When “College Weekends” Featured Rowing

17 November 2017

Rowing historian Thomas Weil writes:

With the surge of students into higher education after 1900, and the increased ease of inter-collegiate travel, more U.S. universities allowed the rites and passions of spring to be celebrated during a selected weekend when class officers would garland a calendar featuring high-profile sports events with a ring of dances and other social occasions. At a number of prominent East Coast all-male colleges, to which hundreds of hopeful ring-by-spring-or-your-money-back damsels would flock with the hope of a good catch, it was – along with the prom – the social high point of the collegiate spring season, and rowing was the principal featured attraction. Established as early as the turn of the century and as late as the 1950s, the social events were largely student organized and funded, and provided memories for a lifetime.

A sampling of spring college weekend programs conveys some sense of the genre.

The 32-page Official Program for Spring Day, May 22, 1926, bears witness to Cornell’s approach in that pre-Depression time. Laden with ads from local merchants, the schedule featured lacrosse with Hobart, a concert and a ball (beginning at 10:30 pm) on Friday, and a parade, a carnival, a tennis match (with Penn), a baseball game (with Yale) and rowing on Saturday. The rowing included an Intercollege Championship Race (matching the Cornell Arts, Chemistry, Electrical Engineering, Forestry, Law, Mechanical Engineering and Agriculture schools against one another), followed by a regatta among the Cornell, Yale, and Princeton varsity, junior varsity and freshman eights, viewable from a spectator train for $3.00.

Of particular interest is an article titled “The History of Spring Day”, which traces the origins of the event to 1901, when the Musical Clubs and the Masque (drama) put on shows for the benefit of an insolvent Athletic Association so that spring sports at Cornell would not be curtailed. The program also included photographs, boatings and rosters of each of the crews and a page permitting box scores of the baseball game to be recorded.

Harvard’s tiny 20-page Regatta Weekend pamphlet for May 9-11, 1952, was, consistent with post-WWII frugality, much less opulent, but the agenda was more extensive, ranging from House lawn parties, concerts, dinner dances, plays and a masquerade ball (beginning at 10 pm) on Friday, to a track meet (vs. Yale), a tennis match (vs. Princeton) and a baseball game (vs. Holy Cross), Adams Cup races against Navy and Penn, and a Straw Hat (see Penn’s Skimmer Day) Ball on Saturday, to a Sunday breakfast and concert.  Half the size and length of its Cornell antecedent, this Harvard program featured an introduction by Athletic Director (and former Harvard crew coach) Tom Bolles, suggesting greater administration involvement in the occasion, and noted that this was the inaugural Regatta Weekend.

Penn’s Skimmer Day weekend is represented by its 34-page program for May 19, 1956, when Joe Burk’s Quakers (including a 20-year-old junior named Harry Parker) were to face Navy and Wisconsin. Started in 1949 as “Callow Day” in honor of Penn’s long-time crew coach, the weekend was re-named following his departure for Navy in 1951. As described in The Daily Pennsylvanian of April 24, 1964, “The reestablished tradition, modeled somewhat after Yale’s Derby Day, but with Quaker modification, found students again sporting beat up straw hats, Callow’s campus emblem.” Following a lengthy article describing the 1955 Penn crew’s historic (and successful) run through the season, the Sprints, the Henley Grand Challenge Cup and a racing tour of Europe, the program, which celebrated the 1952 Navy Olympic eight, who had come back together to take a crack at the 1956 Games, intimated that Penn would also be gunning for that honor. Ah, well…

The final Skimmer Day that was – at least nominally – associated with rowing was in 1972. More history can be found here.

The only spring weekend to be the subject of a photo essay in LIFE magazine (May 24, 1948), Yale’s Derby Day is memorialized here by its 32-page program of May 19, 1934, the date of the Princeton – Cornell – Yale heavyweight regatta and the Harvard – Yale – Princeton lightweights Goldthwait Cup. This pamphlet – and Derby Day schedule – is distinguished from the other spring weekend programs by its complete silence on any scheduled activities other than the four races on the Housatonic River at Derby, Connecticut. Consistent with other publications, however, it did provide rosters and photographs of the crews, including the lightweights, but one innovation was its listing of bus and train schedules to and from New York, only an hour or two’s distance from the races. The spring weekend tradition began in 1923 and, accused of far too much inebriation and uncouth behavior, came to an inglorious end in 1951. An excellent account of this tradition is given here.

For those not inclined to follow that link, it should be pointed out that the “Derby” in question, while certainly reflecting the town in which the celebration occurred, did not refer to a style of head gear like the boater/straw hat skimmer, but to the English summer social event, for which the appropriate covering was a top hat. In the years that followed the demise of Derby Day, a new college weekend tradition was established, that still involved the arrival of hundreds of young ladies to New Haven, the holding of concerts and dances, and the pursuit of such bibulous and amorous excesses as could be endured, but these activities no longer took place on the banks of the Housatonic in full view of a horrified public, but were confined within urban Gothic cloisters. The excitement at Derby was limited to boat racing, and the on-campus spring festivities were, much less colorfully, named… College Weekend.

The appeal of – and need for – a special spring weekend diminished precipitously with the coeducation of the all-male colleges (for the avoidance of doubt, Cornell had women throughout this era). And the addition of women’s crew to the spring racing programs was just one of the many benefits of this trend.

Images from the Thomas E. Weil Collection.

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