20th Century, Culture, Institutions

Kingston in the 1920s: Queen’s Initiation

Kingston Hall circa 1922. From a pamphlet produced by the Alumnae Association. (click image to go to source)

Kingston Hall circa 1922. From a pamphlet produced by the Alumnae Association. (click image to go to source)

A while back, I remember thinking that you don’t hear much about Kingston in the 1920s. (Well actually, most scholarly interest in Kingston drops off after about the 1860s, but that’s another story.) However, the idea of the 1920s – loosened social mores, flappers, jazz, consumerism, abundance – holds a great deal of cultural caché for us, and it’s hard to not be interested in the kinds of things that might have been going on in your own city.

In this blog series, I’ll find some interesting things that were going on in Kingston in the 1920s and post about them. Finding Kingston news during this period is a tedious process, because it involves rolls and rolls and rolls of microfilm, and just as many hours. So I’ll only be going through an item or two a week. This week I’ve got for you one of my favourite topics that I’ve written about before – Queen’s history, specifically around the beginning of the school year.

From the 6 October 1925 Daily British Whig.

From the 6 October 1925 Daily British Whig.

What we now call Queen’s Frosh Week was rather more spirited in days gone by, and this description is representative of what went on for years, and I imagine even decades before 1925, when the article was published. Note that at this time, the American terms “freshmen” and “sophomore” were still being used, and also note that this article came out in early October, when the school year used to start at Queen’s.

The initiation took place at Richardson Stadium with over 200 first-years. It’s not clear whether women were initiated as well as men, but I doubt they would have taken part in the same kinds of activities. And I don’t think it would have seemed appropriate to talk about women this way at the time:

The sophomores, working on the theory that a freshman must be impressed with a sense of his unimportance, prepared a very extensive programme which was enjoyed by all but the freshmen. The human sacrifices were annointed with oil molasses [sic], eggs and a number of other disagreeable things, but they bore up well under their trials and presented smiling faces at all times.

One activity involved all the first-years’ shoes being put into a pile, which they were then forced to pick through to find their shoes while rotten eggs were thrown at them. However, the frosh were also able to throw eggs back!

There was also the “submarine dive,” a rather dangerous event where you had to slide down some kind of greased incline into a “tub of mud and slime” at the bottom.

Next, the first-years were presented with their tams in a faux ceremony. I have to say the ironic style of writing at this time makes me smile, so I’m quoting:

To wind up the proceedings what was announced to be “the senate of the university” appeared on the scene in a cloud of tobacco smoke. The various noted personages were robed in gowns of office, and their facial adornments were fearful and wonderful. After addresses by some of the dignitaries, the freshmen were called forward and as they bowed the knee before the pro temp chancellor, they were presented with a tam in the Queen’s colors, which they are to wear until further notice.

The writer of this article went to some length to assure readers that there was “a total lack of any animosity” between freshmen and sophomores, suggesting that maybe there actually was, or there had been in the past. Photos of Queen’s initiations during this time show the (male) students enjoying themselves, often shirtless, a bit surprisingly for the time, and covered in muck. However it’s possible a situation had played out with angry parents, or initiation rites gone too far, as sometimes happened at RMC.

Those of you who have taken part in university orientation/initiation events of any kind (I chickened out of mine, and also didn’t want to pay the stupid $100 fee, sorry Queen’s): how does this compare with what you experienced?

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