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Cornell in the Twenties

The Twenties at Cornell

by Carol Kammen

First Person Cornell: Students' Diaries, Letters, Email, and Blogs, Copyright 2006, Cornell University Library

There are many ways to describe Cornell. The faculty likes to think of Cornell as academically innovative, as a radical or modern institution in its origins and development. Students talk of the university's beautiful setting, its fine or not-so-good athletic teams; its active fraternity life. Students offer as a secondary, and rather negative, set of descriptions, Cornell's supposed isolation, the weather, and the student workload, thought by many to be heavier than almost anywhere else. These are the eternals.

In the 1920s, the typical collegian was generally thought to be white, male, from the middle or upper class and politically conservative. This "college man" appeared in books, such as those written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and others, and in motion pictures; he dressed a particular way, and could often be picked out of a crowd, sometimes to a knowing eye, his clothing even signaling which college he attended. A typical Cornellian of Gatsby's day was generally thought to be a fraternity man who assumed an active role in a campus organization, and played sports. And there were, and has always been, men of exactly that description at Cornell.

But there have always been—and never so much as during the 1920s—students at Cornell who did not fit the usual model. Compared to its peers, Cornell University was bafflingly complex. While approximately one quarter of the male students belonged to fraternities, three quarters, were independent—some happily so, some because of the cost, some because they had not been invited to the houses they might have wanted to join. E. B. White, class of 1921, wrote that he thought Independents might be getting a better education than he and he envied them the freedom that the word Independent implied. Independents realized, however, that their condition as the un-organized rendered them less effective in elected campaigns on the hill -for student council president, for team managers, for publication editors—and so early in 1920 a number of men formed an Independent Association to promote independent students for campus positions and to hold parties.

There were other non-traditional students at Cornell. Unlike most of its peers, Cornell admitted women students, called co-eds, or co-educationalists. Women lived in campus housing while men were scattered about in the few newly opened dorms at the bottom of Library Slope, in fraternity houses, and apartments. Women lived by a bevy of rules instituted for their protection and with an eye to the University's reputation. Women and women's activities mirrored those of the men but tended to be separate. There was a Women's Self Government Association, for a time a women's newspaper, and women's athletic and dramatic organizations. Women held dances and banquets to which one class, dressing and acting the male role, would invite members of another class, who would appear in ball gowns. There even developed a separate women's alumni association. There are four women's alumni associations, still, and the integration lasted from the 60s to the 70s.

Other students who did not fit the collegiate ideal included several dozen African Americans who attended the university in the 1920s. And from the beginning, there were foreign students from a broad range of countries brought together in the Cosmopolitan Club, and in some instances in separate ethnic clubs or fraternities. Jewish students were in evidence, their admission not restricted by quotas that were implemented elsewhere.

Amid the lovely setting, where typical college-life of the Jazz Age thrived, there were those who did not quite fit the generally-discussed model. There were always students who worked to remain in school and there were students more interested in the state of the nation and the world than in the collegiate traditions held so dearly by some on the hill. Some freshmen, in the 1920s, were oblivious of the tradition of preferred seating on the trolley and in the theaters reserved for upperclassmen; they thoughtlessly congregated, to the annoyance of Juniors and Seniors, on the steps of Goldwin Smith Hall, and some refused to wear their little gray caps. When student traditionalists attempted to enforce the wearing a beanie by dunking an offender in Beebe Lake and then tying him to a tree, several members of the faculty rose in consternation, calling such tactics akin to the actions of lynch mobs. One professor of history threatened to resign from the university.

There were, of course, student riots during this era, at Cornell called rushes. These took the form of traditional class rivalries. The rushes featured the Sophomore Class battling the Freshmen, sometimes down from the hill and through Ithaca's streets, sometimes involving the local police. The rushes were conducted because they had always happened and were rather mindless and apolitical episodes.

Despite the general conservatism of the day—the national undergraduate population overwhelmingly endorsed conservative Republican presidential candidates—there were other students who formed clubs that focused on issues of modern life, such as the Ethics Club, the Current Events Club, and briefly a Socialist organization (1920). Lectures on campus and those sponsored by the Cosmopolitan Club provided information about world events. A Cornell student participated in the 1921 effort to establish an Intercollegiate Association at which economics, politics, and social issues were discussed. While student activism peaked in the 1930s, the origins of political interest and even radicalism can be found in the earlier decade.

What emerges in the 1920s is a campus comprised of many different sorts of students with varying interests, of traditionalists and conformists, of radicals and intellectuals, of men and women, Jew and African American and Christian, of those with no religion and those who were seekers. Life swirled around the Arts Quad, students flowed in and out of the library, and everyone complained about the lack of meeting and eating places on campus. Students protested large classes and too few faculty, and even about the wages paid those who taught here, though it was noted that Cornell's faculty was "used to Starvation." Another issue raised by the students concerned cheating. After much debate, the student government and finally the faculty approved an Honor Code. There was also the ongoing problem of "toughening" entrance requirements and of increasing the number of women. Would this be achieved by decreasing the number of men admitted, or by raising the total enrollment?

About all of this, and so much more, the students had much to say, but they spoke then, as they do today, in diverse voices, with a variety of accents, and a range of opinions. Cornell students defy easy classification. Students have always agreed, however, on the beauty of the campus and the unsettled condition of the weather, called today "Ithacation."


Carol Kammen

Carol Kammen is a Senior Lecturer in History and author of Cornell: Glorious to View (2003) and First Person Cornell: Students' Diaries, Letters, Email, and Blogs (2006). She is also the Tompkins County Historian and named by the Regents New York State Public Historian. She has taught the History of Cornell for which her students create annotated scrapbooks and to date there are more than 300 of these housed in the Department of Rare and Manuscript Collections, in Kroch Library.