ALTHOUGH student life at Michigan has been rich in traditions, many of them have been comparatively short-lived. Efforts by the various classes to "establish" traditions often resulted in practices which died out without leaving a memory or a record of their demise. Class observances, such as the "Burning of Mechanics," the carrying of canes, the wearing of caps and pins, "exhibitions," dances, banquets, and games, have come and gone with time. Yet some have persisted throughout the years. When the Michigan Union was established in 1904 and the Student Council in 1905, central agencies were set up to preserve some of the old traditions. The great growth of the student body, however, and the formation of clubs and societies did much to dissipate class spirit and to lessen the interest in class activities. Organized athletics also provided a greater outlet for student emotional exuberance, with the result that many of the old customs were lost in the maze and helter-skelter of student life.
The wearing of some type of class cap has been traditional since the early days of the University. In 1868 students of the Literary Department adopted an "Oxford" style of class cap, blue with a square top, a black tassel in the center, and a movable "U. of M." visor. Caps with the class date '70, however, appear to have caused confusion and trouble because their wearers were not always members of that class; as a result this particular type of cap became an oddity. It is interesting to note that in 1870 Acting President Frieze and various professors also wore caps somewhat similar in style. The class of '72 adopted caps of blue broadcloth with small tassels and the class numerals in silver braid. The class of '73, of course, "rushed" them after chapel by throwing flour from the top of the stairs leading to the law lecture room, where the exercises were held. In 1877 a genuine mortar-board style of cap was chosen, but owing to lack of interest the effort to preserve the tradition failed at that time. Most of the senior classes wore distinctive caps in 1880, however, and the prevailing style in that year was the mortar board. In 1881 the seniors wore maroon fez caps with old-gold tassels, the juniors white "plugs," the sophomores white "derbies," and the freshmen black mortar boards with cardinal tassels. Senior "medics" wore black silk hats, the senior "laws" straw "derbies" with bands of blue and maize, and the pharmacy students Mackinac straw hats with bands of old-gold and cardinal. The sophomores of '85 and '87 also adopted class caps. During the early 1900's the tradition was revived for the freshman class, which adopted the once familiar gray "pot," with colored button to designate the school or department.
Cap Night was first celebrated on Saturday, June 11, 1904, at a student mass meeting held about a bonfire near the Medical Building. Songs were sung, speeches made, and the freshmen, as a symbol of their "graduating" from the ranks of "first-year men," burned the gray caps which they had worn all year. The celebration became an annual affair. Cap Night, held in "Sleepy Hollow," was designated in 1906 as the "first Saturday night in June," and the custom was continued for many years. Under the direction of the Student Council, the classes marched to the meeting place, in the 1920's the hollow to the east of the main Hospital Building, the senior class in cap and gown, to watch the burning of the caps. "M's" Page 1767were awarded to deserving athletes, and songs, speeches, and cheers marked the occasion. With the increase in enrollment, however, and the consequent loss of class spirit, the students became more and more reluctant to wear their caps, and in September, 1934, the custom was abolished by the Executive Committee of the Undergraduate Council (Student Council).
In 1910 the class toque came into vogue. This was worn by all the classes — seniors, blue with white band; juniors, white with blue band; sophomores, maroon with band of white; and freshmen, solid gray. Tassels of proper hue, designating school or college, adorned the toques. This custom, too, has gone the way of other student traditions.
Class canes were carried for the first time by the class of 1869. The class of '73 dropped the custom, but the class of '77 revived it. In 1889, when the old picket fence surrounding the campus was torn down, the seniors made themselves canes from the cedar posts. Later, enterprising merchants supplied canes from the same source. In 1923 May 5 was officially designated as Cane Day, and in 1928, April 29 was so observed. It was customary for the seniors to begin carrying their class canes during the month of May preceding graduation. From 1934 the senior classes observed the tradition sporadically, and it more or less died out by the end of the 1930's.
Class badges never became popular nor traditional at Michigan. The class of '74 wore an interlaced triangle and circle as a distinguishing seal of the class; the law class of '86 had a pin, and class pins have been worn by other graduating classes. Fraternity pins and pins representing distinctive student organizations and clubs destroyed interest in the class pin.
The first Class Exhibition was held in the old Presbyterian Church by the sophomore class on the evening of August 10, 1843. Orations, dissertations, essays, and poems were delivered, every member of the class participating. At the last Exhibition of this type, on April 29, 1870, by the class of '72, members of the class of '73 heckled the speakers, threw grass bouquets, and even hurled a rooster from the gallery to the stage of the Methodist Church, creating such a disturbance that the event was discontinued. At this time four members of the class were suspended for a period of six months and others for a longer period.
The first Junior Exhibition was held on August 14, 1844, and from that time the Junior Exhibition became deeply rooted in the traditions of the college. Speakers were elected by the faculty, and the distinction and the honor of being chosen were much coveted. From 1867 to 1877 speakers were selected from members of the class, and every member took part in the program. In the late 1870's, the Junior Exhibition was lampooned and burlesqued in mock programs by members of other classes or by those members of the class who had not been chosen to participate. After 1877, because of the resultant friction and unpleasantness, guest speakers were selected. The "Laws" and the "Medics" did not participate in the Exhibition; it was purely a practice of the Literary College.
The first Freshman Exhibition was given by the class of '72 on the evening of May 28, 1869. In 1869 Professor Frieze established "University Day" for the purpose of drawing more closely together the students of the various departments of the University. Only two are recorded. Perhaps the "University Day" celebration envisioned by Professor Frieze has furnished a precedent for the modern convocation, which was revived in 1913.
Page 1768On the evening before Class Day, May 27, 1873, a reception for the senior class was instituted. Dancing took place in Professor Cocker's lecture room in University Hall. The custom was continued until 1877, when religious bodies in the state made loud their objections to dancing in University buildings. The students then erected a pavilion on the campus for this purpose. In 1882 the Regents removed the restriction on dancing, and a reception and dance were held, thus establishing a tradition which continued for many years as the Senior Reception, given at that time on the Wednesday evening of Commencement week.
In 1885 Commencement for all schools and colleges of the University was held for the first time on the same day. Until then, the various schools and colleges had held independent exercises. In 1870 Professor Frieze began the custom of holding a Commencement Banquet to which alumni and guests of the University were invited. This occasion, later established officially by the Board of Regents, inaugurated the "Alumni Banquet" of Commencement week, held annually on Alumni Day. As Commencement time approached, it also became customary for the senior class to hold "sings" on the campus — in later years on or before the Library steps. Earlier, in both the spring and the fall, the seniors customarily gathered once a week about the "senior bench" to sing informally.
Swing-out, an old and venerable, as well as a beautiful tradition of the senior class, was held in May and celebrated the first wearing of the cap and gown. Because of lack of interest and respect for this honored old tradition, especially noticeable in the 1920's during the "prohibition era," Swing-out was discontinued in 1934 by action of the Student Council.
One of the most interesting and venerated of student traditions was the "burning of Mechanics" or, as it was sometimes called, the "hanging" of Mechanics, Physics, or Mathematics. Originally, it took place in honor of the completion of the course in physics under Professor ("Punky") Williams. It was celebrated as early as February 6, 1860, by the class of '61, and lasted, with interruptions and variations, until the early 1900's. The ceremonies were unique. Usually a procession of "solemn officials" in costume escorted the "corpus," borne on an elaborate bier, to a place of judgment, where the victim — the course in mechanics (physics, mathematics) — was most impressively "tried," "condemned," and "executed."
Programs printed for the occasion are among the most interesting memorabilia of student life. They were interesting, amusing, and sometimes "objectionable." The class of '64 severed the "Mechanical Jugular"; that of '65 "'suspended' the Physical Corpus"; the class of '66 used the method of "spontaneous combustion"; and that of '67 conducted an "Ignominious Execution of Physica Mechanica." At that time eight juniors armed with bayonets guarded the "corpus" from the infuriated sophomores, whose class cap had been placed upon the head of the "corpus," a skull furnished by the "medics!"
During the later years of Professor Williams' incumbency, from 1868 on, the custom was not regularly observed. The class of '74 celebrated it in 1873, and we read that the procession on that occasion was headed by the Grand Marshal on horseback, personifying King William of Germany. Then followed the dray bearing the culprit, who was presided over by a young "devil," one-half black and the other red, provided with horns, tail, and tripod. Then came the junior class, arrayed in fantastic costumes and armed with torches. The Page 1769principal characters were the judges and lawyers, with their white wigs and ermine cloaks, a bishop with his tall hat and string of "beads" (potatoes), and the members of the female delegation, who were truly ridiculous. In the course of march, they halted in front of the residence of the professor of physics and greeted him with hearty cheers. On the campus an immense crowd awaited, and the students immediately proceeded to the stage and commenced the trial. The prosecuting attorney alluded to the fact that physics had robbed them of much midnight oil and disturbed their dreams. This crime was great, and justice demanded his life. The counsel for the defense pleaded mercy for his client … But all his eloquence had no weight with the relentless judge, who sentenced the culprit to immediate death by hanging. On the class program of 1879, we read of the "Crematio Physicae Mechanicae," with the heading "Physics is dead, that mean old cuss, he'll never bore us more," illustrated by the picture of an imp being roasted over a fire.
Class dances have always been traditional social customs. In 1868 the graduating class gave the first Senior Hop on the eve before Thanksgiving day. This became the most definitely organized and important student social function of that time. In 1870 the Senior Social was instituted. The class of '71 gave the last Senior Hop. The juniors adopted the idea, however, and in 1872 occurred the first Junior Hop, now known as the "J-Hop." From 1880 to 1887 a Society Hop was held by the fraternities and independents. The Junior Hop was established under fraternity control by 1886, the fraternities by this time having assumed leadership in social affairs. There was considerable difficulty and rivalry between the fraternities and the independents — between the Palladium (fraternity) and non-Palladium (nonfraternity) groups. In 1896, the junior class desiring more definite control of this social activity, a constitution was drawn up to guide the Hop Committee. The dance was held, in early days, at the Gregory House, the old hotel on the northwest corner of Main and Huron streets. It was held in the Armory in 1876, and in the 1880's, it was often held in Hangsterfer's Hall, at the southwest corner of Main and Washington streets. Later, it was given in Waterman Gymnasium and later still in the Sports Building. Disorderly conduct of the students and public criticism have on several occasions compelled the University to ban the Hop for a given year. Long ago, however, it established itself as a major social tradition.