As an American soldier in World War II Irving W. Knight '48 had bigger worries than modesty about his naked body.
So when he returned from the war and enrolled in Harvard College in 1946, Knight wasn't embarrassed when Harvard officials asked him to pose for nude photos.
"Posture photos," as they were then called, were taken of every incoming student at many prestigious colleges in the first half of the 20th century, as a part of the registration process.
George L. Hersey '51, now a professor of art history at Yale, says, "I was told to show up at the swimming pool, I took my swim test and posed. We were expected to show up and do this."
Students acquiesced in the days of single-sex colleges because nudity was a normal part of the college experience, Knight says.
"We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says. "The House [swimming] races were in the nude."
And so posture photos were snapped and collected--and saved for later research which was intended to link physique to temperament.
This practice--led nationwide by a Harvard researcher--remained widespread through the 1950s and 60s.
Posture photos were so common, in fact, that nude images of luminaries like Yale alum George Bush and Wellesley alums Hillary Rodham Clinton and Diane Sawyer may still exist in dusty archives somewhere, a revelation that made the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine more than 30 years later.
Origins of the Posture Photo
From 1880 to 1940, Harvard's Physical Education Department took nude posture photos of all entering students, says retired anthropology professor William W. Howells '30.
Professor E.A. Hooton of the Anthropology Department and William H. Sheldon, another Harvard researcher, took over the posture photo program in 1940, transforming it into a somatotyping campaign, Hersey says.
Students photographed were assigned a somatotype to describe their body shape. Thin individuals were classified as "Ectomorphs," the obese were labeled "Endomorphs," and those with muscular builds were "Mesomorphs."
"Sheldon undertook a huge program, backed by Ivy League Universities, in order to photograph the elite and show that their physiques and temperaments were those of leaders and superior people," says Hersey, who is researching a book on this subject.
The somatotyping campaign expanded beyond the Ivy League--to include some 46,000 individuals photographed at military and medical institutions.