That Was Then: December 1887

Princeton’s Banjo Club in 1888
Princeton University Archives

Like wandering minstrels, the members of Princeton’s glee and banjo clubs took to the road — or rather the rails — in December 1887. Having honed their musical talents with concerts in Trenton and Orange, N.J., and Germantown, Pa., earlier that month, they embarked on an 11-day, two-state “Christmas tour” Dec. 27. 

Traveling in a private railroad car, they performed in 10 communities ranging from Buffalo, N.Y., with a quarter-million residents, to Lock Haven, Pa., with fewer than 7,500. The latter was a low point: According to The Princetonian, “Owing to a very poor and unappreciative audience both clubs assumed a careless air, and by no means did themselves justice in either the singing or the playing.”

But for the most part, the performers were welcomed warmly, even in locales where the bulldog rather than the tiger reigned. “Many of the cities were distinctly ‘Yale’ in their prejudices,” The Prince reported, “but we are glad to say that as a rule the Yale alumni gave us greeting almost as hearty as they would have extended to their own undergraduates.”

The repertoire included such numbers as “Go ’Way, Old Man,” described in one compendium as a “Song of Louisiana Negroes”; “An Awful Little Scrub,” a humorous song by English comedian George Grossmith; “Good Night” from the English comic opera Erminie; and, of course, “Old Nassau.”

The clubs’ exertions were not simply rewarded with calls for encores. “Large receptions, many of them most brilliant,” followed the concerts in all but two locations, and The Prince noted more than one instance of dancing “far into the morning.” During their stay in Buffalo, many students visited Niagara Falls; in Geneva, N.Y., some “took advantage of the excellent sleighing”; and in nearby Auburn, they toured the penitentiary, soon to earn notoriety as the site of the country’s first execution by electric chair.

It was a weary but contented troupe that returned to Princeton Jan. 7.  

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