Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


No self-respecting collegiate student body, past or present, would exist and flourish long without organizing in some fashion. Tufts students were no exception. Literary societies, fraternities, athletic groups, and other manifestations of the gregarious tendencies of humankind appeared almost simultaneously with the opening of the College in 1854. Organizations and groupings, both formal and otherwise, rose and fell as the tides, disappeared and reappeared, often under new names, and reflected the changing social and intellectual needs of a long sequence of student generations. Class rivalries, hazing, and student antics all added to the variety and (at times) the excitement of college life. Rules and regulations there always were, furnished often by the students themselves, and equally often by elders who generally had the best of intentions in their recognition of the duty of the College to serve in loco parentis. Students from time immemorial have protested the apparent obfuscation that lies back of all attempts to regulate their activities and general behavior and have insisted that the faculty and administration are unenlightened and paternalistic at best, oppressive and downright tyrannical at worst. But somehow both the makers and breakers of said attempts at student governance and control have survived down the years, and the undergraduates, despite occasional threats to law, order, sobriety, stability, and the sanctity of life and property, have managed to leave the social fabric with only an occasional loose or dangling thread.

The first society formed among the students owed its name to Thomas H. Angell, of the Class of 1858.[4]  Created within the year


that the College opened, the Mathetican Society, headquartered in a room reserved for it on the third floor of the College Edifice, became a literary organization typical of those that flourished on almost every college campus in the nineteenth century. Its meetings were serious and its programs were heavily weighted with intellectual content - debates, essays, orations, and poems on such topics as the tariff, women's suffrage, world peace, the income tax, and Nature, Truth, and Beauty. Mock trials and model legislative sessions conducted according to the strictest parliamentary rules were also within the society's province. The society held special exercises on its anniversary in October and on Commencement Day, and for many years its programs shared space with the names of the graduating classes on the printed Commencement folder.

As fraternities and other organizations grew in numbers and in strength, literary societies, so called, began to wane. The Mathetican was one of the casualties. After two resurrections, the organization became so moribund and the difficulty of obtaining a quorum so great that it was disbanded in 1896. But that did not mean the end of the oratorical endeavors it had encouraged. In a matter of weeks the treasury of the old organization ($9.95) was transferred to the newly created Tufts Debating Union, which in turn became a vehicle for forensics then enjoying great popularity among colleges everywhere. After the Union became comatose and then expired, the Capen Club and the Knowlton Club carried on the local debating tradition. The first intercollegiate debate in which Tufts participated was held in Goddard Chapel in 1903, with New York University as the opponent. The question was a timely one: "Resolved: That the United States Should Hold the Philippines as a Permanent Possession." The Tufts team, which took the affirmative, won the debate.

The Mathetican Society could not exist without a rival. Several members of the Class of 1860, dissatisfied with the management of the Society, created their own in 1857-58. The Walnut Hill


Fraternity, even though it too received housing privileges in the main College building, lasted less than three years. With a degree of specialization and division of labor comparable to that so evident in American industrial society after the Civil War, yet another literary group appeared on the Tufts campus in the early years. After the divinity school was created in 1869, a Theological Society was organized among students planning to enter the ministry. In 1871 it became the Zetagathean Society. It held weekly evening meetings (including religious services) and for many years paralleled the more secular, but nonetheless elevated, Mathetican Society.

Secret societies (fraternities to later student generations) appeared promptly and fluctuated widely in numbers and strength. The first Greek-letter fraternity to appear at Tufts was Zeta Psi; the Kappa Chapter was founded in 1855 on the initiative (or with the assistance) of a chapter at Harvard. After its first meeting in student quarters in October 1855 the fraternity was based in Medford for nearly forty years; in 1894 it acquired rooms in Odd Fellows Hall in North Cambridge. The Civil War was a near disaster to the fraternity, for all but two members of the local chapter served in the armed forces and it suffered many casualties. No men were initiated during the first years of the conflict, but after 1864 the fraternity regained its strength and had by 1896 an undergraduate membership of over twenty, with six graduates serving on the Tufts faculty.

The founding of the second Tufts fraternity with national associations, Kappa Charge of Theta Delta Chi, took place in 1856, through the efforts of a transfer student from Brown University. This fraternity likewise contributed its share of membership to the Civil War but was able to live a continuous existence and to furnish at least one member to each Tufts graduating class during the conflict. It had the distinction of having on its rolls Elmer H. Capen, the first alumnus of Tufts to serve as president of the institution, and one of the charter members of the fraternity. The chapter acquired a house in 1893 built for its use on Packard Avenue.

For slightly over thirty years Zeta Psi and Theta Delta Chi had the Greek-letter fraternity field at Tufts to themselves. Rivalry was keen, but they cooperated long enough to publish the original Tuftonian (the first undergraduate publication) from 1864 to 1872. The Tufts chapter of Delta Upsilon was established in the winter


of 1886 and in 1894 moved into quarters on Sawyer Avenue. Professor Frank W. Durkee, long-time chairman of the Chemistry Department, was a member of this fraternity.

Three local fraternities appeared between 1858 and 1869. The first, intended for upperclassmen (the last two years), was the Order of the Coffee Pot. Its motto, QUUM NOBIS PLACEAT CUJUS REFERT, was engraved on one side of the silver watch-fob which was a token of membership. The other side carried an engraved symbol of the organization. The fobs were displayed at all public occasions at which coffee was served. The Order of the Coffee Pot managed to exist for six years without a rival, but in 1864 the Order of the Round Table put in an appearance. The symbol of this secret society, with the motto UTILITAS PARITERQUE DELECTATIO, belied its name, for the silver fob was octagonal. The Round Table disappeared, along with the Coffee Pot, in 1868. Nothing is known of So Fa, the third local secret society, except that it was established in 1869 and lived a life too short to have been adequately recorded.[5] 

A member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity at Buchtel University and a graduate of the Tufts Divinity School in 1891 was responsible for the founding of the Beta Mu Chapter at Tufts in 1889. Its first chapter house was opened on the Hill in 1893, and two years later the fraternity moved to Curtis Street. Like Theta Delta Chi, it furnished a president to Tufts College - John A. Cousens, of the Class of 1898. The fifth national Greek-letter fraternity to appear on the campus was Alpha Tau Omega. The Gamma Beta Chapter was organized in 1893 as the first chapter of the fraternity in Massachusetts. Its best-known local member in the 1890's was Frank G. Wren (Class of 1894), who held many positions of responsibility on the Tufts staff, serving for over thirty years as dean of the school of liberal arts. His name was memorialized in the faculty dining hall opened in 1963 as a part of the growing complex of the Tufts Graduate Center. Not to be outdone by their fraternity-minded classmates in the classical, philosophical, and engineering courses, students in the divinity school organized in the fall of 1891


a Hebrew-letter society, Heth Aleph Res. It was able within five years to establish itself in its own house on Sawyer Avenue but disappeared not long thereafter, when enrollment in the divinity school declined.

Socially minded students who by necessity or preference remained outside fraternity bounds concocted their own organizations, mythical or otherwise. Among the tongue-in-cheek societies existing between 1865 and 1875 were the Old Gimlet Fraternity, which had among its officers Ye High MugWump, a Great Mogul, a Great Magoffigin, a Gorilla, and a Grand Putty Gumpus; and the "Augers" which had among its officers a Master Borer, a Little Bit, a Center Bit, and a Big Bore.

The introduction of coeducation in 1892 almost immediately brought sororities to the Hill. Alpha Delta Sigma was organized by six young ladies in the fall of 1895 and before the first academic year was over had increased its membership to fifteen. A second sorority had been in the planning stage less than a year after women were admitted to Tufts, but the number of women did not at the outset justify two sororities. However, the stimulus of the establishment of Alpha Delta Sigma was sufficient in 1895 to make the idea of a second local secret society for women practicable. Eight coeds constituted the charter membership of Alpha Kappa Gamma.

The merits and demerits of "secret societies" have been argued since the species evolved out of the misty past. Debate at Tufts over the subject did not erupt into undergraduate print until the fall of 1882, when the two fraternities then on the campus became the target of the "non-society" men because of "aggressive raids into territories to which they have no title." The rivalries between Zeta Psi and Theta Delta Chi and the favoritism allegedly shown to members of one group or the other had, it seemed, brought about the decline of football and had adversely affected every activity from elections for Class Day to the financially ailing Tuftonian. The perennial debate was far from over in 1882; by the 1960's, eight more Greek-letter fraternities and three more sororities had been organized (although they did not all survive) and furnished more grist for the continuing conversation over the advantages and disadvantages of brotherhoods and sisterhoods on the campus.

Fraternities and sororities, local or national, appearing at


Tufts in the nineteenth century were by no means limited to the social category. The Delta Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, national honorary society, was chartered in 1892 through the efforts of Thomas Wentworth Higginson (whose institutional connections were much more closely associated with Harvard than Tufts); Professor William R. Shipman, who was long associated with the Tufts community; and Prof. Frank Pierrepont Graves, a classicist while briefly on the Tufts faculty, and an educator and college administrator of later renown at other institutions.

No one should have complained, even when Tufts was very young and very small, that there was no organization to appeal to the most diverse tastes, talents, and energies of students. If fraternity or sorority membership was unavailable (or unattractive), there were sports of all kinds, not to mention societies and clubs to appeal to those whose proclivities did not run in athletic directions. A student at Tufts between 1860 and 1900 might have belonged to the Tufts Chess Club (founded in 1873); the Tufts Amateur Dispatch Company (to practice telegraphy); the Reading Room Association, which subscribed to three Boston and three New York newspapers and such periodicals as the Atlantic and Harper's; the Pentagon Society (mathematics); a Bible Society; or the Shakespearian Club. In fact, there were already twenty student organizations on the campus in 1864, with membership ranging from three to thirty-five. The total membership in the six most important organizations alone that year was 129. If one considers the fact that there was a total student body of fifty-three in 1864 it can readily be seen that participation in extracurricular activities was widespread.


[4] The bulk of the material in the sections of this chapter dealing with student organizations and activities has necessarily been drawn from student publications which were uneven in coverage and not always of unimpeachable accuracy. The records of the organizations themselves have not always been available. The reminiscences of many alumni, although of great interest, tend frequently to be surrounded by a certain haze engendered by the passage of time and the sometimes limited angle of vision of the viewer. These sources have been drawn upon wherever they could best serve a particular purpose or make a special point. Wherever doubt or contradiction appeared as to the origin, date, disappearance, or rebirth of an organization, activity, or tradition, the source closest to it in point of time was used.

[5] A fourth society, Epsilon of Pi Kappa Chi, appeared in 1863 and claimed eleven members in 1864. That was the first (and last) statistic available. The fraternity undoubtedly became the victim of an overorganized campus, for the two principal Greek-letter societies already claimed a membership of close to two-thirds of the student body.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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