Eating clubs

Eating clubs came into being in the nineteenth century as a consequence of the College's inability to provide adequate dining facilities for its growing student population. With the banning of Greek-letter fraternities in 1855, the field was left open for the eating clubs to become the dominant social influence among undergraduates. Although still a distinctive feature of Princeton's non-academic life, they are no longer the center of it, now that the University offers its larger and more diverse student body a wider variety of dining and social alternatives than ever before. (Residential, Dining, and Social Facilities)

Originally, all undergraduates were required to take their meals in the commons operated by the college steward; his offerings brought frequent complaints and occasional disorder. Beginning in 1843, students were sometimes permitted to board with families in town, where the rate was higher than that charged at commons. In certain cases, however (the 1846 catalogue announced), ``select associations'' of students had been formed whose expenses were even less than those in commons, and the arrangements thus made were ``perfectly satisfactory and by some preferred to every other.''

When the college refectory was permanently closed in 1856, all students began taking their meals in village boardinghouses, many of them in ``select associations.'' In 1864, the newly founded Nassau Herald listed twelve such groups, by then called eating clubs. These clubs grew in number -- there were twenty-five in 1876 -- but they were temporary, lasting four years at most, usually sporting playful names like ``Knights of the Round Table,'' ``Old Bourbon,'' ``At Mrs. Van Dyne's,'' and some others that the hungry students of earlier years would have appreciated -- ``Hollow Inn,'' ``Nunquam Plenus [Never Full],'' and ``More.''

In the autumn of 1879 a group of upperclassmen rented Ivy Hall on Mercer Street (originally the home of the College's short-lived law school), engaged their own steward, and began a more formal kind of eating club than any previously known. Four years later, this group obtained the College's permission to incorporate and to erect a simple frame house on Prospect Avenue and thus became the first selfperpetuating upperclass eating club.

Ivy was followed in 1886 by the University Cottage Club, which got its start in the ``University cottage'' on University Place, and in the early 1890s by Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown, Colonial, Cannon, and Elm, which adopted common campus terms for their names. About a quarter of the juniors and seniors belonged to these seven clubs; the others continued to take their meals in casual groups in boardinghouses. ``We were barely conscious that there were such clubs,'' Andrew C. Imbrie, life-long secretary of 1895, later recalled, ``We could thumb our noses at them with complete self-respect.''

The early 19OOs saw the formation of six more clubs -- Campus, Quadrangle, Charter, Tower, Terrace, Key and Seal -- and by 1906 two-thirds of the upperclassmen were eating regularly on Prospect Avenue. The newer clubs were housed in modest frame buildings, but the older ones now enjoyed handsome brick or stone clubhouses, some of them designed by architects of campus buildings.

The influence the clubs were exerting on student social life was now markedly greater than it had been in the mid-nineties. President Wilson called the lot of the third left out of clubs ``a little less than deplorable.'' His particular concern was that the clubs separated the social from the intellectual interests of students, with the result that the University was in danger of becoming for them ``only an artistic setting and background for life on Prospect Avenue.''

Wilson's alternative to the eating clubs was continued in the Quad Plan he proposed to the trustees in 1907 (Residential, Dining and Social Facilities). Under its terms, the clubs would either have to be abolished, or, if their cooperation could be secured, developed into smaller residential quads as part of the University itself. Though this plan was eventually rejected, the controversy it engendered helped stimulate some long-term changes in undergraduate social life. One change came immediately. In 1908, when commons for sophomores was established in University Hall, as it had been for freshmen in 1906, freshmen and sophomore eating clubs, sometimes called ``waiting clubs,'' were abolished by edict of the student Senior Council. Meanwhile, formation of new upperclass eating clubs continued but at a slower pace. Four more were begun in the years before the First World War: Dial Lodge, Arch Club, Cloister Inn, and Gateway. Arch Club was short-lived, disbanding with the onset of the war. Eight more new clubhouses replaced frame-house ``incubators,'' Cannon Club with a cannon before its main entrance, Dial Lodge, a sundial on its facade.

Over the years, clubs tended to develop group personalities. In This Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald '17 gave a description of some of them, which, though a caricature, offered a colorful impression of certain recognizable club traits:

``Ivy, detached and breathlessly aristocratic; Cottage, an impressive melange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers; Tiger Inn, broad-shouldered and athletic, vitalized by an honest elaboration of prep-school standards; Cap and Gown, anti-alcoholic, faintly religious and politically powerful; flamboyant Colonial; literary Quadrangle; and the dozen others varying in age and position.''

In January 1917 -- around the time Fitzgerald was referring to -- five sophomores issued a manifesto in the Princetonian, which declared that the club system operated against the best interests of the University. Their reasons were much like those Wilson had advanced ten years earlier. The spokesman for the group was Richard F. Cleveland '19, whose father, ex-President Grover Cleveland, had, as a Princeton trustee, opposed the quad plan. Under the group's leadership, some ninety sophomores pledged themselves not to join the clubs but to continue to eat at commons in newly built Madison Hall during their upperclass years. The Cleveland Revolt, as it came to be known, reached its climax during Bicker Week in March, but the reform it initiated was cut short the following month when Congress declared war on Germany, and normal college activities ceased for the duration of World War I.

Two more clubs -- Court Club and Arbor Inn -- were formed following the war, bringing the proportion of upperclassmen who were club members to 75 percent.

During the Depression, Gateway and Arbor Inn became insolvent and were taken over by the University. Arbor Inn's building on Ivy Lane was used thereafter for a succession of academic projects. Until World War II, Gateway was operated by the University as a non-selective club with a faculty member as master-in-residence. At the end of the war, the Gateway clubhouse on Washington Road was taken over by the enterprising new Prospect Club, which reduced costs by having all work, except cooking, done by its members. Founded in 1941, Prospect was obliged to disband in 1959 when it failed to attract enough members, owing, the Princetonian suggested, to greater interest in the new Woodrow Wilson Lodge, forerunner of Wilson College.

Criticism of the clubs and efforts at reform, which had continued at frequent intervals following the Cleveland revolt, became more decisive in the fifties and sixties. In 1950 a declaration by over 500 sophomores that none would join a club unless all who desired membership received invitations introduced an era of ``100 percent club membership'' that lasted well into the 1960s. In 1966 ten student leaders published a report declaring that the club election or ``bicker'' system imposed ``a false hierarchy on Princeton social life'' and erected ``artificial barriers among its students.'' They also asserted that because of the lack of sufficient social alternatives, bicker was ``virtually compulsory.'' A year later fourteen upperclassmen resigned from the Ivy Club in protest against the bicker system.

In the late 1960s a special trustees' committee, under the chairmanship of S. Barksdale Penick '25, studied the club problem and related social questions in company with representatives of the faculty, undergraduates, and alumni. It recommended the creation of a variety of dining and social alternatives in order to reduce the disproportionate emphasis on membership in clubs that had developed over the years and to provide a better climate of living for all undergraduates.

The ensuing years brought an increase in the number of alternative facilities and a decrease in the number of independent clubs. When Key and Seal disbanded in 1968, its clubhouse and the adjoining building, which Court Club had given up four years earlier, were converted to a non-selective dining, social and academic gathering place called Stevenson Hall. In 1970, the Princeton Inn College was created with purposes similar to those of Wilson College.

Three more clubs discontinued operations in the early 1970s and their buildings were used for other purposes -- Elm and Cannon as quarters for University research programs, Cloister Inn as a club open to all alumni -- but Cloister Inn was revived as an undergraduate eating club in 1977, and Elm Club, in 1978.

In order to meet changing student interests and attitudes, many of the clubs adopted features somewhat similar to those of the University's alternative programs. A number developed additional opportunities for contact between their members and faculty. Most admitted women; a few retained their traditional exclusiveness. Many became non-selective, granting admission on a first-come-first-served basis, and for those that remained selective the bicker procedure became more relaxed, with sophomores calling on the clubs instead of waiting anxiously in their rooms for visits from club bicker committees.

In 1978, thirteen of the original twenty private eating clubs were operating as such. A little more than half the junior and senior classes were members.

The complete list of clubs from the beginning follows:

Ivy Club 1879
University Cottage Club 1886
Tiger Inn 1890
Cap and Gown Club 1890
Colonial Club 1891
Cannon Club 1895-1975
Elm Club 1895-1973, 1978-
Campus Club 1900
Charter Club 1901
Quadrangle Club 1901
Tower Club 1902
Terrace Club 1904
Key and Seal Club 1904-1968
Dial Lodge 1907
Arch Club 1911-1917
Cloister Inn 1912-1972, 1977-
Gateway Club 1913-1937
Court Club 1921-1964
Arbor Inn 1923-1939
Prospect Club 1941-1959


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

Go to Search A Princeton Companion