Thursday, October 8, 2009

Diggin' In The Mud: Princeton Freshman '32, Morally Off?

Continuing on my theme of last week, for this weeks foray into Mudd’s library I decided to read some more about the experience of Princeton freshman in the first half of the 20th century. What I found, were an interesting series of letters by a class of ’32 student Chalmers W. Alexander. I know what your wondering, what kind of name is Chalmers? No, you’re probably wondering if Chalmers Alexander was anyone special. He was in the army and a prominent lawyer in Jacksonville, but no, he wasn’t anyone famous. But his series of letters provide an amazing perspective on the Princeton freshman experience in 1928. And, he went to school with some exciting people. Namely, this guy.

“I got off the train at Trenton and then took the branch line to Princeton Junction,” Chalmbers writes to his mother. He adds “PS Saw another girl smoking at Princeton Junction.”

“Princeton seems to be a little place about the size and type of Canton, Miss…. I walked the streets and found it unpleasantly cool, almost cold…. Now its 9:30. I want to get a good nights sleep and get up so as to go to Sunday School… Feeling O.K. but rather lonely and homesick.” Again, many freshmen can identify with these feelings. Ok, maybe not the bed at 9:30 for Sunday School bit.

Chalmbers spends some time, like all prospective Princeton students, admiring the buildings. He writes pages about his dormitory before he even gets the key and is awestruck by seeing Wilson’s house and the prospect of Hoover visiting. He is invited by the Philadelphian Society to take advantage of their information bureau “If any member of the class of 1932 has any questions in regard to rooms, book supplies, furniture, or any of the other various and sundry items which may come to mind, that you will take advantage of this information bureau.” they write. They also invite him to the class meeting and hope the freshman turn out "en masse". Chalmbers doesn't attend.

When he finally gets in his dorm:
“It is located on the ground floor. The janitor who is an old man says there are about 35 men to section 6 therefore it s number is 601. I suppose there is a bathroom to every floor so this bath room accommodates 4 students. There is no connecting door between the rooms but all I have to do is go out of my door and walk eight feet and enter the bath. My room is nice. It has a floor covered with a cork-rubber composition. The walls are rough finished white cement plaster. Is there such a thing?” Sounds nicer than some of today’s dorms and he goes on to describe the windows, radiator and closet, as well as the chair and lamp he bought at the Student Furniture Exchange. Unfortunately though, “until the boy who owns the bed comes I’m going to sleep on a pallet in my room”

There are no meal plans yet, he eats at the Baltimore Dairy Lunch where they sell “sandwiches, omelets, little puddins, cakes, milk etc” and you “pay for it and then leave”.

He spends some time being awestruck about the cars he sees, Packcards and a Mercer.

His letters are long and “reread and corrected” and like a typical freshman he tells his mother to “keep up the once a day supply” of letters “at least until next week when the other boys will come”.

All students are required to pick an athletic sport. Our clearly sporty friend tells his mother, “I signed up for body building…because it is indoors, takes only an hour and is only about 250 ft from my room”!

He rejects an invitation to go with students to Trenton, because “ain’t nothing gonna pull little Willie away from the campus for a mighty long time” and because they are
“just the type that will never see Heaven unless a miracle happens”. “The boys here have not much religion.” He quotes freshman statistics. 110 freshman responded that they drink, 170 didn’t. 170 smoked, 130 didn’t. 170 believed in a personal God, 130 didn’t. And lastly, 135 approve of companionate marriage while 190 didn’t.
Chalmbers conclusion? “Almost all the boys coming to Princeton are already morally off.” He adds that, “They are mostly very profane” (The most common curse word being ‘Christ!’)

Like many college students he has a moral crisis. “My ideas and values concerning men have been knocked topsy turvy.” Of the students, “I have not met one yet who I thought any better than the average. “
“Profs…frequently make mistakes in grammar.” He concludes,
“Our life and community is the thing for me!”

Chalmbers takes Latin, History, Chemistry, French and English. Not only does he have 8:30 classes, he has an 8:30 class on Saturday! Not so upset about your 9 o clock Thursday class now?

Chalmbers is a bit older than the typical college freshman but perhaps embodies the feelings of many college students when he writes, “Today I am 20 but feel no more mature or independent than when I was 13.”

He is indeed quite attached to his mother. On October 2nd, 1928 he writes to her,
“Not cold yet. Drink plenty of water, have regular habits, take plenty of exercise and get plenty sleep. Never felt better.” He adds “The time just flies by up here! I work all the time! And yet, I don’t seem to mind it.”

That is until he receives this first mark, He has 11 ½ errors, and each error was 5 points off. So he gets a 45, 50 being passing. His response, “I hope I can pull this up.” We hope so too Chalmbers. We hope so too. Indeed he does, for his letters fill boxes and continue through his senior year. Maybe one day e-mails and text messages from today's students will fill the halls of the Mudd.


Anonymous said...

haha, this is kinda cool

Anonymous said...

what dorm? Little maybe because it's close to Dillon?

Anonymous said...

I wish the blogger had done some more research into some of the things that are mentioned (like where the Baltimore Dairy Lunch was, or what other sports the men could pick from) instead of only saying that today's freshmen can identify with his feelings.

Anonymous said...

This is great stuff. I am really enjoying this series.