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.

parade_web
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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