somewhat over time). Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 391, Folder 1.

Rumors circulated at Rutgers that they should not choose orange and black as their colors because those colors belonged to Princeton, though this had not officially been set. In 1876, Princeton’s football team wore black jerseys with an orange “P” on the chest in their game against Yale. By the end of the 1870s, orange and black were understood to be Princeton’s colors, but this was not official until 1896, when the Board of Trustees adopted orange and black as the colors of the gowns for Princeton University as they changed the name of the institution. At the time, some were advocating that the colors be changed to orange and blue to reflect the historical significance of the pairing as the original colors of House of Nassau, but this did not win the day. By that time, Princeton was closely associated with three symbols–the tiger, the cannon, and the tiger lily–all of which had black in their color schemes.

Example of the tiger lily as a symbol of Princeton from the program for the Yale-Princeton polo game, June 18, 1892. Scrapbook Collection (AC026), Box 194. Another, late 20th-century example can be seen on our Tumblr page.

Though the tiger gradually edged out the tiger lily and the cannon as the most popular mascot, Princeton’s orange also drifted away from what one would normally see in the coloring of a large cat. In 1960, the Trustees adopted an official shade of orange, to be known as “Princeton Orange, a far brighter one than an actual tiger’s fur.


Board of Trustees Records (AC120)

Historical Subject Files (AC109)

Papers of Princeton

For further reading:

Armstrong, April C. “When Did the College of New Jersey Change to Princeton University?

Cleeton, Christa. “Which Came First? The Tiger or His Stripes?

Linke, Dan. “When Did People Start Referring to the College of New Jersey as Princeton?

Dear Mr. Mudd: Did Thich Nhat Hanh Attend or Teach at Princeton University?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

I’ve read that Thich Nhat Hanh was a Princeton student, and also that he taught there. Do you have records associated with this?

In Fragrant Palm Leaves, set for re-release in 2020, prominent Buddist peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about his time in Princeton, New Jersey in the 1960s. The way he wrote, and subsequently spoke, about this time has raised questions about what he was doing in town, such as whether he taught, studied, or both, and whether that was at Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) or Princeton University. These are separate institutions and always have been, but their names and close relationship have often caused confusion.

Princeton Theological Seminary’s Alexander Hall, ca. 1843. Image courtesy Princeton Theological Seminary Archives.

We have located no records associated with him ever having been a student or faculty member at Princeton University. However, he is listed as a student at PTS in their 1961-1963 Handbook. At that time, he was using the name Nguyen Xuan Bao. You can find the Handbook online in two parts:

You can also find a photograph of him with other PTS students in this magazine article.

Though not a student at Princeton University, he could have taken courses here while a PTS student, as many PTS students have done throughout history and still do today. In 1961 the University hired a specialist in Buddhism to offer some new courses, Kenneth S. Chen, which expanded the department’s offerings in courses concerning Eastern religions, which might have made it more likely for Hanh to have been on campus. He could also, potentially, have worked as a preceptor. Aside from this, he may have interacted with Princeton University students socially. Fragrant Palm Leaves contains references to a Japanese student named Kenji. This may have been Princeton University graduate student Kenji Kobayashi *61.

Dear Mr. Mudd: What Information Do You Have about Michelle Obama’s Time at Princeton?

By Christa Cleeton with April C. Armstrong *14 and Dan Linke

Dear Mr. Mudd,

What do you have in your collections about Michelle Obama?
There is not that much information available, but we do have some material. Michelle Obama–then named Michelle LaVaughn Robinson–graduated from Princeton University with the Class of 1985.
Nassau Herald entry of Michelle Robinson

Nassau Herald (senior yearbook) entry for Michelle LaVaughn Robinson ’85.

The University Archives holds her thesis, Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community. When normal operations resume for Mudd Library, visitors can read this thesis in the reading room after submitting a request through the Princeton University Catalog using their research accounts. Anyone can also read it online via Politico.
The alumni records of undergraduates from Princeton during this time are broken into two categories, which we refer to in shorthand as “public” and “academic” files. The public files (Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC199)) consist of material compiled by the Bureau of Alumni Information on individual graduates. Material in each file varies greatly but most include the names of relatives, notable achievements at Princeton as well as post-graduation, news items, address updates, and obituaries. These files are generally open pending review. The academic files (Undergraduate Academic Records (AC198)) contain applications, transcripts, and other information relating to the subject’s academic career while at Princeton and therefore are closed–even to the students themselves–during their lifetimes. You can find a full description of the access policy for University Archives material on the Special Collections website.
Obama’s public file reveals that she was involved in the Center-Stage Production of The Wiz as a makeup designer. She was also involved in some fundraising fashion shows, including “A Parade of Fashion” and “Secret Fantasy.” A few related articles are in the Daily Princetonian and Princeton Weekly Bulletin, which have been digitized in the Papers of Princeton database.

Photo from the Daily Princetonian.

In the database, one can also find a few references to Obama’s role as a member-at-large of the Governance Board of the Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center), to which she was elected in 1983, and to her membership on the Undergraduate Student Government’s Standing Committee on Race Relations.

The University Archives has two photos of Obama located in Princeton’s yearbooks: The Freshman Herald (below) and The Nassau Herald (top of this post).

Freshman Herald entry

Freshman Herald entry for Michelle L. Robinson ’85, 1981.

Last year, student employee Iliyah Coles ’22 found another photo that appears to be of Obama in the May 7, 1984 issue of The Vigil alongside Joey Harris ’85. The Vigil was the newsletter of Princeton University’s Third World Center (now the Carl Fields Center). The caption that accompanied the photograph congratulated Harris on his election as chair of the Center’s Governance Board.

Photo from The Vigil, May 7, 1984.

The Vigil is found in the Princeton University Publications Collection (AC364).

There are a few other photos of Obama you may have seen online that she has shared herself, one of her in front of Firestone Library on her Instagram page and another of her near a dorm publicized through various media outlets. These are not held within our collections.

January 6, 2021 update: An additional photograph of Obama from her Freshman Orientation Program has been identified. To view it, please see today’s blog on this topic.

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.


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.”

Ask Mr. Mudd: “Levee Song” and Princeton’s Minstrel Shows

Q. Dear Mr. Mudd,

Is it true that the University of Texas school song, “The Eyes of Texas,” has a Princeton University connection? Where did the song come from, and why don’t Princeton students sing it anymore?

A. “The Eyes of Texas” is set to a tune best known today as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.” Both use a melody first published as “Levee Song” in the College of New Jersey (Princeton)’s songbook, Carmina Princetonia, in 1894. With the new lyrics as “The Eyes of Texas,” the song was first published in The University of Texas Community Songbook in 1918.


Carmina Princetonia, 1894. Princeton Music Collection (AC056), Box 2.

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