That Was Then: April 1887

Beginning of the essay in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine by Edwin M. Hopkins 1888 *1894.
Public domain

In 1887, Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine published a series of essays devoted to the social life of prominent American colleges and universities, and in April, Princeton had its moment in the spotlight. The essay’s author, Princeton junior Edwin M. Hopkins, described a “semi-monastic” community of undergraduates where social interaction with nonstudents was “somewhat more frequent than angels’ visits.”

Hopkins years later as an English professor at the University of Kansas, where he organized the school’s first official football team.

For most new arrivals, Hopkins wrote, this isolation was affirmed rather than eased by President James McCosh’s freshman reception, where “the proportion of ladies to students is so small that none but the brave, and moreover the very strategical, will be likely to secure more than a word with any one of them.” Even those who were lucky enough to walk an unattended woman home were often doomed to disappointment: “There is a simple good-night and nothing more,” excepting, perhaps, an exclamation of dismay “from the disappointed one as he realizes that all his efforts have failed to secure him an invitation to call and an entrance into Princeton society.”

The blame for this divide was laid at the feet of both town and gown, but even as fingers were pointed, hands were extended, allowing a “fortunate few” to “enlarge their general acquaintanceship and attain to the presence and speech of ladies other than their landlady and washerwoman.” One opening took the form of “Sabbath-school work,” facilitated by the Philadelphian Society, forerunner of the Student Volunteers Council, while church choirs and the town’s Choral Union offered another entrée. Once established, relationships could blossom, leading to “calls, drives, tennis-games, excursion-parties, and all those things that tend to relieve ... the unhappiness of a hermit life.”

A review in The Princetonian caviled with Hopkins’ treatment of town-gown relations but undermined its critique by quoting Lippincott’s January essay on social life at Harvard, whose students have “no more acquaintance with the world about college than a clerk has in a town where he may happen to be employed.”  

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