A student’s wheels in the 1920s.
Princeton University Archives
That Was Then: May 1925

The Roaring ’20s witnessed the triumph of the automobile — from ubiquitous Fords to opulent Pierce-Arrows. As the president of the American Automobile Association declared in 1921, “The motor car ... must now be regarded as an instrumentality which has established its worth and can no longer be regarded as a superluxury.”

But as cars became a fixture of daily life, they also transformed the way it was experienced, much to the chagrin of some Princetonians. “The time has certainly come when automobiles should be prohibited once and for all from coming on the Campus,” wrote senior Neilson Abeel in 1925 in a letter to The Daily Princetonian. 

“Not only is it most impossible to walk from one building to another without being run over or spattered with mud, but it is impossible to get to sleep at night because of the infernal noise.”

In the wake of that year’s houseparties, the Prince observed that there appeared to be a car in Princeton for each of the weekend’s 750 guests and that while this congestion was anomalous, “the plea that cars be excluded from the Campus has other virtues,” not least the preservation of Princeton’s grass.

President John Grier Hibben 1882 *1893 apparently agreed. On May 14, he announced that effective May 18, “all automobiles, carriages, and motorcycles” would be barred from campus, “except in cases where necessary for business purposes.”

Needless to say, the decree was unwelcome to owners of these vehicles, and on the eve of its enforcement, they staged what the Prince described as “a motor P-rade of over 50 cars ... crammed with undergraduates and followed and watched by hordes of spectators.” Abeel, whose effigy waved from the leading vehicle, was the object of much derision, and Hibben, who felt constrained to publicly absolve Abeel of any part in his decision, endured a clamorous drive-by at Prospect House. But the ban on undergraduate cars, which has varied in restrictiveness over the years, persists.  

John S. Weeren is founding director of Princeton Writes and a former assistant University archivist.