Roaring Twenties: Cars, parties and wild weekends

By Maurice Isserman
20s Royal Gaboon cartoon
During the 1920s, the Hamilton humor magazine the Royal Gaboon found a frequent target in Prohibition, which inspired student liquor runs across the Canadian border.

No political issue in the 1920s served to define the decade so memorably, nor divided Americans so bitterly, as that of Prohibition. The Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, taking effect in January 1920, banned the production, sale and transport of alcohol for consumption in the United States; the Volstead Act of 1919 (passed over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson) set up the legal framework for enforcing the ban. Northeastern Republicans tended to be “drys” on the question of Prohibition, while their Democratic counterparts were “wets.” In this rather singular instance, despite their traditional rock-ribbed Republicanism, Hamilton students’ sympathies were with the Democratic opposition. Elliot R. Fisk ’21 pasted a headline in one of the first pages of his college scrapbook about the debate over Prohibition:  “Hill Advocates Repeal of Volstead Dry Law,” the “Hill” in question apparently some local politician. Fisk’s comment, penciled in below, ironic and to the point, read, “I’ll say the hill does.”

Not only were Hamilton students opposed to the new policy; they proved quite willing to subvert the law. Fisk, for instance, pasted into his scrapbook such memorabilia as a wine cork and a label from a cognac bottle. Prohibition challenged the ingenuity of Hamilton students while encouraging their entrepreneurial instincts. For once, Hamilton’s remote location in the North Country had its advantages: The Canadian border, beyond which alcohol could be legally purchased, was not that far away.  Robert E. Turner ’22 was expelled in his senior year for bootlegging and indicted by a federal grand jury. (Adding piquancy to this sad story was the fact that Turner’s mother was president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union chapter in his hometown of Seattle, Wash.)

Another innovation in College life in the 1920s, this more welcome, was represented by the automobile, a contraption only rarely seen on campus before World War I. The Hamilton faculty ruled in 1924 that seniors (but no other students) would be allowed to bring cars to campus, which reinforced their status in the College’s social hierarchy. Fraternities were more important than ever — not only did they give all the good parties, but they also provided their members the possibility of hitching a ride from or even borrowing a senior brother’s car.

One consequence of the new availability of automobiles was to make Hell Week, the annual occasion for the hazing of fraternity initiates, even more hellish than before.  In the 1920s and 1930s it became a common practice for fraternity brothers to drive blindfolded freshmen miles into the countryside in the dead of winter and deposit them at the roadside, to find their own way back to campus. (Hell Week would be abolished, at least officially, by decree of President Frederick Carlos Ferry in 1937.)

A less hellish consequence of the advent of the automobile age was its impact on the courting customs of Hamilton’s students. For one thing, cars brought a much wider selection of eligible females within visiting distance. The days of Hamilton boys strolling down to the village to serenade the young ladies at local female seminaries drew to a close. In the 1920s Wells College, 70 miles to the west on Cayuga Lake, became known as Hamilton’s “sister school,” because of all the road trips that had that campus for a destination. Skidmore, the women’s college in Saratoga Springs, 100 miles to the east, was also popular with Hamilton men. The more ambitious might drive as far as Vassar or Smith. And then, of course, were the new opportunities for non-chaperoned contact provided by the automobile. “It’s all right for girls to go auto riding,” the Royal Gaboon, the College humor magazine, smirked in 1925, “if they don’t go too far.” 

Excerpted from On the Hill: A Bicentennial History of Hamilton College by Maurice Isserman, the James L. Ferguson Professor of History, being published this year in conjunction with the College’s bicentennial.

Andrew Carnegie
U.S. Sen. Elihu Root, Andrew Carnegie and Hamilton President Melancthon Woolsey Stryker (from left) pose on Oct. 10, 1914, after an honorary Doctor of Laws degree was conferred on Carnegie in a Chapel ceremony.

Root and Carnegie: Friends with a vision

By Andrés Henríquez ’83

As a program officer at Carnegie Corporation as well as a Hamilton alumnus, I have a special bond with our founder, Andrew Carnegie. And as both the corporation and the College approach landmarks in their history, I celebrate these extraordinary institutions with gratitude, appreciation and — most recently — a bit of research.

The story begins with Elihu Root, Hamilton Class of 1864 and longtime trustee who as secretary of war, secretary of state, U.S. senator and Nobel Peace Prize recipient is among Hamilton’s most distinguished alumni. As every Hamiltonian knows, Root was not only the proverbial “big man on campus” himself; his family’s legacy is woven deeply into the history of the College: the Root House, the Molly Root House, the Root Farmhouse, Root Hall, Root Residence Hall and, of course, the Root Glen.

When I arrived at Carnegie Corporation, the first time I entered the board room, the life-size bronze bust of Root atop a pedestal — flanking similar statuary representing Andrew Carnegie and Frederick Keppel, the corporation’s longest-serving president — was hard to miss.

Of course, I had to ask about the connection. I found out that Root was the man who encouraged the establishment of the corporation.

He was a trusted advisor to Carnegie, maintained a long friendship with him, and eventually became the second president of the corporation (1919-1920; Carnegie himself was the foundation’s first president).

Flash forward nine years from my joining the Carnegie Corporation: To mark the 200th anniversary of Hamilton College and the centennial of the corporation, which was founded in 1911, I have been doing some research in the Carnegie Corporation archives on the Carnegie/Root relationship. In the process, I came across a letter that made me laugh out loud. In 1902, the president of Hamilton College, Melancthon Woolsey Stryker, had asked Andrew Carnegie for a grant of $60,000 for a library and dormitory. Carnegie’s reply proved that he was no pushover and that the “Carnegie way” of due diligence and hard-nosed, strategic grantmaking was well-established from the beginning:

I think the sure way to injure Hamilton would be to give the sums you name in a lump. Hamilton would not be Hamilton if you spent that amount of money rapidly…. S[o]me day you will be able to fix your mind upon some great need, and you will find me disposed to give you $100,000 to supply it, but not a cent until I am thoroughly satisfied that the addition[s] which this would make will be utilized and are urgently needed.

Apparently Carnegie was satisfied quickly. A year later, he gave Hamilton $100,000 worth of U.S. Steel bonds for student scholarships and to build Carnegie Residence Hall. Carnegie was delighted to make the award, he wrote to Root, because it gave him “great pleasure in thinking of the happiness you will have in being able thus to aid the Alma Mater of the Root family. The tree is known by its fruits, and that must be a good tree.”

Six years after that, Carnegie gave Hamilton College an additional $200,000 (and a matching $50,000 grant came from John D. Rockefeller) through Root — who had recently been elected senator from New York — to establish the Elihu Root Peace Fund, devoted to faculty salaries and honoring Root for his “unique services” as secretary of state in the cause of international peace, as The New York Times reported. For his part, Root wrote to Carnegie and argued that the award should properly be called the Carnegie Peace Fund. But, Root acknowledged, “I have observed from time to time, that among other laudable Scotch characteristics you possess that of knowing your own mind.”

To this day, the Elihu Root Peace Fund bears its original name but continues to serve Carnegie’s intentions; Vivyan Adair is the Elihu Root Peace Fund Associate Professor of Women’s Studies.

Andrés Henríquez ’83 is a program officer in urban education with the Carnegie Corporation in New York City. In July he assumes the chair of Hamilton’s Multicultural Alumni Relations Committee (MARC). This essay is adapted from his “The Root of Strategic Grantmaking: ‘The Carnegie Way’ Connects the Past to the Present” and is used with permission of the Carnegie Reporter, where the original appeared in Fall 2010.

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