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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Eleven Final Clubs: From Pig To Bat

Unique Social System Elects Only Ten Percent of Class Yearly

By Arthur J. Langgutlr

About 140 sophomores are making the most important decision of their undergraduate social lives this morning. The College's final clubs last night chose their members from the class of '56; those elected were notified at 8:00 a.m. by club members; by noon the sophomore must accept or reject all bids. And as one student sits in his room choosing between the club his great-grandfather belonged to and the one his friends have picked, the rest of the College sleeps or goes to class, oblivious and wholly unconcerned with clubs, club activities, or club membership.

While it is perhaps fitting that indifference should be the general attitude of the Harvard undergraduate to the final club, such was not always the case. The history of the club system, through secret phases and periods of national affiliation, is now a completed cycle. And the position of the clubs, from a pre-eminent place in the College to a membership of 10 per cent of the undergraduates, reflects, if sometimes inversely, the growth of Harvard as a national institution.

There are now eleven final clubs: A.D., Bat, Delphic, D.U., Fly, Fox, Iroquois, Owl, Phoenix S.K., Porcellian, and Spee. With the exception of the Bat, each club has its own building and serves daily meals. The club sponsors a few parties and dances; it provides a library, club room, bar, and pool tables for its members. Beyond this, the final club does little. The contrast with the nation's fraternities is evident: the clubs have no athletic teams. They enter no candidate in local beauty contests. For the most part, they permit no women in the club houses. But most important, the spirit of a Harvard club is entirely different from a fraternity or even from its counterparts in the Ivy League. The clubs depend on a quiet acceptance in the College for removed from "Hell Weeks" and Tap Days. Final clubs, like those oft-lampooned organizations for London or New York businessmen, have no reason for existing. And they seek no purpose. They have sprung up over the years for the enjoyment or convenience of their members and as long as they continue to attract men, they will continue.

Rivals and Members

The attraction of the club when the system first began is easy to understand. The Porcellian club, legend has it, began when a man in Hollis Hall found a suckling pig in his room. He hid the animal in a window seat until evening and then invited a few friends in to roast the pig. The evening was so pleasant that they determined to meet alternate Friday evenings for fellowship and supper. They first called themselves "The Argonauts," but when roast pig turned up month after month on the menu, the group came to be known as the "Pig Club." From 1879, with the entrance of the first pig, to 1794 the club gained in prestige. Finally, under Joseph McKean, grand marshall of the club and founder of the organization as it is today, the members adopted the more gentlemanly name of "Porcellian." With its early beginning and 164 years of tradition, Porcellian has always represented the final club to the non-clubbed world. Begun in an era when Cambridge was small, isolated, and arid in entertainment, the club provided a necessary social break in the scholastic routine. The Porcellian's motto Dum vivimus vivamus was typical of the early attitude of the members--no lofty mission, no serious purpose, just jovial pleasantry.

Though Porcellian frankly admitted its lack of direction, other clubs springing up in this period often claimed loftier motives. The Hasty Pudding Club, formed in 1795, purported to "cherish the feelings of friendship and patriotism." To serve the latter purpose, the club celebrated Washington's birthday for many years with a program of orations, patriotic songs and speeches. Under the first constitution of the club, "two members, in alphabetical order, shall provide a pot of hasty-pudding for every meeting," and from this, the name.

Chance Discovery

A rival to the Pudding was the Institute of 1770, an organization devoted chiefly to oratory. The club was also dubbed "The Speaking Club," but since the group wished to keep its nature secret to non-members, the name was dropped. During the first half of the nineteenth century, clubs arose, grew, and merged. The Hermetic Society and the I.O.H. joined the Institute, the latter bringing with it an extensive library. Both the serious and the social groups had begun collecting books, filling in the chinks in College libraries.

It was in this period that the clubs began to change in character. The Pudding gave up much of its attempt at a scholarly tone and Porcellian members began to consider the background of its candidates as well as their wit or agreeable character. This was the beginning of a welter of Greek-letter fraternities. Phi Beta Kappa had been the first in 1776, but when other fraternities appeared they followed the lead of the established local clubs and emphasized the social over the intellectual.

Since undergraduates were scattered throughout boarding houses and Memorial Hall was never a popular dining hall, clubs went far in focusing student activity and providing meals in congenial surroundings. As the practical value of a club to its member increased, prestige in belonging to one grew also. The size of the College was doubling every thirty years from 1860 to 1920, and while there still were many clubs, selectivity had become the keynote in electing members.

Social Ranking

When Theodore Roosevelt was discussing the marriage of his daughter to Nicholas Longworth, he confided boastfully to a perplexed Kaiser Wilhelm that he and Nick had both belonged to the Porc. At that time, Roosevelt was not alone in considering membership an important qualification for a son-in-law. Boston mothers, on the prowl for young gentlemen eligible for debutante dances, turned to the clubs to provide them. And The Institute of 1770 even had ranking within itself: the first seventy or eighty elected to it from each class were termed Dickeys, from the name of a secret society D.K.E. For those undergraduates with the correct background it was all-important that they be elected to the Dickey--it meant certain social success in College and afterward. And even in 1926 when the Pudding and the Institute merged, the club sent out a list of members, in the order which they had been elected. This ranking was published in Boston and New York papers and served as a convenient method for plucking the near from the eligible.

In later years, the Dickey has disappeared. Hasty Pudding remains as a common ground for all clubs with a membership of over 600. Members are chosen from a list of candidates put up by friends in the club and passed on by the 11 presidents of the final clubs. Hasty Pudding also serves meals but is chiefly popular for its extensive, reasonable-priced bar; and Leo, one of the last of the Irish Tenor barmen. Since many of the final clubs do not permit women guests, the Hasty Pudding also gives dances throughout the football season. "The Hasty Pudding," says one member, "has no particular social barrier--the only consideration is more or less if you're a nice guy."

In this respect the Hasty Pudding differs much from the Society as it existed in the 1890's, and indeed from the final club in most eras. It was in the '90s that nation-wide fraternities were losing their grip on College chapters. The local groups wanted more independence; the national organization, more control. Throughout the 1890s' clubs were detaching themselves from the fraternity system. Porcellian and A.D., which had broken off from the Harvard chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, were joined by other final clubs. Another fraternity effort to refound Alpha Delta Phi terminated in the Phli and finally the Fly club.

Morgan and "The Gas"

Already it was becoming difficult for an entirely new club to gain acceptance. In 1885, five men from Beck Hall who had not made a final club formed what has become Delphic. Since candidates were leary about joining such an upstart organization and members were few, the steward kept the clubhouse lights turned up all night to simulate activity within. Even later when J. P. Morgan and others had lifted the club to success, it was known by its early nickname, The Gas.

To become a final club, each organization merely decreed that its members could not join another final club. Other clubs, like Hasty Pudding or its rival in the class elections, Pi Eta, were considered "waiting clubs," and a man could join any number of these as well as all other organizations.

Since the undergraduate cannot belong to more than one final club, there is competition every year among the clubs for some candidates. For this reason, the sophomore often hears of how the clubs rank within the system. Any list of the "best" clubs, of course, varies with who is doing the rating. Porcellian, A.D. and Fly are frequently ranked together by members of all clubs as the most desirable three. Though other clubs will usually go along with this appraisal, they then rank their own club as fourth. Financial considerations as well as traditions play a part in these rankings. The A.D., with revenue from its downstairs barber shop and Briggs and Briggs, has both wealth and years behind it. The Bat, on the other hand, though its initiation fee of $30 and $10 monthly dues are comparatively low requirements, does not have the reassuring flow of revenue that marks many of its rivals. And because of the club's youth, Bat alumni cannot be counted on for heavy donations. Since prestige has been a consideration for so many years, all club members worry about the standing of their organization in the eyes of the College. Even Porcellian, once the end-all of the socially ambitious, realizes that it must now sell candidates not only on Porcellian in particular but on the merits of the club system.

Roosevelt Rejected

If times have radically changed from the beginning of the century when Porcellian could turn down Franklin Roosevelt for having an unbecomingly wide acquaintanceship, there are two causes. The first, President Lowell's House system was the most serious set-back; the second world war was the second. President Lowell, himself an honorary member of Fly, had long considered the club system undemocratic. "A club is useless," he once wrote, "unless you can keep somebody out." With the Harkness millions, Lowell saw a way to fill in the social chasm between the Gold Coast of Mt. Auburn street and the less wealthy students in the Yard. At first, the new House plan caused no decrease in club popularity. Men were still allowed to live in "rat houses"--the local boarding houses--and tended to choose those houses where their club friends were boarding. In the College dining Halls, a student was able to sign for 7, 14, or 21 meals a week, so that even if he lived in a House he could take his meals inexpensively at his club. When every undergraduate was forced to live in a college room and pay for all his meals, some club members could not afford the double expense and several clubs had to shut down. The thirties were also an era of merger and expansion. For example, the Phoenix and the Sigma Kappa, this latter a hold over from the fraternity years, combined and went final. And the clubhouse of Spee, a group which 80 years before had been the Harvard chapter of Zeta Phi, was typical of the building and decorating of the 1930s.

And so while clubs like Stylus, K.G.X., and Alpha Phi Sigman dropped from the College roster, the more established clubs retrenched. With the beginning of the war and the occupation of the College by the navy, however, additional read-justment was necessary. The Hasty Pudding was converted to an Officer's Club, the Signet, Harvard's undergraduate literary society, turned its building over to the Red Cross. Again, it was only the active and loose-fisted alumni that pulled many of the final clubs through the three-year occupation by the military. With the end of the war and the upsurge of the veteran, the clubs edged back into activity but most members realized that the cycle was now complete. The clubs, which had started as pleasure-bent groups of little import and which had swelled to become the leading center of activity in the College, had been stripped of much prestige, importance, and self-importance. The clubs have settled on the even plateau of the past seven years, with claims of service to members and no disservice to the rest of the College.

To everyone, of course, the clubs have not waned in importance, as the Deans' Office found out several years ago. In the Rollo book, University Hall made the error of belittling the influence of the clubs on the undergraduate. Outraged alumni of the final clubs would not hear of such heresy. They beleagured the deans with protests, pointing out that many of the most active alumni and boosters of the College have been members of final clubs.

According to Robert B. Watson '37, associate dean and a past member of A.D., "the club system doesn't hurt the College at all." He points out that the status and number of the clubs is now quite stable. Bat, with rooms above the Gold Coast Valeteria, is the only club begun since World War II. The last previous addition was in 1941 when Iroquois went final.

"No Club" Club

Besides Hasty Pudding and Pi Eta, there are three other non-final social clubs in the College, Speakers, S.A.E. and the N.C. S.A.E., the only fraternity which has survived at Harvard, is affiliated with the national organization, but has successfully petitioned that its rules be freer, particularly as to discriminatory clauses. As a result, S.A.E. at Harvard has no race or religious restrictions. The N.C. club was first begun in 1940 and resurrected after the war. It is the "No Club" club, lists itself as a secret organization, and meets occasionally in the rooms of its members, in Dunster and Lowell House.

Dean Watson meets a few times a year with the undergraduate presidents of all the final clubs and occasionally sits in on joint meetings of this group and the eleven graduate presidents. One of the chief duties of these men is setting up a workable agreement between the clubs to cover the weeks of punching. Until 1947, the punching rules held only that no student could be elected before the fifth Monday of his third term in the College. Some clubs held elections at that time, a few held off until after the Yale game, and the rest elected in December. Since this meant that a sophomore had to decide on an early invitation before receiving possible others, revised rules changed all elections to the same night, the first Wednesday in December. To case the long term of punching, the clubs had a moratorium of about three weeks, from the end of October untily Armistice Day, when no club could punch sophomores. Even with this revision, some members were victims of the system, spending too much time dining prospects and not enough time studying to keep off probation.

Cut Season

This year, after surveying last year's expenditures in money and man-hours, the club presidents voted to cut the punching season drastically. As a result, though the clubs began sifting through last year's Freshman Register early in the term for likely candidates, no canvassing could begin before Friday, November 13th. But after that no graduate of what the College terms "Special Preps" is safe: an alumnus of the Episcopal schools, St. Paul's, St. Mark's, Groton, may receive punch invitations from a majority of the clubs. Preliminary punches are generally held in the College room of a club member, since non-members among the undergraduates are not allowed within the club houses. If he passes close scrutiny at the punches, the candidate is then asked to a club dinner, sometimes held at the Signet or the Boston Harvard Club. Should he reach the final dinner the candidate can be quite assured of an invitation to join; but there are frequent exceptions. Election night (this year it was last night) the members gather at the club to discuss all the candidates who have survived the punching. Since there are no quotas, the clubs invite as many or as few as they wish. The average is about 15 invitations in those clubs which get a majority of the sophomores they invite. Porcellian, however, will sometimes take only four or five in what members call a "lean" social year. Clubs not so well-endowed financially must send out greater numbers of invitations and must invite more members throughout the year since dues are essential for club up-keep.

In voting on candidates, the clubs follow tradition. Members are handed a basket of black and white balls. To approve a candidate, the member picks out a white ball; the negative action in this type of voting has added an unpleasant word to the vocabulary. Two black balls are usually necessary to keep a candidate out of the club. Candidates sometimes make agreements that they will join only that club which will take their friends. "In voting," one member said, "you must often ask yourself whether it's worth taking two or three people you don't want to get one person you do; usually, of course, you decide it isn't."

No Contact

Voting and discussion often lasts through the night, and after members deliver the notice of election to sophomores, they either go back to their rooms to sleep or return to the club and await results. During the four-hour period between notification and acceptance or refusal, the clubs are permitted no contact with candidates. The decision, of course, does not rest solely with the undergraduate. Many of the candidates have had fathers, brothers, perhaps generations in one club. Even in 1953 when club life has lost most of its emphasis, a traditionally A.D. family's offspring going to Spee can be startling event. And for the man who has had relatives in a club for seventy years, a rejection by the clubs can be a major crisis.

The precise qualifications for club membership are vague. Dean Watson is proud that none of the clubs have discriminatory clauses in their constitutions. But critics of the clubs point out that while there may not be a formal rule, the Yearbook annually lists almost no men who count both a final club and Hillel House among their activities.

It is in their defense of election policy that club members point up the basic difference between final clubs and the secret societies at Yale. "It's not," one member says, "as if we take all the outstanding people in the College and then prohibit the Jewish men who have done well. Our candidates are usually selected with little regard to their activities here. We chose from a certain type and background and there just aren't very many Jewish students in that group to begin with." Echoes another club member, "To some extent we let the headmasters at certain prep schools do the screening for us."

Mt. Auburn Citadels

These defenses do not usually satisfy the critics, however. This admitted-exclusiveness angers many, who feel that it frustrates the Horatic Alger tradition. In 1939, a student writing in the The Harvard Progressive termed the clubs "Citadels of Snobbery," and charged that they had not place at democratic Harvard. In '39, however, defense was more vocal: "Nonsense," said one club alumni, "it's these progressives who have no place at Harvard."

While there has been occasional friction between members and non-members in recent years, the incidents have not been serious ones. At worst, some clubs have been targets for snowballs, and a few broken windows have resulted. More often, any resentment takes a quiet, sardonic tone, as when Porcellian was plastered with signs by non-members during a convention: "American Legion Welcome--Free Beer Upstairs."

Today, most member and alumni are realistic about the clubs. Watson speaks for the group: "Social clubs are as old as mankind. There is only a terribly small percentage--one or two percent--who want to get into a club and don't. The club system doesn't hurt the College at all. We rather encourage them," Watson concludes.

And so, while some of the unclubbed continue to point out with justification that the system doesn't help the College either, the clubs go on with their punchings and elections. It is likely that more than two percent of the students are antagonistic to the system; it may be that the clubs have sometimes imposed a barrier where there should be none. But, as a non-member says, "I don't think much about the clubs. I don't bother them and they don't bother me."

In 1914, when the clubs were at their zenlth, John H. Gardiner, in his book-called "Harvard," indulged in a bit of wishful thinking. "The significant thing about clubs at Harvard," Gardiner wrote, "is that they are unimportant to men outside of them." Now, half a century later, Gardiner's observation is at last accurate.Outwardly less attractive than the isolated clubs of Mt. Auburn Street, but more profitable financially, are the buildings on Massachusetts Avenue. S.A.E., the non-final remnant of the fraternity system, has rooms over the Bick. In the next building, Porcellian rents its first floor to J. August.

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