Scenic Princeton has proved a tourist magnet ever since John Adams stopped by on his way to the Continental Congress and was shown around by an enthusiastic math professor. Early visitors clamored to see the cannonball scar on Nassau Hall and Aaron Burr Jr.’s old bedroom. When Nassau Street was paved in the early 20th century as part of the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway, automobile excursionists descended, and by 1925 there was a “summer crop of motor tourists from Dubuque and points west prowling over the campus, admiring the Collegiate Gothic buildings,” PAW noted. Big crowds were expected in 1939 with the opening of the World’s Fair in New York, so President Harold Dodds *14 hired three undergraduates as a Campus Guide Service. This chipper cohort escorted 2,700 people around the University that hot summer. Thus began the ­enduring tradition of Princeton tour guides, still going strong after 70 years, with ­offerings as informative, ­colorful, and quirky as ever.  

In 1953, year-round tours got under way from an Information Office at 2 North Reunion Hall, staffed by 50 volunteers from Orange Key, a multifaceted student organization established during the Depression to entertain visiting athletic teams. Today, Orange Key’s only mission is to run these hour-long tours, which have increased in popularity from 4,600 visitors in 1955 to 13,000 in 1975 and — well, lately it’s been too many to count, perhaps as many as 45,000. Most are high school kids and their parents, but frequent too are retirees, foreign travelers, job applicants, nostalgic alumni, even rowdy middle-school students.  

As Princeton has changed, so have the tour guides. When the Campus Guide Service debuted, two of the three employees were Southerners, chosen to appeal to visitors from that region, and they made sure to point out that half the Civil War dead whose names are engraved on the walls in Nassau Hall fought for the Confederacy. Everything is different today, and guides represent the panoply of a transformed student body. “I especially love to give tours to students from underprivileged communities,” says Clare Herceg ’11, referring to visits arranged by inner-city high schools. “I enjoy dispelling stereotypes and revealing just how diverse Princeton is.”  

“If you want to view paradise,” Willy Wonka sang during the trip through his chocolate factory, “simply look around and view it!” Movie lovers may recall how that excursion turned problematic. Orange Key guides can relate to Wonka’s difficulties in dealing with obstreperous tourists: On a debut excursion in 1939, a young woman from Houston demanded to know, “Where does Einstein hang out?” Today, insouciant teenagers show off their brainpower, wondering aloud, for example, if Princeton is broad-minded enough to allow a budding genius “to study the history of grass.” (This type often will beg a letter of recommendation from the bemused guide.) Sometimes it’s the parents who ask uncomfortable questions as their progeny squirm helplessly, as in gauging the social scene by quizzing a male guide point-blank: “Do you have a girlfriend?”  

“Certain clever dads like to ask, ‘What’s your least favorite part about Princeton?’” warns Orange Key historian Keith Hall ’10. “I tell new guides to have an answer ready, so they aren’t tripped up.” Likewise they are taught to deflect the indelicate inquiry, “So, what were your SAT scores?” Some questions are obscure or just baffling, such as “How many buildings are on campus?” or “What kinds of flowers are these?” in Prospect Garden. (Guides in 1939 likewise reported a disconcerting level of interest in botany.) “Sometimes they ask the most random stuff,” laughs Colleen Kent ’11, summer tour manager. “I’m like, no, I don’t know exactly how many professors are in the East Asian studies department!”

The spit-and-polish guides of 70 years ago were flabbergasted by visitors’ casualness. Bryan Bell ’41 reported his discomfiture at escorting a Romanian girl who “insisted on taking snapshots of Princetonians sunbathing on the campus,” not to mention the plump Missouri housewife who posed for a camera “sitting blasphemously astride the Princeton Tiger.” Once a Communist official from the Republic of Georgia refused on principle to enter the Chapel, but the determined young guide dragged him in with the words, “If you don’t believe in our God, you can at least see our architecture!” Still today, curious things happen. Daniel Gadala-Maria ’09 recalls showing around 50 Taiwanese tourists. “At Blair Arch, all the cameras came out. They asked me to pose for a picture. I agreed, and next thing I knew I was posing for 50 pictures. And then it happened again between Whig and Clio, with me sitting with each one of them on a tiger.” Justin Cahill ’11 was asked to escort a pack of Cub Scouts. “I kept all of the boring admissions information out and stuck to the most dramatic stories and fun legends. I had them scream at the top of their lungs in Holder Arch. They couldn’t believe what I told them about college. ‘You can really stay up until whenever you want?’ ”

Like any freewheeling oral tradition, Orange Key tours have proved fertile ground for mythmaking. Some patient anthropologist ought to trace the sprouting and growth of certain favorite chestnuts: the graduate student who was assigned to shadow Einstein everywhere, recording his mutterings; the giant snowball wedged in Brown Hall archway to trap everybody inside; a dozen more-or-less inaccurate versions of the “cannon war” with Rutgers. Then there is the “bulldog story” at the University Chapel: Architect Ralph Adams Cram wanted to build a small edifice, but Princeton forced him to erect a huge one; in revenge, the Yale man put his school mascot on the downspout. But Yale belongs in the gutter anyway! (Ahem, Cram, in fact, pushed for an even larger chapel, and he never went to college.) This fib, it turns out, originated with a 1966 internal memo that offered it as a fresh, new tidbit to enliven tours, one destined to hang on with bulldog tenacity for generations. To Orange Key’s credit, when guides learned recently that the bulldog story is false, they began prefacing it with, “According to legend ... .” Only a Scrooge would argue that humorous myths have no place in making a memorable tour.

The 100 or so guides are all volunteers, unlike the paid docents at Harvard and Yale, genially regarded by their Tiger counterparts as mercenary shills “who will say anything for $5.95.” (Princeton guides who serve over vacations and during the summer are paid.) Each guide gives at least four tours per semester; the average is one every other week. Dedication is crucial: They must show up on time, rain or shine. Prospective guides lead a “confirmation tour” evaluated by two officers, and 100 of these tours go splashing through the slush of February every year, a grueling ritual. Half the applicants will be rejected, with attendant hurt feelings, but the standards remain the same as they were spelled out in 1939: Participants “must be top-notch.”  

Former Orange Key vice-chairman Christopher Molosso ’09 summarizes what he looked for in a guide: “Is the information accurate? More importantly, is the person charismatic? Is his or her voice loud in some settings and quiet in others? Do [prospective guides] laugh at themselves when they crash backwards into a pole?” (Blind spots are a serious ­hazard. “Warn me if I’m about to run into something,” Hall said with a smile to one group of shuffling tourists, who promptly let him get hit by a car.) Those who make the cut are surprised by a knock at the dorm-room door. Each is handed a chocolate key, and an orange scarf is thrown around his or her neck. Cheers soon give way to a relentless grind, however, since each initiate must study thoroughly the Guide for Guides, the jealously guarded Bible of the organization, which PAW, after swearing itself to secrecy, was allowed to glimpse. First assembled in the 1960s, it is edited annually by the historian and has grown to be almost unwieldy in its vastness — 80 dense pages of facts and lore.  

Orange Key is now an arm of the admission office, and tours leave from Clio Hall, where the office holds information sessions.
Orange Key is now an arm of the admission office, and tours leave from Clio Hall, where the office holds information sessions.
Frank Wojciechowski

“The remaking of the campus tour is the latest development in the pitched competition among colleges,” The New York Times reported last summer. Technocrats cast a steely eye on student-led tours as potentially amateurish links in universities’ multimillion-dollar efforts to attract young recruits. Some schools now hire consulting firms to improve tours. Princeton’s step toward rationalizing the process came in 2006, when funding for Orange Key was shifted from University Services (which handles everything from Frist Campus Center to automated teller machines and parking lots) to the admission office. “Logistically it made sense that it move,” says Paul Breitman, assistant vice president for University Services: Tours now would launch from a renovated Clio Hall next door to West College, where Admission is headquartered. (Since 2000, tours had left from Frist; before that, from behind Maclean House.) The move was more than physical; University Services had supplied Orange Key’s small budget and provided a staff liaison, but admission officers now would sit in on the undergraduates’ meetings, keeping a close eye on things. Orange Key remains an independent organization, Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye stresses, but skeptics point to the fact that its constitution recently has been rewritten to describe it as “an arm of the admission office.” “We think of our work and their work as being the same work,” Rapelye explains. “We are all greeting visitors to campus. They are an arm of what we do. But it’s a student-run organization, and we’ve tried to respect that.”

Some guides were alarmed at the seeming takeover of their organization and a possible loss of freedom of speech. Orange Key long had cherished the liberty of the guide, going back to Day One, when the first three cicerones were encouraged to craft their own tours, lest “a stereotyped story ... develop into a dull routine.” “I was concerned,” recalls Gadala-Maria. “We liked that we could say to visitors [that] we are totally independent. What we say is from the heart and not regulated in any way.” Club historian Michael Taylor ’05 voiced his unhappiness. “The people at the admissions office have a product to sell: Their goal is to maximize applications,” he explains. “This leads to an obvious bias. If you read the glossy materials they put out, you get a fantasy of college life that only tangentially touches on the reality of the Princeton experience. The goal of the tours, on the other hand, is to give students a realistic vision of the University, to decide if they should expend the time, effort, and money to apply.”  

After a few bumps, the relationship has run smoothly. Rapelye praises Orange Key for its enthusiasm and effective undergraduate leadership: “It is such an old student organization, and the students are quite proud of the fact that they are an independent organization — I think it’s remarkable that it has survived and is thriving.” Not that Orange Key and Admission always see eye-to-eye. One area of disagreement concerns how much Princetoniana should be paraded merrily to the visitor. At Harvard and Yale, there are two distinct types of student-led tours — historical ones that leave from a visitor center and undergraduate-life tours that leave from the admission office. Princeton having only one tour, the right balance is difficult to find, and as long ago as 1988, Admission was complaining that Orange Key’s emphasis “continues to be overly historical in content,” with too much lingering in fusty Nassau Hall. When Rapelye arrived in 2003, she likewise found the tours “very history-heavy. That’s not what the 17-year-old high school students needed as they went around campus. They want to know, ‘Where am I going to live and eat and go to class?’”  

It wasn’t historical information Rapelye objected to so much as the endless recounting of rah-rah traditions that baffled teenage applicants and perhaps played into pre­-existing stereotypes about the University. Admission hired consultants to identify how Princeton is perceived by young people nationally, which led to a revamping of its Web site and improved outreach to high school students and guidance counselors. “Our survey showed that high school students see us as white, male, and wealthy, and that isn’t Princeton now,” Rapelye says. “We need to respect our history and traditions, but to focus only on that would be a mistake. High school students now value living in a multicultural community and being part of a diverse student body. Include some of the history, but if you spend the whole time talking about gargoyles or singing — there’s a certain group, you’re not going to reach them.”

The new policy, now enshrined in the Guide for Guides, is that “history must come second to student information” if even one prospective student is along — and the vast majority of tours fall into that category. As a result, on the several tours PAW recently took, historical information about the fourth-oldest of America’s 2,600 colleges had a few gaps: Little was said about those luminaries Witherspoon, Madison, or McCosh, for example, and nothing about F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 or Jimmy Stewart ’32 (or about the grand spectacle of Reunions and the P-rade). Some guides regret the shift in emphasis. “I never enjoyed giving the average SAT score as much as I enjoyed talking about Woodrow Wilson,” says Gadala-Maria. “Admission was focused on student life and activities,” agrees former chair Jo-Ann Karhson ’09, “the less-interesting stuff that any student could talk about, that you don’t need the Guide for Guides to know. Who wants to give a tour about dining-hall food?”  

Concerning student life, the thorniest subject surely is Prospect Avenue. “If a parent is trying to stick it to you and asking about rumors they have heard about Princeton, it’s going to be the eating clubs,” says Hall. “At a meeting last year, I suggested that the new guides say, ‘The clubs are the upperclass answer to residential colleges’ — so that they have an arsenal for a sticky situation.” “We encourage guides to talk about the eating clubs,” says Rapelye. “When we did the research, we found that the clubs were a concern to prospective students because they didn’t understand them.” Some Orange Key guides give a full account of the club system, in which 70 percent of upperclass students still participate, and even hint at the agonies of bicker. But others — perhaps erring on the side of caution — keep surprisingly mum. A 1979 alumna, visiting campus with her daughter, was astonished to hear no mention of eating clubs when the tour paused at 1879 Arch, with its view of the Street. “Clubs got a real downplay. There was nothing that reflected my sense of how they dominate the student scene,” she says.  

Taking a tour last August to help PAW with this report — her clever disguise as a high school student nearly compromised by the pair of Cloister Inn sandals she insisted on wearing — law student Alexie Rothman ’07 likewise was startled and asked for more information. This seemed to alarm her guide. “All she would say was, ‘They’re basically much smaller dining halls and serve a social function as well. They host dinner parties and things,’” Rothman noted. The mental picture was more fluorescent-lit cafeteria than the glittering chandeliers of This Side of Paradise. A former chairwoman of Orange Key, Rothman hopes that guides (including the less-seasoned ones hired for summertime) will give proper weight to the club experience, even if it intimidates some prospective students. “You need to approach the clubs in an honest, fair way. Why do we need to talk about the Woodrow Wilson School? Or the creative-arts thesis? These are choices students make during their four years. Not to mention [the clubs] would be a disservice to the University.”  

In just one hour, only the core of campus can be featured, which serendipitously gives the impression of Princeton as an aesthetic showpiece of spires and gargoyles. The utilitarian angularity of Wilson and Butler colleges goes unseen, as do the modern science facilities and Frank Gehry’s startling new library (the Engineering Quadrangle offers its own tours for the budding techie). Routes vary, but a frequent one goes from Nassau Hall to the Chapel, McCosh, Frist, and through Prospect Garden toward Blair — identical to the pattern in 1939, in fact. Visitors regularly rave about their tours, although a perennial grumble is that they don’t go inside a dormitory. Far more complaints, says Karhson, come from passersby who overhear something that rubs them the wrong way — for example, the language professor who thought a guide, walking backward through East Pyne courtyard, was singing the praises of study abroad at the expense of the University’s foreign-language programs.  

For years, guides strolling past the 1960s-era School of Architecture chortled about the irony of its being “arguably the ugliest building on campus.” Windows sometimes were open, and irritated occupants of that Brutalist masterpiece finally complained to the admission office, which muzzled the joke. “What we tried to get across with the guides was, it’s important to be respectful of all areas of our academic life,” Rapelye explains. “They are really representing this University. That, to me, was an example of where they needed to take a bigger view of their role in the process, not just being funny or cute. I see that as our role — we have got to give them that feedback.” Appropriately, the episode has become enshrined in tour-guide myth, with one embellishment: Angry that their building was being slighted, architecture seniors got revenge by sporting T-shirts that read, “Orange Key Guides are the Ugliest Students on Campus.” (Fact-check: Such a logo was suggested but swiftly nixed by a School of Architecture administrator.)  

It is rare for Admission to lean forcefully on Orange Key. “We have tried very hard not to tell the guides not to do things, but instead to make it positive,” says Rapelye. “This is college, after all. I want high school students to learn as much as possible about what Princeton is like. Other than talking down another college, they are allowed to say whatever they want, as long as they say it’s their opinion. We say, please be honest — but when visitors go home, we want them to have a favorable impression.” She doesn’t necessarily mind when some guides, amid a flood of smiles and peppiness, show an unexpected streak of merciless candor. Going by Dillon Gym, for example, a jaunty athlete-guide confides, “It’s not really that nice in there.” Watch out for room draw, another guide cautions: “You might get the attic ... or the random-sticking-out room!” Orange Key urges its members to be careful with this kind of thing. “We tell the guides to be honest and share your personal feelings,” says Hall, “but we don’t want people ranting.” It was considered highly inappropriate when one guide recently ended an account of student life with the droll observation: “But 91 percent of you aren’t going to get in anyway!” The occasional kvetch is OK, however, since guides universally are known to bleed orange. “I never hesitated to be honest about problems at Princeton, including overcrowded precepts and binge drinking,” says Taylor, “although clearly I would not have given over 120 unpaid tours of the campus unless I was highly enthusiastic about the place.”

Orange Key is hard work, especially for its officers, who have kept this plucky organization going continuously for generations. Chairwoman Emily Silk ’10 (who also is a PAW intern) explains what keeps her motivated: “If I’m stressed out or having a terrible week, giving the tour is the best way to step back and not take Princeton for granted. You see all these high school students who so badly want to get in, and it makes me really, really thankful I am here.” Guides are convinced they make a difference by offering this hour-long view of paradise. Several report with pride having met freshmen who had taken their tour and were inspired to apply to Princeton. Sometimes these freshmen become guides themselves, including Keith Hall, who took a tour with the dynamic Alexie Rothman and ended up coming to the University — “she definitely was a big factor.” What President Dodds said generations ago remains true of Orange Key today: “These undergraduates are our best ambassadors.” 

W. Barksdale Maynard ’88 is author of the award-winning book Princeton: America’s Campus.