The Archivist’s Nook: All Dressed Up – On Turkeys and Tuxedos

Sorry, Mr. Turkey, but it would a social faux pas to decline the invitation this late.
Sorry, Mr. Turkey, but it would be a social faux pas to decline the invitation this late.

Over the next week, the campus will become rather quiet. Most students and staff will hop on various planes, trains, and automobiles on their way to family and feasts. Many readers may even have their own Thanksgiving traditions from watching football to volunteering at a soup kitchen. But would you spend Turkey Day attending a formal soiree after the big game? If you were a student at Catholic University in the 1920s, and had remained in DC, you may very well have. In fact, if you found yourself on the campus in the 1930s, you may also have witnessed bonfires and parades.

One of the earliest CUA social traditions often centered on Thanksgiving – the Utopian Club Annual Gala. Founded on March 14, 1923, the Utopian Club was one of several men’s social organizations that existed in the early twentieth century at CUA. Among its peers were the Senators Club, the Abbey Club, the Dod Noon Club, and (by 1935) the Cave Dwellers. All these organizations acted as fraternal and alumni societies, organizing formal galas and casual gatherings known as “smokers.”

Students posing at one of the 1930s galas.
Students posing at one of the 1930s galas.

Within its first year of life, the Utopian Club inaugurated a tradition of hosting an elaborate ball for its alumni and active members, as well as invited guests from the campus community. What began as a simple event in 1923, soon became one of the most anticipated social occasions of the academic year. The student press closely followed the announcements of the Utopian Club’s social engagements, waiting for its elected head, the “Supreme Utopian,” to announce the Ball’s date, venue, and ticket availability.

While these soirees technically had no fixed date, they were traditionally held in the ballroom of a local hotel on Thanksgiving evening following a CUA football game. Other events, such as the Abbey Club’s Tea Dance were often held the following Saturday. These activities were originally intended to liven up the moods of students who were unable to spend Thanksgiving back home. These dances, as the December 1, 1926 Tower put it, “officially [close] one of the most brilliant weekends that will be written into the historical archives of the C.U.  Thanksgiving weekend is always anticipated by those ‘left behind’ for the holiday. Days stuffed with sparkling dances, ardent music, a rousing football game, and dazzling girls, everything to make the existence of the stay-at-home a little easier to endure.”

Conga Line at the Homecoming Dance, ca. 1950s
Conga Line at the Homecoming Dance, ca. 1950s

The Senators Club, an alumni organization, soon began to hold its own Thanksgiving gala alongside the Utopian Club in 1928. By the 1930s, the Thanksgiving galas became closely associated with the Homecoming football game, held during the holiday weekend. Thus, the various social events of Thanksgiving weekend became ever more lively affairs as the 1930s wore on, with celebratory bonfires, jitterbug contests, freshmen pajama parades, and votes to determine the “handsomest man” and the man with the “biggest feet.” With the Tower also reporting multiple visits by motorcycle-bound police and impromptu parades through the Brookland neighborhood, the student population often clashed with the administration and alumni community over what forms of Homecoming spirit were acceptable.

Homecoming royalty was first selected in 1949. Pictured: 1967 Homecoming Queen and court.
Homecoming royalty was first selected in 1949. Pictured: 1967 Homecoming Queen and court.

By the 1940s, the Thanksgiving traditions of the previous decades began to fade. The dates of the dances and the Homecoming game itself eventually became movable, though soirees continued for years (and the Homecoming dance never fully vanished). The original founder of the galas, the Utopian Club, continued to thrive well into the 1980s, albeit under a new name. In 1956, in honor of its long-time mentor, Fr. Ignatius Smith, O.P, it adopted the name Sigma Pi Delta. A collection of the organization can be viewed in the Archives.

The Archivist’s Nook: The Night the Martians Came to Campus

Martian tripod, crossing the Potomac perhaps?
Martian tripod, crossing the Potomac perhaps?

On the night of October 30, 1938, a startling message went across the airwaves of America: “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem, both the observations of science and the evidence of our eyes lead to the inescapable assumption that those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars.”

Adapted from H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds, this Orson Welles radio drama stirred up quite the reaction in a nation worried about war and disaster. The infamy of this broadcast can be seen in the various headlines that followed on Halloween, 1938. Tales of a panic-stricken nation, mass evacuations and hospitalizations, and armed gangs hunting alien invaders are splashed across newspapers across the nation (and world). This broadcast not only has become a legend, but it staked out Welles as a master of dramatic adaptations.

New York Daily News headline, Oct. 31, 1938
New York Daily News headline, Oct. 31, 1938

Of course, the reports of mass hysteria have recently been questioned (see here and here), with the media hype playing more of a role in defining the legend than the actual response by listeners. Nevertheless, at the time of the broadcast, there is no doubt that many people were entertained and enjoyed the tension and terror the radio drama provided. There are even some people who had a bit of fun with the idea of a “Martian hoard” descending upon the nation.

For while it makes a good Halloween tale to imagine residents of Washington worried that they may soon be facing the aliens and their horrible tripod machines, we should remember that others did not give into fear but prepared to make a tongue-in-cheek stand against the “Monsters of Mars.” As reported by the Tower war correspondent, Paul Eldridge ’39, Catholic University students allegedly waged a pitched battle against the Martians.

In the broadcast, the military called on all observatories to watch Mars for further ships being launched. Unfortunately, Catholic University lacked the means to assist in this national scouting mission, with the campus observatory having been lost over a decade prior. Built in 1890, the Observatory burned down, coincidentally, on Halloween night, 1924. (The remainder of the telescope base can still be seen outside of Aquinas Hall today.) Without this warning system, Eldridge reports, the advance of Martian scouts into the Brookland neighborhood took the campus community by surprise. Fortunately, the Martians were distracted by “10 double-fudge sundaes” at a local diner. This gave the students enough time to mount a defensive perimeter, with the rear guard strategically placing themselves out of sight and “under each bed.”

Observatory, ca. 1910
Observatory, ca. 1910

With civilians evacuated to the chapel, Mr. Eldridge reports that the student defenders rallied and mounted several defenses. They mined the halls of campus buildings with mousetraps, located skates to create a mobile infantry, and erected barricades, constructed of “[l]ogic, history, Latin and Greek textbooks…because these were hard to get through.”

Fortunately, the invasion was swiftly ended, as the one-hour mark of the broadcast arrived. Despite the valiant efforts of the “Grand Army of Catholic University,” the invasion from Mars was ultimately halted by Earth’s bacteria (or the end of the broadcast). Welles informs us that the Martians were “slain, after all man’s defenses had failed, by the humblest thing that God in His wisdom put upon this earth.” In the mocking report that Eldridge issued, he reveals a student body both prepared to defend its campus and willing to laugh at itself.

Study this example well, for you never know if the Martians may return someday…

The Archivist’s Nook: Dinks, Paddles, and Sophs! Oh My!

Freshmen dink and Sigma Pi Delta Fraternity jacket and paddle (Courtesy of Paul Rybcvzyk, BA 1972, MA 1977)
Freshmen dink and Sigma Pi Delta Fraternity jacket and paddle (Courtesy of Paul Rybcvzyk, BA 1972, MA 1977)

As the summer days wane and a fresh academic year begins, new and old faces alike are appearing across campus. Other than the confused look on some faces trying to locate O’Boyle Hall, both new and returning students alike will soon be an indistinguishable part of the campus community. However, in the past, telling the newcomers apart from the old timers was much easier, thanks to a small cap.

As the institutional memory of the University, the Archives prides itself on recording the life and times of the campus community. Though, frankly, it is often easier to secure official records than snapshots of the daily lives of students. However, with that said, many alumni have generously donated documents and artifacts from their student days. These collections include everything from nursing student capes to Greek life paddles. Yet, there is one object that many of these alumni donations share; one object that students across the decades often have in their possession. This shared artifact is the freshman dink.

A longstanding CUA tradition spanning much of the twentieth century, a cap called a dink or beanie was given to freshmen. As a form of induction into the campus community, upperclassmen required new students to don a special cap and badge marking them out as a newbie. Sometimes an official induction ceremony known as “The Capping” was also performed. These beanies were not the only requirement. Policed by the sophomore class, the freshmen were assigned a series of mandates to obey. Continue reading “The Archivist’s Nook: Dinks, Paddles, and Sophs! Oh My!”