This Week in Princeton History for November 21-27

In this week’s installment of our recurring series, an unusual Thanksgiving storm brings heavy snow to the area, a Scottish newspaper remarks on the racial composition of the town, and more.

November 22, 1967—Joshua Rifkin *70 is at work on two projects: a thesis on an early 16th-century Flemish manuscript, and arranging and conducting the album “Wildflowers” for singer Judy Collins, with whom he has recently also worked on the album “In My Life.”

November 24, 1938—An unusual early snowstorm brings nearly 9 inches of snow to Princeton—more than the entire annual snowfall during the previous winter—beginning around the time most locals are beginning to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

November 25, 1985—James Currier ’89 laments a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision that Princeton’s eating clubs are not legally permitted to bar women from admission.

Women at Princeton who might want to join the all-male eating clubs do so because they like them better than the other clubs—these clubs have something that the girls would consider special. But having girls in the clubs will change them; they will lose this ‘something special.’ The women can’t be a part of the clubs now, obviously, because they’re all-male; but by joining they would change the essence of the all-male clubs, and they…wouldn’t be a part of what is special. So why ruin [them] for the guys?

November 26, 1877—An article in The Scotsman describes Princeton: “The township is small, containing some 3000 inhabitants, a considerable proportion of whom are black, externally.”

Unidentified residents of Princeton photographed by William Roe Howell, 1869. Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111), Box MP75, Image No. 3005.

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This Week in Princeton History for June 27-July 3

In this week’s installment of our recurring series, New Jersey’s governor worries that the colonists won’t support a college, a court rules in favor of an alum, and more.

June 27, 1748—Governor Jonathan Belcher writes to the Committee of the West Jersey Society,

But as I find upon the Best inquiry hardly Sixty thousand Souls in the whole Province of New Jersey and most of them People that live by their day Labour, I am At Present much discouraged about a College Not Seeing where Money will be found to Build the House and to Support the Necessary Officers for the Assembly (Many of them Quakers) will do Nothing towards it…

June 28, 1920—In a letter to the editor of the Washington Bee, Marianna G. Brubaker writes, “If Wilson ‘battled for democracy’ at Princeton, it must have been white democracy, the only part of which he has the remotest conception.”

July 1, 1883—The Atlanta Constitution reports that U.S. President Chester Arthur’s son, Chester Alan Arthur II, Class of 1885, is known around Princeton’s campus as the “lion dude” and “the precious thing.”

July 3, 1973—The New York Supreme Court sides with William J. Thom ’63 in approving his application for the incorporation of Lambda Legal, overturning a lower court ruling that the gay rights organization was “neither benevolent nor charitable in ostensible purpose.”

Leaflet describing the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, ca. 1973. (Click to enlarge.) American Civil Liberties Union Records (MC001), Box 2997.

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A Look Into Asian American Writing at Princeton and Its Focus on Interracial Dating: Racial Preferences of Campus Couples in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (Part 2)

By Christina Cho ’24

This is a continuation of a two-part series that broadly explores how discussions of “Asian American” identity and interracial dating overlap in student publications found in the University Archives. In Part 1, I examined a magazine called The Seedling and attempted to contextualize its underlying motive and somewhat ambiguous language. Here, I continue my discussion of Asian-white relationships using various examples of student writing from the 1980s through the early 2000s. I then examine an article from The Daily Princetonian that features an Asian-Black couple. The article shows that we need to consider other identities alongside race when discussing interracial dating.

Additional University Archives Sources on Interracial Dating

The student writing I found on Asian interracial dating from the 1980s generally focused more on the ambiguous acceptance of interracial dating on campus, rather than on specific racial pairings. The following are the earliest articles on interracial dating I found in The Daily Princetonian:

  • “Qualms, myths, tensions stymie interracial dating” (November 19, 1982): “Interracial couples just aren’t that common at Princeton.” In the article, a student notes that although students of different races can “‘be friendly with each other and eat together,’” they “‘don’t go to the same parties’” and “‘don’t date the same people.’” The article contextualizes this comment, asking students the reasons why interracial dating is uncommon. The article presents Princeton as a “fragmented community,” citing, for instance, how “for many whites, social life revolves around the [eating] clubs, while for blacks, the Third World Center and Princeton Inn dances are the main sites of social activity.”
  • “Interracial dating: Students meet mixed response to relationships” (December 4, 1986): This article points to a similar tension between students’ descriptions of how accepting Princeton is of interracial relationships. The article includes interviews with Asian students, such as “Kelly,” who discusses her experiences dating both Asian and non-Asian men, concluding: “I encountered the same boy-girl relationships in both situations […] all guys are the same.”

Photo from Princeton: Our Perspective, 1981. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 294, Folder 7.

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A Look Into Asian American Writing at Princeton and Its Focus on Interracial Dating: The Seedling (Part I)

By Christina Cho ’24

This is a two-part series that broadly explores how discussions of “Asian American” identity and interracial dating overlap in student publications found in the University Archives. In Part 1, I examine a magazine called The Seedling and attempt to contextualize its underlying motive and somewhat ambiguous language.

Finding The Seedling

After reading “A Brief History of Asian and Asian American Students at Princeton,” I wanted to learn more about the Asian American students who attended Princeton before me. During my search for Asian American perspectives in the archives, a magazine called The Seedling particularly caught my attention. As I’ll discuss in this post, The Seedling approaches the subject of “Asian American identity” from an angle I was not expecting. 

The Seedling, February 1985. Davis International Center Records (AC344), Box 1.

Arthur Yee ’84 founded The Seedling in 1981 as a newsletter for the Asian American Students Association (AASA). In the 1980s, AASA was making a conscious effort to address its political inactivity, which had followed a period of intense activism in the 1970s after changes in AASA’s leadership. In 1981, AASA held an emergency meeting to discuss its many “organizational problems” and the “prevalent apathetic attitude of Asians and other students on this campus.” The Seedling demonstrates a way in which AASA renewed its commitment to community-building among Asian American students.  Continue reading

This Week in Princeton History for March 21-27

In this week’s installment of our recurring series, a local editorial argues against suffrage for the emancipated, a Prince initiative gets attention in London, and more.

March 22, 1867—An editorial in the Princeton Standard argues that those formerly enslaved in the South should not be permitted to vote, and instead the South should be put under military rule to avoid a situation in which “black Senators become the peers of white Senators in Congress.” “It matters not that the whites have behaved badly and refused a better policy.”

March 24, 1996—Charles Cox ’97 leads a trip to the Shenandoah mountains in Virginia, away from the local lights, to observe the brightest comet to pass by in a century (the Hyakutake Comet or so-called “Great Comet of 1996”). Predictions say it will not be visible from Earth again for another 9,000 years.

March 25, 1933—London’s Sphere mentions the Daily Princetonian’s 25-cent scrip sales in a report on the American banking crisis.


Daily Princetonian scrip, 1933. Daily Princetonian General Records (AC285), Box 2.

March 27, 1904—A group of students attempt to prank the inhabitants of a dorm room with a dummy made to look like a murdered corpse in one of the residents’ beds, but it quickly gets out of hand when more than 1,000 people come to see the body. The story will end up in the Chicago Tribune.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

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Caught Between Tradition and Transformation: Princeton University’s Black Athletes in 1985

Princeton University is an institution self-consciously steeped in tradition, sometimes to an extent that even relatively recent innovations can feel like they’ve been going on for centuries. Yet it has also tried to break free of traditions that have not served it well, like discriminatory admissions policies. Holding these things in tension with one another is at times difficult. Today, we look back at a prior generation’s reflections on what it meant to get caught in the middle between tradition and transformation.

On December 12, 1985, Pat Thompson and Sean O’Sullivan considered the awkward position of Black athletes on campus for the Daily Princetonian’s “Thursday Magazine” feature. They interviewed four athletes: John Thompson ’88, Butch Climmons ’86, Jim Anderson ’86, and Debbi Saint Phard ’87. In opening a conversation about race on campus through the lens of Black athletes, they brought attention to some of the ongoing problems Princeton faced regarding systemic racism, though this was not a term they used. However, not everyone who entered the discussion thought about racism as part of a system, rather than a flaw within individuals.

Princeton University’s varsity football team, September 1985. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 165.

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This Week in Princeton History for November 8-14

In this week’s installment of our recurring series, an alum resigns the U.S. Senate in anticipation of war, two undergraduates chase down a criminal suspect, and more.

November 9, 1903—Controversy has erupted locally over the town’s first Black postman, A. B. Davis, who secured his appointment in competition with several white applicants. Kansas’s Wichita Searchlight will later report on the issue.

November 10, 1860—James Chesnut, Jr., Class of 1835, is the first senator to resign his seat to declare his support for the Confederacy.

Senator James Chesnut, Jr. of South Carolina. Photo courtesy the National Archives and Records Administration.

November 11, 1997—Mike Himelfarb ’98 and Tim Maly ’99 chase down and tackle a man on the west side of Dod Hall after he exposes himself to a female student. The man will later be charged with lewdness.

November 13, 1953—Princeton and Yale debate whether the Kinsey Report “Is a Compliment to the American Woman.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

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This Week in Princeton History for March 29-April 4

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a member of the Class of 1905 denounces racial exclusion, Elm Club opens, and more.

March 29, 1940—Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, Class of 1905, takes Princeton’s racial exclusion to task in the Princeton Alumni Weekly. “At the least, if generation after generation of Princetonians is to support a custom which would make Princeton hell for the best qualified Negro, let us speak more respectfully of Hitler’s barbarous pseudo science of race.”

April 1, 1871—Today’s issue of Princeton’s College World rails against women’s involvement in politics and advocacy for women’s suffrage. “It is generally advocated by women who have long since banished all the hopes which they once entertained of becoming faithful and loving wives, and who have for a long time been deprived of those charms of youth and comeliness which may have once marked them as attractive members of society. … the cause is utterly worthless, indeed, to a great measure pernicious, since it would overthrow the benefits arising from our present form of government which has been established after so much labor and bloodshed.” They urge women to take care of orphans instead.

April 2, 1999—The “Pequod Express” takes frazzled Politics majors facing a tight senior thesis deadline from the Pequod copy center directly to Corwin Hall to drop off their bound theses and fill out final paperwork.

April 3, 1895—Princeton’s Elm Club opens.   

Elm Club as it appeared in the 1897 Bric-a-Brac.

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

This Week in Princeton History for October 19-25

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, two members of the Class of 1979 are running against each other for Congress, the first director of the Program in Women’s Studies is named, and more.

October 19, 1900—Topeka’s Colored Citizen reports that Richard Spaulding, said to be a graduate student at Princeton University, was denied naturalization in a Trenton court on October 16. Spaulding is a native of Dutch Guiana and a graduate of Howard University. “The papers were refused on the ground that the federal laws permit the naturalization of white males only.” Spaulding plans to appeal.

October 20, 1994—Two members of the Princeton University Class of 1979 who also attended secondary school together are running against each other in the Congressional election for Maryland’s second district.

October 23, 1981—The Board of Trustees approves the appointment of Kay B. Warren *74 as the first director of the Program in Women’s Studies.

Pamphlet for Princeton University’s Program in Women’s Studies, ca. 1980s. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 51, Folder 15.

October 25, 1911—J. Madison Taylor, Class of 1876, urges fellow Princetonians to boycott any product that advertises using signs. “It would be a delight for the old grads who spin by in the train to gaze once more on the two-mile distant towers and halls of their beloved Alma Mater, freed from Walpurgis Night visions of soaps, soups, sauces and scents.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.

Princeton’s “Saturnalia”: Commencement Prior to 1844

2020 brought changes to Princeton University’s academic calendar, some planned, and some in response to the global coronavirus pandemic. This shift to an earlier start and end of Princeton’s academic year is not its first. Its historically most drastic change in the calendar came about for a surprising reason: Moving Commencement from September to June in 1844 was intended to put an end to people staging what John Maclean called “a kind of saturnalia.”

For most of Princeton’s first century of operations, the academic year began six weeks after Commencement, held on the last Wednesday in September. If we followed this calendar today, classes would have started November 11. Students returned from their vacation for this “winter term,” which ran until April. Between this and the beginning of the “summer term,” students had another five-week vacation. They studied throughout the summer to be ready for Commencement in September.  The terms themselves were much longer than today’s, at about 19-21 weeks each, with recitations on Saturdays as well as throughout the week; mandatory attendance at chapel, religious lectures, and Bible classes on Sundays; and few breaks or holidays.

At the first Commencement of the College of New Jersey—as Princeton was then named, prior to its 1756 move from Newark and it’s 1896 transformation into a university—Governor Jonathan Belcher warned the president, Aaron Burr, to enforce “a wise Frugality” and avoid “the Too Common Extravagances and Debauchery” that tended to accompany Commencements. This first 1748 ceremony was serious and orderly, with speeches in Latin and prayer, but it didn’t take long for “Extravagances and Debauchery” to creep in.

John Beatty was awarded a Bachelor of Arts on September 27, 1769, but his diploma bears the date it was signed (October 5, 1769), rather than the date of the degree. Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC168), Box 2.

William R. Smith, Class of 1773, wrote to his friend Philip Vickers Fithian about the crowd at Commencement: “every mouse hole in the church was cram’d full.” Attendees were dressed in lace and a band from Philadelphia played. The presence of so many young women was highly distracting to Smith, who described it as “murder” for his “heart.” As time went on, more and more people would descend upon Princeton for Commencement, many of whom had no connection to the college and did not actually attend the ceremony. Because it was in the height of political campaign season, politicians took advantage of the crowds and showed up to give speeches. William Henry Harrison shook hands with throngs of supporters in 1836. Vendors set up booths along Nassau Street to sell drinks and snacks. Horses raced down Stockton Street. While graduates strained to hear their own ceremony above the din, a street festival drowned out the speakers.

The graduates had their own “Extravagances and Debauchery.” For a while, the Board of Trustees provided dinner to the students on the day of Commencement and ate in the refectory with them at a separate table. Guests and alumni were also present. In 1826, the Trustees directed the Steward “not to furnish the students with wine or ardent spirits in the Refectory on any occasion” and to stop offering the more elaborate dinner graduates expected for Commencement. The faculty thought this was not a wise decision and took up a collection among themselves to pay for the celebratory dinner, and thus the revelry continued on campus and off.

The center of student social life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was what is now named the Nassau Inn, but around the turn of the 19th century it was usually referred to simply as “Joline’s,” after its owner. John Joline hosted a Commencement Ball every year that attracted people from far and wide. John Melish passed through Princeton on Commencement Day in 1806 and stopped by the ballroom, where he met a woman from Savannah, Georgia, among other guests from significant distances away. He pronounced the attire of the women as “the indication of bad taste,” saying that students called the earrings they wore “Cupid’s chariot wheels.” Melish found the French cotillion music and dancing equally distasteful. Around 1807, William and Washington Irving and James Paulding joined in the festivities. Washington Irving wrote of encountering visitors from New York, Albany, and Philadelphia in Princeton. “Students got drunk as usual.” In 1821, Richard Stockton proposed to the Board of Trustees that they prohibit students from subscribing to public balls or dances, but this move was unsuccessful.

Problematic visitors invaded the campus itself during the ceremony. Campus buildings being empty of those affiliated with the college presented opportunity for thieves, who took what they pleased from dorm rooms. Merchants set up their booths not only on Nassau Street but also on the campus grounds and on the lawn in front of the Presbyterian church where the ceremony took place. John Maclean reported having seen, in his childhood, bull-baiting occurring on campus during the ceremony. “No permission was asked or deemed necessary by those engaged in this cruel sport.” In 1807, the Board of Trustees voted to ban hucksters from selling “liquor or other refreshment, on the day of commencement on the ground of the college…”

Meanwhile, violence broke out. It was a tradition for the Whig Society to invite a guest speaker during Commencement week, which served to fuel controversy. This became most fraught when Andrew Jackson rose to national prominence. Samuel Southard’s speech in 1827 provoked what the Trenton True American called “a number of acts of violence” when a fistfight turned into a full-on street brawl. “The presidential question in some aroused the parties and pushed them forward to pugilistic strife.” The concern over Southard’s appearance was that Southard, a member of Princeton’s Class of 1804, was Secretary of the Navy and Jackson supporters said he was shirking his duties by coming to Princeton on what they saw as an electioneering trip on behalf of the Whigs in the upcoming New Jersey elections. There were many who supported the Jacksonian movement who had come to town and the campaign seized the moment for an organizational meeting. Since too many were present to fit into the tavern selected for the gathering place, Jacksonians rushed the campus and held a boisterous rally under a tree. Some residents supportive of the Adams administration tried to invite Southard to dinner, but he declined. Despite this, some of the Jackson camp threatened that if Southard were to eat dinner in Princeton, “there will be such a Jackson Festival in the little Borough, as will make the old dead that sleep on the battlefield of Princeton, to move in their graves.”

The acrimony between Whigs and Democrats at Princeton’s Commencement was ongoing. In 1835, some were livid about Nicholas Biddle’s denunciation of Jackson’s supporters. Editorials in other states expressed outrage that Biddle (Class of 1801) had been given a platform to call Jackson supporters “degenerate children.” Biddle’s words were, in the estimation of some hearers, shockingly divisive.

It cannot be that our free nation can long endure the vulgar dominion of ignorance and profligacy. You will live to see the laws re-established—these banditti will be scourged back to their caverns—the penitentiary will reclaim its fugitives in office, and the only remembrance which history will preserve of them is the energy with which you resisted and defeated them.

There seemed to be no shortage of reasons for Princeton’s Commencement to cause widespread controversy. Racism and political divisions brought violence from the streets into the church where Commencement took place in 1836, when a former student giving his name as “Ancrum” assaulted a member of the audience after yelling racial slurs. This was most likely Thomas James Ancrum, Class of 1838, who had previously organized a lynch mob against a white abolitionist in Princeton and had been dismissed from the College. Ancrum’s target was a Black graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary, Theodore Sedgwick Wright. Newspapers across the north denounced this event as a “shameful outrage.”

James Carnahan, Princeton’s president, responded by attempting to minimize the situation, insinuating that Wright had provoked Ancrum by sitting down when others had to stand (“a respectable colored man of New York took a seat on a bench in one of the aisles, while many others unable to find seats, stood during the whole of the discourse”) and claimed that no one he spoke to afterward had seen any violence take place, nor heard any abusive language other than “Out with the negro” (Wright had reported a more offensive term being used, and that Ancrum had “kicked me in the most ruthless manner”). The Pennsylvania Freeman expressed dismay at Carnahan’s downplaying of the events. “We frankly, say, however, that we are at a loss to know which is the greater insult, the outcry and kicks of the southern youngster or the letter of Dr. Carnahan,” pointing out that Carnahan identified Wright only as “respectable,” not as a clergyman “every whit” as worthy of the title “Rev.” as Carnahan himself. The Freeman also took issue with the implications of Carnahan’s defense. “Are the public to understand it as a law of Nassau Hall, that ministers of the Lord Jesus Christ must not be seated in their chapel, even on a bench in the aisle, if they happen to be colored, however worthy or decent they may be, so long as any white men remain unaccommodated?” They pushed Carnahan to say so, if that is what he meant, and to post signs indicating such.

By 1843, Princeton’s Board of Trustees had had enough. In their meeting that September, they voted to move Commencement, as well as the entire academic calendar, up by three months, in the hopes that a June event would be more focused on the students themselves. More distance from elections would cut down on the politically contentious crowds, while holding the event at a time when fewer people would have the availability to travel would decrease the appeal for out-of-town visitors, since unlike the early fall, June was not a time of relative leisure for New Jersey farmers. The fact that the calendar Princeton adopted in the 1840s happened to closely conform to what became the standard “academic year” in the United States was mere coincidence.



“All the Decency, &c. &c.” Times (Hartford, Connecticut) 21 December 1835.

Board of Trustees Records. (AC120)

Collins, Varnum Lansing. Princeton. New York: Oxford University Press, 1914.

Fithian, Philip Vickers. Journal and Letters 1767-1774. Edited by John Rogers Williams. Princeton: The University Library, 1900.

Hageman, John Frelinghuysen. History of Princeton and Its Institutions. Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott, 1879.

Historic Princeton: The Story of a Revolutionary Town and Guide to Princeton University and Sundry Landmarks of Interest. Princeton: Princeton Municipal Improvement, Inc., 1940.

Irving, Washington. Salmagundi. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1860.

“Jackson Meeting at Princeton.” Fredonian (New Brunswick, New Jersey) 10 October 1827.

Maclean, John. History of the College of New Jersey from Its Origins to the Commencement of 1854. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1879.

Melish, John. Travels in the United States of America, in the Years 1806 & 1807, and 1809, 1810, & 1811. Printed by the author, 1812.

Princeton University Commencement Records (AC115)

Princeton University Diploma Collection (AC138)

“Shameful Outrage at Princeton, N.J.” Pennsylvania Freeman (Philadelphia) 12 November 1836.

Wallace, George Riddle. Princeton Sketches: The Story of Nassau Hall. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894.


For further reading:

Yannielli, Joseph. “White Supremacy at the Commencement of 1836.” Princeton and Slavery website.