Past Present: Tradition at Scripps
by Judy Harvey Sahak '64, Librarian Emerita
As an alumna and wannabe historian, I am interested in Scripps’ traditions—rituals and customs that draw the community together, practices that forge a connection with the past, and common activities that create a sense of identity and belonging.
This essay takes a look back at Scripps’ history to describe a few of the traditions generations of our students have shared.
Ninety years ago, on September 20, 1927, the first class arrived at Scripps to begin their lives at this new college for women. Believing that the residential nature of the College was integral to its educational enterprise, the Board of Trustees determined that the first building on campus would be a residence hall. Scripps consisted of a lone white building, Toll Hall, standing in an empty field, with only the mountains as landscape, 10 carefully selected faculty members, and 50 intrepid students.
Upon the students’ arrival, Miss Dorothy Kuebler, house director, distributed a sheet of “hints,” which was really of list of rules and regulations. Here are a few:
Everyone must be in at 10:10 on weeknights and at 11:30 on Friday and Saturday nights.
The students are asked not to use the phone after 10:30, and to notify their friends that they are not to call them after that hour. The use of typewriters should be confined as far as possible to daytime use. The evening study hours should be entirely free from the noise of machines. No victrolas, pianos, or radios may be used during quiet hours.
Students are advised not to bring automobiles. They are difficult and expensive to care for and generally are no encouragement to concentration upon the essential responsibilities of college life.
Finally, my personal favorite: “Students are not to enter or leave a room by a window.” (This must have something to do with having to be in by 10:10 on weeknights and 11:30 on weekends.)
By exerting influence on every aspect of their lives on campus, Scripps women created ways of celebrating moments of triumph and observance and marking passages in their education. Some traditions have lost their relevance or meaning, while others have survived.
RESIDENCE HALL CULTURE
Early on, Scripps students found ways of developing a sense of identity and belonging through the residence halls. They attended faculty book talks in their Browsing Rooms, hosted dances, plays, and performances in their dining rooms, and competed in intra-hall singing contests on Bowling Green. Most students lived in the same hall for four years, forming a loyalty that, in turn, supported the unity of the College.
In early residence hall life, singing was an important bonding custom. Students sang grace before dinner. They gathered around the living room piano or competed against each other in Spring Sing fests. When I was a student, we frequently sang between candlelight dinner and the serving of dessert. Everyone enjoyed this tradition, even those of us who couldn’t really sing. One song that we often sang—which I suspect dates to the 1930s—has these lyrics:
Girls can never change their natures/That is far beyond their reach/Once a girl is born a lemon, she can never be a peach/But, the law of compensation is the one I always preach/You can always squeeze a lemon, but just try and squeeze a peach.
From the earliest days, formal candlelight dinners with faculty guests brought the larger Scripps community together. Even in the three halls built in the 1960s, these dinners were an important part of campus life. A passage from the 1956 La Semeuse reads, “Furthering the spirit of unity and friendliness at Scripps is the faculty. Our professors are as indispensable to our tea time and play time as they are to our academic life. They may be found anywhere on the Scripps campus: at teas, barbecues, or hall dinners.” Indeed, friendly relationships that exist between students and faculty are still important hallmarks of the Scripps experience.
One dinner at which faculty and staff were special guests was considered the most important community event of the fall semester: the hall holiday party. Each hall had a theme; the oldest was the Grace Scripps Clark Medieval Dinner, which featured a boar’s head, a Yule log, pageantry, singing, and sword dancing. Dorsey’s theme was “Switzerland,” while the luminarias on the exterior of Browning Hall signaled its Spanish theme. Following the festivities in each residence, a procession formed, with the Glee Club carolers leading. The line moved from hall to hall, gathering guests holding lighted candles. The procession wound around campus until reaching the location of a frieze of a Madonna and child in the Margaret Fowler Garden.
The holiday party tradition, which extended into the 1970s, was brought to an end not only by an increasing awareness and sensitivity around cultural and religious differences but also by a change in the academic calendar. Before the 1970s, fall semester ended in late January instead of late December, as it now does.
From 1931 until the early 1970s, afternoon tea was served daily in the Common Room. Tea provided a study break and some time to see friends and professors. The cup of tea and two cookies—and only two—was much more than an afternoon snack. It was an occasion for the Scripps family to gather in a so-called civilized fashion. Presiding over the tea tables were the head residents, non-students who lived in the residence halls and provided counseling and an adult presence. They also maintained certain aesthetic standards, adding touches of gracious living to the public rooms of the halls, with fresh flowers always in the living room, dining room, and hallways. The head residents were in charge of pouring the tea from a silver tea service into china cups for all in attendance.
In the early 1970s, the Common Room was converted into the Dean of Students office, and afternoon tea was discontinued. Then, in 2000, it was reinstituted as a weekly tradition, and today students enjoy their tea or lemonade in Seal Court in the Malott Commons. Now open to the entire 5C community, these social occasions are often centered on a topic or theme; student clubs as well as campus departments and centers sponsor teas as a way of getting information out about a cause or engaging students in dialogue around an issue.
On the first Saturday of each May, beginning in 1929, the entire Scripps family gathered on Bowling Green for a festival celebrating first-years, their academic accomplishments, and their place in the community. The Freshman May Fete, as it was called, included crowning the Queen of May and dancing around a maypole. This tradition lasted until the early 1970s.
Another beloved student tradition was Surprise Day, an unexpected day off from classes. On the morning of the appointed day, student council members rousted their classmates by banging pots and pans and running through the residence halls. Classes were officially cancelled, and everyone piled onto buses bound for a day of fun in the mountains, desert, or beach. Surprise Day came to an end when cross enrollment between the colleges increased. Scripps students didn’t want to miss a class elsewhere, and students from the other colleges complained about having to miss their classes.
Since 1931, Graffiti Wall, located between Toll and Browning Halls, has embodied the most enduring student celebration at Scripps. Each graduating class has made its mark on the wall, passing on elements of Scripps’ character and culture from one generation to the next. And, flanking a door through which students leave the campus, the wall unites current students, alumnae, and all who are part of the Scripps family.
The matriculation ceremony is one of Scripps’ more recent traditions. During academic convocation, the usually closed double doors on the east side of Denison Library are opened for first-years to enter, sign the matriculation book, and officially become members of the Scripps family. On commencement day, the doors are opened again for the graduating seniors to pass through on their way to the ceremony on Elm Tree Lawn.
STUDENT LEADERSHIP AND ACTIVISM
Scripps students have a long tradition of exercising their opinions and gaining leadership skills through student governance and administrative involvement. In the early days, the student council tackled such issues as the role of student opinion in the curriculum. They also insisted on student representation on Board of Trustees committees as well as sponsored dances, fashion shows, bridge tournaments, plays, and fairs to raise funds to support scholarships and financial aid.
Scripps students have always been engaged in important issues of their time. Their philanthropic endeavors helped unemployed Claremont families during the Great Depression, and students turned cutting gardens into Victory Gardens, where they tended vegetables as a way of contributing to the war effort during World War II. During the 1950s and 1960s, topics such as the national student movement, ethnic studies, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War dominated student government proceedings.
As the 1960s thundered into the 1970s, important political and social issues remained central to students’ lives, here and internationally. Some traditions began to be seen as old fashioned and irrelevant; when the Scripps community met in May 1968, it was not to celebrate Freshman May Fete, but to demonstrate for African American studies. When classes were canceled in May 1970, it was not for Surprise Day, but for a community meeting to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Today’s Scripps students remain actively devoted to causes and are prepared to rally around what they believe.
In the 1958 La Semeuse, the editors wrote, “What is tradition? Is it something someone thought up to please the Board of Trustees? Is it something someone endowed to perpetuate? No, a tradition is something that students did and do, and will do because it is meaningful for them now, not for those who came before and those who follow. And a tradition, if it ceases to be meaningful, ceases.” Since 1927, each class has established its own traditions and rituals and observed rites of passage in particular ways, entering into activities and opportunities that create their own vision of the College. Some have lasted, while some have faded away, but one thing is sure: there will always be traditions that are particular to Scripps, rooted in the character of its unique community.
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