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Half-Century Annalist Letters

Minora Canamus

Samuel Hopkins Adams, Class of 1891

Delivered: June 1941

At our graduation exercises 50 years ago, Old Greek of beloved tradition thus opened his annalist’s letter: “The position of half-century annalist holds out no summons to merriment.”

With all respect to that revered and classic memory, why not? A 50th anniversary is not necessarily an occasion for wearing the willow and telling sad stories of the death of kings. Memory can smile as well as brood. On behalf of the Class of 1891 the present historian begs leave to recall activities other than those of hard discipline and the rigorous classroom. Haec olim meminisse juvabit. (The historian offers no excuse for his lapses into classicism. It is all the Latin he has, and if he doesn’t use it now, he may never have another chance.) It is applicable to a lot of things that are not in the books.

To begin with, we lived in a pretty good world; easy, comfortable and infinitely unrestricted as compared to these days when half of the habitable globe is a pent-up Utica contracting all the powers, and day by day the map alters and shrinks. We of the 19th century enjoyed a broader geography, free and expanding. Only nature set limits to our footsteps, the eternal ice of the poles or the unscalable cliffs of the Himalayas. We have conquered the poles now; but where else is there to go?

In those generous days there were no barriers. No Verboten signs spread across land and sea like yellow warnings of a disease that is poisoning and may yet destroy civilization. Barbed wire was for cows, not humans. Having the price, one could buy a ticket to anywhere – except perhaps Lhasa or Mecca – and when he arrived no sentry poked a bayonet into his stomach and demanded to know whether he was a Nordic and if not, why not. The roads of earth were open which today bristle with grim threats of death. The perils of the deep meant reefs and sharks, not mines and U-boats. Passports? We did not know what they were. War was a textbook reference.

Economically, too, we were in far happier circumstances. The tax-growler we already had with us, bewailing his persecutions at the hands of government, but his sufferings were not acute and he recovered more often than he died. Dark forebodings of the first Billion Dollar Congress troubled the editorial pages. Today, to paraphrase an old political saw – what’s a billion dollars between enemies? A vital difference between 1891 and 1941 is that in those days nobody had to worry about a job. Everything was expanding. Transportation was linking up the far distances; riches were being discovered in the mines of east and west; oil was flowing. Every new invention meant widened opportunities. Today a new – and laborsaving – device throws three men out of work for every two employed. Otherwise, how does it save labor?

The world had an appetite for work and a welcome for workers. There was a place waiting for any competent or even incompetent applicant, provided he was willing. Diplomas in hand, we of the Class of 1891 marched down the Hill straight into the waiting portals of opportunity. We did not even have to knock. The door was open in advance. Bear this in mind as commentary on the glory-spouting of the orator who flatulently lauds today as the age of boundless opportunity.

If the Class of 1891 needed any excuse for its existence, we could plead that we selected an unpropitious time to be born. Following the stress and hatreds of the Civil War, the national morale suffered a slump. It was low tide and a foul bottom; the most sterile and tawdry period of our history. Culture, learning, literature, science, art, politics and public morality were at their slackest. Our honorary classmate, D. Ferry, commenting on this, writes me:

This was unfortunate for us of the Class of 1891, and the state was made still worse by men like Charles Eliot Norton and Barrett Wendell, who darkened the prospects of their pupils by assuring them that they were born 50 years too late and had to live in an age when the world was ‘sadly bound’ nowhither’… Possibly we did pretty well, considering the atmosphere in which we lived.

Anyway, 35 of that dubious vintage arrived on College Hill in the fall of 1887 and looked out upon a world that was muddling along, not too uncomfortably in an atmosphere of considerable self-satisfaction. Civilization was beginning to lift itself by its cultural bootstraps, but the shadows still hovered and many of the news headlines of the day now read like records of the Dark Ages. Not that we paid much heed to news and newspapers. The outer, non-American world hardly existed for us. Europe was a dim hope wreathed in Parisian allure. Asia and Africa were places that we sang of in missionary hymns. South America was a source of bananas, et praeterea nihil. We had not yet wholly conquered our own country. There were still Indian massacres; in one contemporary battle 47 regulars were killed.

Closer to home, Grover Cleveland, a would-be Hamilton man had he been able to afford it, was president. In the state, Thomas C. Platt was the “Easy Boss.” Hetty Green, our first millionairess, was already “lawing.” Anthony Comstock was clucking up and down the landscape, twitching a prurient nose over the naughty classics. Religion found its most popular outlet through the super-emotional rhythms of that pietistic vaudeville team Moody & Sankey, and its most hifalutin expression in the passionate vociferousness of T. De Witt Talmadge, D.D. (“Beware, young man! The rapids are below you.”) The Rev. Sam Small moved on his appointed rounds of salvation “From Barroom to Pulpit,” and disputing the headlines with him, the far-from-reverend John L. Sullivan (“Yours truly, champion of the world”) moved even more conspicuously from barroom to barroom, under the caption, said to be held in standing type, “John L. Drunk Again.”

Prosperity was stumbling toward the economic Avernus of the early nineties. The pandemic of influenza had begun to ravage the world, building up its heritage of insanity, suicide, and physical and spiritual lassitude. Our high finance was the most reckless, flamboyant and piratical in the world; our new slums as bad as anything that Europe had been able to produce in long centuries. Our moral sense, still puritanical in respect to the individual had hardly begun to concern itself with the broader phases of public right, wrong and responsibility.

It was not the happiest possible date to be entering our or any other academic shades. Most of our collegiate institutions were in a parlous state. Following the trend of the world outside, they had drifted into the doldrums. Their vista was sharply circumscribed. To the new and faintly voiced demands of the forward-looking, they turned an indifferent or perhaps an alarmed ear.

Fine and ripe scholarship was plentiful; we had more than our share of it at Hamilton. But as yet, there were few of those zealots of education whose high-burning lampadia were to serve as guidance to the coming generations. Then, too, poverty overhung the campuses as if it were the very aura of erudition. Too much energy, which should have been otherwise applied, was exhausted in cadging for the money necessary to mere existence. A contemporary estimate specifies four million dollars as the total income for all colleges of the United States. Those who must constantly pause to beg their daily bread, necessarily find the slopes of Parnassus arduous to climb.

The Hamilton Lit. editorially welcomed the Class of 1891 to the campus with “A Kindly Word to the Freshmen,” one item of which is memorable: “We live today,” declared the writer, “in comparative luxuriousness.”

To this the natural response had not then been invented; “Oh, yeah?” To the present historian who lived in the average environment of North-North-Fourth-Front-Middle, “luxuriousness” in the comparative or any other degree, would not have occurred as accurately descriptive. We had no lighting but lamps, no heat but stoves, no water but what we carried, no sanitary conveniences whatsoever. Commons was far in the unimagined future. For our meals we tramped through heat, cold, rain, hail or snow, anywhere from a half mile to three miles thither and back – or went hungry. Chapel was compulsory, and very, very chilly several months out of the year. Recitation rooms depended upon stoves, which alternately burned with all the ardors of the Inferno, or subsided to a pale flicker around which, if the prof was compassionate, we miserably pressed.

Our plumbing was primitive, not to say punitive. At a variable distance in the rear of North – maybe 20 yards in summer and half a mile in winter – loomed a stern, puritanical edifice, known as the jo. It was an unhandsome structure, brick-walled and jerry built, the interior being economically furnished out of waste lumber and discarded knotholes and liberally visited by all the winds of heaven with special emphasis on the updraft. The architect was some remote ancestor of the late Chic Sales, and I may be pardoned the anachronism if I record that, when winter came, we developed what might be termed a marked degree of Sales resistance. Our percentage of digestive disorders from November to May ran disproportionately high.

Such were our living conditions. I have sometimes wondered where that Lit. editorializer on “comparative luxuriousness” got his stuff. He must have been raised in an igloo.

Well, we managed to survive and even to enjoy life. True, most of the extracurricular activities existed on paper only, in the pages of College publications. We had at the time of our entrance a glee club that never sang a note. We had a banjo club that never plucked a string. We had a dramatic club that never called a rehearsal, a chess club that never played a game, a press club that never printed a line, and several class football teams that never saw a pigskin. Much of that we remedied before we graduated. Meantime, we had our fraternity entertainments. We played a little whist and tennis. We toyed with “Ouija, the Wonderful Talking Board; $1,” and even dabbled in hypnotism. Professor Loisette’s memory system appealed to us as a possible method of circumventing a hostile faculty and improving our academic standing. We squandered considerable cash on it without appreciable results.

Gatherings were held, cultural in purpose, at which we discussed Shakespeare and the musical glasses – what would now be called, I believe, bull sessions. Three Ladies’ Seminaries in the town disseminated sweetness if not light. There we were privileged to call, upon stated evenings and within decorous hours. Coasting in winter was a never-palling thrill; I can still hear the long cry of “Ro-o-o-oad!” ringing frostily down the long years. Chet Parmalee’s pool room, with its liberal coupons on every game, good for five-cent soft drinks, was a popular resort in the village. Beer was a nickel a drink, whiskey a dime, claret punch 15 cents at the two bars which Clinton supported, without, however, much help from our class. We were not the drinking type. Cigarettes were looked at askance; but virile smokers could buy Little Monte Carlo cigars, six for a quarter.

Our morals? Under a contemporary dateline, the Hamiltonian prints this scandalous item: “January 3rd – Black Crook entertainment in Utica. Students attend in a body.” This is grossly misrepresentative of the spirit of the Class of 1891. A reputable proportion of us abstained from that deplorable leg-show. Personally, I had the mumps at the time.

Much of our slang – both that which we preserved from the hallowed past and that which we employed in our current practice – had a genuine quality, pungent and vigorous enough to have merited survival. Today our term “flunk” is common usage. But who would recognize its antonym “bleed” or “make a blood?” I recall a colloquy between Platt Osborne and Bradley Shepard as the latter, who was a man of unfettered speech, emerged cockily from a winter test in Spherical Trig.

“How’d you make it, Brad?” Platt inquired.

“Me?” answered Brad, “Hell! I bled all over their damn paper.”

Whereby he meant that he had passed 100 percent, an estimate which turned out to be slightly exaggerated on his part.

“Scurf”, a full-blooded, virile verb and peculiar to Hamilton, has unfortunately passed into the limbo of the obsolete. There is no satisfactory synonym. “Guy” is too feeble; “denounce,” too formal. “Flout” or “fleer” come closer, but are less comprehensive and too mild of flavor. To scurf an unfortunate victim was to direct upon him a withering blast of derision, commination and lofty rebuke. Hearing a sophomore scurf a freshman adequately enlarged one’s verbal and intellectual horizons.

“Bear-box” for the Chapel seats of the mighty faculty is now unfamiliar, as are “coffin-nail” and “spiel.” “Supe,” connoting over-politeness to a faculty member with a view to winning his favor and obtaining high marks; “bone,” for hard study; and “horse” for a palliative to hard study, are, I understand, still extant. But a “boner,” which used to mean a brain-worker, now means a brain-slip, and a “set-up,” formerly a treat at Mrs. Kelley’s, now signifies an easy mark possibly by indirect derivation. “Slimer” for a freshman, and “rusty” for a sophomore are, I suppose, vestigial survivals.

Reference has been made to the jo of unblessed memory. This word is pure growth of the campus. It perpetuates, in the dim sentimental fragrance of years’ long past, the name of Joseph Penny, President Cowley’s predecessor of a century ago, who sternly rejected a humble and heartfelt appeal from the undergraduate body for bigger and better privies. It may have been the hand of providence (though the date suggests arson), which intervened on the succeeding Guy Fawkes Night and burned the insufficient edifice to the ground. Thereafter for several years, the College body gleefully celebrated November 5 with a bonfire and ceremony known as “Burning the Jo.”

Thus the word took its place in College parlance as both noun and verb further enriching the language with its aqueous correlative, “jim” (V. intr.), with its derivatives, “jo-wad” and “jo-trots,” which, I am sure, need no lexicon.

Clothes were a natural and normal interest. Learnedly and somewhat wistfully we discussed styles and admired, if we could not emulate such sartorial arbiters as Frank Ellinwood of 1888 and Fred Moore of 1890. Typically we wore black or dark coats, fitted tight, Plymouth Rock Pants for Three Dollars, Mr. W. L. Douglas’ gentlemanly shoes and deep-opening vests, the wider and lower, the snappier, the ultra-mode reaching its apex in what was known vulgarly as the umbilical cut. Patterned white waistcoats were even more elegant. The first money I earned in college, by writing a poem to some young siren’s dark eyes and winning thereby a five-dollar award offered by Clinton Scollard, went for one of these desirable garments. Stiff-starched shirts and collars were de-rigueur. The more fastidious among us tied their own neckwear – four-in hands or puffs; but evening bows, white only, were bought ready-made-up. White only, I say, since the dinner coat was in the sartorial womb of the dim future. For festal evening occasions, such as Senior Ball, we wore tails if we had them. Cutaways were common enough, but few of us rose to the heights of the Prince Albert. I recall the sensation when Joe Spurlarke, Class of 1889, the only Negro in College, a notable and popular athlete and head waiter at the Crossman House in Alexandria Bay summer vacations, appeared on Chapel stage in one of these garments of superlatively full and funereal pattern.

Smart summer wear was blazer and flannels, the trousers preferably bellying to a two-foot circumference at the knee and 18 inches at the ankle. In the interests of history, someone who can remember it ought to draw the model of a sensational but short-lived collar, 1889-1891. It was a two-story edifice which, starting as a straightaway developed an eaves-like overlap in the region of the Adam’s apple and terminated in twin isosceles triangles. It is, I am sure, with our parallel in the record of haberdashery.

Warm and soft spring-term evenings inspired us to campus song. Spread out beneath the trees or perhaps lolling on the library steps, we lifted our not untuneful voices in many a lyric now lost to all but memory’s echo: “The Irish Emigrant,” “We are Three Dandy Guys,” “Comrades” (which belongs definitely in the better-dead category), “Hi, Jinny, ho, Jinny Johnson!” together with others which still survive and, I hope, ever shall; the lilting “Annie Rooney,” “White Wings,” “Just a Song at Twilight,” and the imperishable and tender harmonies of “Sweet and Low.” One melancholious item of folk song, which we rendered with impressive pathos bore this unforgettable refrain:

No one to pity them, none to cay-ress,
No one to help them in their sad dee-stress.
T’was in Bellevue city great grief did abound
The night that the hos-pittle burnt to the ground.

Ribald minds may still retain the musical strains of “Rebo Ribo” and the legend of the One-Eyed Riley and his disreputable proceedings in the Little Dutch Inn. This being a respectable record, they shall have no aid from me.

Literature was not among our major interests. Even had it been, we should have found but scant official encouragement from the library which, as “Bib” Ibbotson, Class of 1890, reminded us last year in his scholarly half-century letter, was open only six hours a day under an imaginary librarian to whom he was “assistant.” The Lit. was moved to pathetic editorial appeal that “some new books be added… so that one will not be completely behind the age when looking up a subject.”

Extracurricular bookishness was largely fictional. We solved exciting mysteries with Anna Katharine Green, whose “Leavenworth Case” will bear reading today, followed the fortunes of the contemporary parfit, gentil knight, “Mr. Barnes of New York”, swung from the romantic pieties of E.P. Roe wherein virtue was unfailingly rewarded in the last chapter (what a pity that nature does not more faithfully imitate art!) to the titillating sub-lecheries of Rev. Albert Ross, whose best seller, “Thou Shalt Not” of the Albatross Series, paper-covered 50 cents, might be read in family circles, being written by a clergyman, but must by no means be discussed because it dealt boldly (for those careful times) with the Seventh Commandment. We clawed off desperate lee shores with Clark Russell and even minced through the genteel thrills of Laura Jean Libbey, the hired girl’s guide, mentor and friend. For the higher flights, there were Stevenson, Howell, Walter Besant and Henry James, who was still writing English at that time. Haggard was speeding up the fictional tempo in magazine and newspaper (“King Solomon’s Mines” will richly repay a glance into the past). The opalescent lightings of Kipling were streaming across the firmament, to the horror of the Tory academes who carped at both him and Haggard as disturbers of the literary peace. An acerbitous critic in Punch hailed the time.

When there stands a muzzled stripling
Mute beside a muzzled bore,
When the Rudyards cease from kipling
And the Haggards ride no more.

There was also Town Topics, now happily dead — may its bones, forever rot. To be found with it in one’s possession was a social 10 spot and a moral zero. It was perhaps our most ardently, though not our most widely read, periodical. Puck was more popular.

Education was expensive, even in those thrifty years. To the majority of our parents, I am sure, putting a boy through college was a severe strain. True, there were many scholarships, not a few of which were actually farmed out. Tuition was $75 a year. Room rent varied from $3 to $12 a term; mine in North College was $24 a year. Coal ran between $3.50 and $4 a ton, with a carrying charge of a quarter a floor; bad luck for us top-story habitants. Wood was $1.50 per full cord. “Good board” was offered at $3.50 a week. Try and find it! In four years I never succeeded. Terque, quarterque beati those who far from the shores of their father had kindly and hospitable relatives in the village as was my happy case, to stave off gastric gnawings with an occasional hearty “feed.” Travel was either pedestrian or costly. Some of our new-fledged luxuries were incredibly high. A Kodak cost many times its present price, and the new “pneumatic” – for which read safety – bicycle was quoted at $185. Fraternities cost money. There were necessary extras: athletic fees, club assessments, uniforms, YMCA dues. Our senior class tax was $13.20. One could not get through College pleasantly for less than $500 per annum. That “comparative luxuriousness” vaunted in the Lit. would run to $600 at least. There was an awesome tradition of a “dude” back in 1887 who had rioted through his course, spending no less than $1,000 his senior year.

Something is due to be said on the academic phase of our class career. But not very much. Our scholarship was, to put it conservatively, unobtrusive. Not until senior year did we have a man in the High Honor group. Then Albert Stuart gave himself a mighty intellectual heave and saved us from making a record. But for that we might not have had a valedictorian.

It was in extracurricular activities that we brightly shone. We started things. We were the fons et origo of a new birth of athletics. We were motivating influences in organizing football, the musical clubs and the Junior Prom. We resurrected the algebra show. Conceiving a healthy dislike for the feeble, febrile and dilettante diabolism of the flourishing sophomore “fraternity,” Theta Nu Epsilon, we stayed out of it in large numbers, dealing it a blow it did not long survive. (The College reaction seems to have been that any organization that the Class of 1891 declined to join must be one degree less socially desirable than the Pariah Club of South Hades.)

We won the first interclass games pennant, hands down. We helped revive the NY State Intercollegiate and played the leading part in winning it three years out of our four. The pioneer football team, for which the Class of 1891 was chiefly responsible, beat both Colgate and Syracuse. (Never mind about Union.) We were, in short, a shot-in-the-arm to a failing organism.

For College morale was low and sinking lower when we arrived on the campus. If it never quite lapsed to the levels of early years when, at one time the active College body consisted of nine students and two faculty members, and at another when there was no commencement for lack of people to attend it, the outlook was sufficiently discouraging. Good men dropped out every term. Ninety-three came in with the smallest registration since the Civil War. Officially the catalogue listed more than 140 students. Actually, not 120 were in attendance. Fraternity rivalry was unhealthy and not infrequently unfair. The faculty was feuding, the alumni disaffected, the trustees in their habitual coma. Rumors spread that the charter was to be surrendered and the institution allowed to die. On my first vacation I recall hearing my grandfather, Myron Adams, Class of 1821 — not 1921 — naturally — express himself pointedly over a letter soliciting funds to save the College form collapse. In his opinion, it was a fine pickle of fish when a 90-year-old alumnus had to face the prospect of being left an orphan by an expiring alma mater. Among a certain highly vocal and not inconsiderable minority among the undergraduates, it was deemed the smart thing to scurf the College. They were too good for the place. (Following their course in after-life, I observed with some satisfaction that none of them proved his thesis by his record.) They spread a subtle and enfeebling poison. “College spirit is fast dying out with us at Hamilton” lamented the Lit. It was true.

Here is where the Class of 1891 is entitled to some horn-blowing. Whatever else we may have lacked, we were long on College spirit. Most emphatically we did not think ourselves too good for the College. We did not think ourselves too good for anything. Facultate concurrente! We were glad enough to hang on by our toenails. And, as we settled into campus life, we engendered within ourselves a fervor which became contagious; a stubborn and ineradicable loyalty to the place; a militant faith in what Hamilton had stood for and might still stand for that jealous love and zeal for alma mater which is a little different from and perhaps a little higher than the standardized emotions which we bring to our everyday lives.

In the light of what Hamilton is today, how fully, how richly has our half-century-old faith been justified!