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Cornell in the Twenties

In Their Own Voice... student thoughts from the era


Paul S. Waterman, Class of 1926

In his daily diaries, Paul Waterman decribes his classes, professors and his social life. After graduation he was a farmer but his avocation was as a poet of light, often humorous verse. His diary can be found in Kroch Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection.

Fri. [March 7, 1924] Again I am many lessons behind in nearly all of my textbooks, a fact which forecasts an unhappy future. I know not what makes me so slothful but I believe it can be nothing more serious than that oppressive disease “Spring Fever” with which so many of the Ithacans are so sadly stricken, and, I dare say, not a few fatally.

The English class of the morning ended in an argument. A protestant, a catholic, and a jew wasted many words over religious matters, and not a few of these words were almost bitter. Especially the jew wanted to know why tout le monde was prejudiced against him, he could not understand why the catholic and protestant, thought not on very good terms with each other, would both in one voice utter arguments against his views. Finally, the protestant told him he need only think a short time to get at some idea of the reasons for anti-Jewish feeling.

The whole affair seemed to me absolutely ridiculous and I thought an english class hardly the proper aggregation for religious discussion. I was glad when Mr. Munroe [Benton S. Monroe] silenced the Jew and cut short the replies of the two others. At once I thought that he was conducting the class properly, that is, by remembering that ours is a non-sectarian institution, where belief in God is one’s own affair, as, indeed, it always should be: believing according to a certain faith or else having a whole-hearted belief sans creed.

Sun. [March 9, 1924] At the “movie” last evening at the “Happy Hour,” “Jud” and I hardly enjoyed ourselves. The rural comedy was not as good as one could see on Worcester’s streets, and, in a word, it was far less wholesome.

The “feature picture” with Norma Talmadge in the leading role was better. Still the plot of the story was decidedly hackneyed, and, had it not been for Miss Talmadge’s acting, the performance would indeed have failed to merit the approval of a dolt. Among other things unworthy of commendation, there were far too many bedroom scenes and people clad in stylish sleeping robes. “Norma,” herself wore a different chemise every night; and at the appearance of each new garment the audience of laborers sighed. For my part I hope that local styles in sleeping attire have not been set and that on Monday the laborer’s wives will not make a run on Rothschild’s store.

Tues. [March 11, 1924] In a letter to the Sun a correspondent states: “Women students understand…they are not forbidden to smoke in dormitories on ethical principles…the ruling is not an attempt to stop what is considered a dangerous moral practice…it is solely for their own safety.” In these words, the letter writer has actually admitted some Cornell women to be users of the briar. Therefore, he tries to take an open-minded view of the situation and agrees with the University authorities that the fire hazard is the main reason why the college “ladies” cannot become cigarette fiends in the privacy of their own boudoirs.

I think, he is right in recognizing that smoking among the co-eds does take its toll in Ithaca. Nevertheless, I believe that many of them are ashamed of themselves for being victims of the habit. It seems probable, for just last night I met a group of co-eds far up Stewart avenue; and they were, it seems, experimenting with tobacco under cover of darkness.

Wed. [March 12, 1924] Often I find myself in agreement with Professor [Eugene P.] Andrews. Although his bluntness, his crude ways, and his strickness repel me, still I am forced to confess that many of his ideas are quite sound, and even such a visionary one as the thought that our century is backsliding in culture is not altogether to be neglected. True, a high peak of culture was reached at the end of the nineteenth century. That was the age of Tennyson, The Brownings, Wilde, Yeats and many other well known litterateurs. And science too was making many of her greatest advancements. I don’t hardly think that the earlier third of the twentieth century has produced as remarkable writers. But, as for science, it seems probable that many new discoveries will be made, for Edison, Telsa, [Major Edwin Howard] Armstrong, and other great inventors, as well as a host of minor workers are continually active.

Professor [Thomas F.] Crane’s brick house on the library slope is being razed because it is located on the site of the Cornell Union, the building of which is soon to begin. Already, in fact, the steam shovel is doing its best to create a disturbance, and every morning, as I make my way to class, I have the pleasure of hearing the noise, and, also, of watching the daily progress of the work.

—Neglecting our textbooks the actor [Edward J. West] and I again spent the afternoon at the Strand. The little Jewish actress in the second act of the bill brought down the house. The audience knew her to be a Jewess, but when she asked, “Am I Jewish? The laughing was general. That quip or cheap wit was allowable. Still for the most part her program was quite shocking, and I soon found myself agreeing with the actor that it appealed to one’s worst side. Repeatedly the young “lady” in a vein of vulgarity spoke of “The Rhine,” Ithaca’s ‘red light’ district, where reputed women of ill fame frequent. Likewise she spoke often of Elmira, a city which attracts many college “Bennies.” And to cap the climax, she concluded her program by a very daring remark concerning marital infidelity.

Mon. [March 17, 1924] In class I met the most serious reversal of my career as a student under [Eugene P.] Andrews. Having noticed that he was in a bad temper, I tried not to aggravate him by staring at him. The result was that I fell into one of my frequent (too frequent perhaps) fits of absent mindedness, and he had to tap twice on the chair before I realized that I had been singled out as the victim of his bad humor.

“Wake up. Wake up,” he said. “Stay with us Don’t build any more air castles.” And then he used that ugly slang phrase, “What do you think you are? and followed it by another equally bad, “How do you get that way?” Side street small talk.

I kept my temper despite his abuse and had the satisfaction of knowing that, try as he would, he could not call forth a cross reply. Nor could he shake my interest in the study of antiquities, nor make me forget that he had taught me much.

I am of opinion that this crude old man’s breakfast did not agree with him. Either his stomach or his lumbago troubled. And I suppose it was merely a matter of chance that I furnished the entertainment for the class. I question, however, if I was the more ridiculous of the two. I was unmoved and he was beside himself to invent new gestures to anger me.

I have got in the habit of jumping from bed as if by impulse. In fact, I believe it never occurs to me to debate the question whether the alarm clock should or should not be silenced. But, worse than this, I have got into the distressing habit of returning to bed and enjoying a series of cat naps. And this morning the practice brought me a reverse, for while pleasantly dreaming of a voyage to Crete, I failed to take the positive action of attending hygiene class. The pity! That I had not more strength of volition. The greater pity! if on account of it I let things go on in this way and fail scholastically in June.

It seems clear that the meals served at the “Viscid Spoon” of late are being prepared with less care; and I know not the reason why unless the cooks and bottlewashers are victims of spring fever. There are, however, some things which are inexcusable: Bill should not prepare salads, when he has a cigarette in each hand; nor should Jon pour milk into glasses that have served to hold cigar ashes; nor should corn sauce contain too much roughage in the form of husks and grit.

Fri. [March 21, 1924]—Professor [Leslie N.] Broughton, whom [John R.] Hoy calls a country school teacher, took it upon himself to tell me that I might succeed in exempting this course in Nineteenth Century Poetry. Yet, to begin with, I had asked him to state an opinion. Er—No: the professor did not take it upon himself to inform me. The student had to take the first step. It would have been beneath the bald headed pedant’s (he is too fond of quibbling over trifling points of scholarship) dignity to seek out the underclassman, the little pilgrim who has traveled but a few leagues on Learning’s road.

[George L.] Hamilton, moved by reading a passage of Voltaire on the political abuses of history, proceeded to give a harangue on the same practice, which is yet carried on in our “enlightened” day. Of course, he stated rather radical views, yet not all of them were without foundation He said the reason “Richard Washburn Child, the two-penny author” secured his place as ambassador to Italy was because he wrote Harding’s campaign pamphlets; likewise “beer-drinking radical Mr. Harvey was sent to England to represent our country simply because he wrote editorials for Mr. Harding; also “Mr. Daugherty, the notorious monopolizer of newspaper space” was a “rotten political has-been,” if ever such a decayed “booby” existed, for be it oil scandal, a liquor deal, or just an ordinary irregularity in office people nowadays would be surprised if the Attorney General had no hand in the “dirty business.” Indeed, were he free from suspicion of guilt, people would be shocked as badly as they were, when the first news of the Tea Pot Dome oil scandal increased newspaper subscriptions.

May 3. [1924] The underclass mud rush lived up to its reputation of former years, a relic of barbarism. The freshmen in the free-for-all had a stronger aggregation of mud-smearers on the field. [Ralph B.] Munns, the wrestler, was as effective as three aggregate cigarette-smoking sophomores. Bodily he carried about and pummeled two sophomores at a time or in a very satisfactory way painted them with mud. Our own George Seiner also did his bit. Though sluggish in his actions, his strength told: more than one of the enemy groveled in the slime. Seiner did not come off unscathed, for great red welts covered the back of his neck.

Contrary to proctor [Theodore H.] Twesten’s warning, at least five sophomores were completely stripped. One struggling fellow entirely naked was held up in the air to have his picture taken. As the audience was a least one third co-eds and grown up women, I hardly thought this affair tolerable. Nevertheless, it had to be tolerated. And I suppose more than one sister felt pity for her nude brother running about like the much talked of “wild man of Borneo.” But brother was in no need of pity, though he sorely needed pantaloons.

May 9. [1924] [Stanley J.] Clark and I went down to the lake shore to see the crew race between Cornell’s heavy varsity and the boat from M.I.T. At about six thirty the boats started and shortly afterwards finished the two mile course, M.I.T. being at least five lengths ahead. It was an ill day for Cornell; and the cheering was not as loud as it might have been. To me, the Cornell crew seemed cumbersome and slow, when I compared it to M.I.T.’s lighter boat of oarsman. At any rate, it appeared so. We were badly beaten; and the two bombs were shot off to indicate that we were the losers. I was somewhat depressed and, looking above me, observed that a few faces wore smiles. Evidently, many were thinking that the days of Cornell crew supremacy were in the past, when [Charles E.] Courtney, “the grand old man of Cornell rowing” was the coach, when year after year the crews were undefeated and Cornell rowing history was made at the Poughkeepsie regatta.

May 13. [1924] Just as I expected, coach [John] Hoyle made radical changes in the heavy varsity shell. He retained only four of the oarsmen who rowed in Saturday’s ill fated contest; he still kept [George A.] Rauh at bow and put back that friend of my freshman year, [Daniel H.] Krouse at number 6. This gave me the hope that Krouse might row in the final regatta of the year.

At the medical office I had doctor [C. D.] Quinn give me the last physical examination of the year. He remarked the development of my legs and thighs; he told me that they were well developed, but I could only half believe him. The doctor also observed that my upper body was improving. It all went to prove that if I took regular physical exercise I should soon have a better body. The pity I make so many resolves and keep so few! The weakness of it! The shame of self!

On returning from a late stroll, I found the general’s daughter [Marjorie Grant, ‘28] and a young man sitting side by side on the 8’ X 6’ combined stoop and porch. “Howdy,” I said. “Good evening, Mr. Waterman,” Marjory replied. Under the circumstances I said no more and hastened into the house, wondering if the young blade knew that it was near midnight, certainly, an hour for leave taking.