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Ever since Yale’s enrollment edged over 100 students in the 1750s, the College has had its clubs, societies, organizations, publications, and other variations on the idea of bringing together groups of students for some semblance of common purpose. There are some 200 registered undergraduate organizations today—some of them little more than résumé-padding opportunities for their officers, but others are vital parts of Yale life. Over the centuries, most have come and gone quickly, but a few have endured for up to half of Yale’s existence. The list below is far from comprehensive, but it gives a hint of the breadth of Eli interests in the last 300 years.
Yale’s first society system was far from exclusive. Virtually every undergraduate belonged to one of the College’s literary societies, which had a social function in addition to keeping substantial libraries of the kind of literature that had yet to be deemed worthy of the College’s collection. (It wasn’t necessarily pulp fiction: English literature did not make it into the curriculum until the 1850s.)
Nothing is known of the first literary society, Crotonia, which was defunct before Thomas Clap’s presidency ended in 1766. In 1753, Linonia was founded, followed in 1768 by Brothers In Unity. A third society, Calliope, was founded in 1819 by Southern students—a sign of the growing regional dispute at Yale. It disbanded in 1853.
The societies had rooms in campus buildings for their libraries and their weekly meetings, which featured debates and speeches. The societies became less central to campus life after the Civil War, and in 1872 the two remaining groups disbanded and donated their libraries to Yale. Their names live on in Sterling Memorial Library’s Linonia and Brothers reading room, and in the names of three small courtyards in Branford College.
The Secret Societies
In direct contrast to the open admission policy of the literary societies was that of Phi Beta Kappa, whose Yale chapter was founded in 1780 and is still going strong. In a pattern that has repeated itself time and time again at Yale, it was disappointed Phi Beta Kappa candidates who founded Skull and Bones in 1832. Bones and its rivals Scroll and Key (1841) and Wolf’s Head (1883) fairly earned the title “secret” societies in their early years, but in the late 19th century, their membership—if not their inner workings—became widely known as “Tap Day” became a campus spectacle. Up until the 1970s, the results of Tap Day were reported in the Yale Daily News and the Yale Banner.
Many other societies came and went over the years—Spade and Grave, Sword and Crown, Star and Dart, Gin and Tonic—and underground societies are still reported to exist. But the “landed” societies of today include the three oldest (Bones, Keys, and Wolf’s Head), three Sheff societies that remade themselves as senior societies (Berzelius, Book and Snake, and St. Elmo), and two others (Elihu and Manuscript).
The College Fraternities
Fraternities were once central to Yale campus life. The first one, Alpha Delta Phi, came to campus in 1836, followed swiftly by Psi Upsilon (1838; later the Fence Club) and Delta Kappa Epsilon (1844). The frats, open to juniors and seniors, first met in rented rooms, but in 1861 DKE built a society-like “tomb” that would become a model for its rivals. By 1889, when Zeta Psi established a Yale chapter, fraternities controlled campus politics, and students had developed a Byzantine system of freshman and sophomore fraternities that acted as feeders to the junior frats; the faculty abolished these in 1900.
In the 1920s, the number of fraternities expanded to eight as the clubs built new country club-like houses with grill rooms. But this boom went bust with the Depression and the institution of the residential college system in the 1930s. By the 1950s, the remaining frats were described as merely “Mory’s with selectivity"; by the early 1970s, all but DKE had disbanded.
The 1980s brought a fraternity revival at Yale. The campus now counts ten social fraternities and four sororities for women, many with off-campus houses for social functions. But on today’s campus, fraternities do not dominate—they are instead just one of many available lifestyle choices.
The Sheff Fraternities
At the Sheffield Scientific School, which was separate from Yale until 1933, fraternities were not just clubs but homes for students, since the School did not have dormitories until 1903. At the system’s peak, there were seven fraternities in Sheff, plus two prestigious societies that were also residential, Berzelius (1848) and Book and Snake (1863). Some Sheff frats and societies had dormitories separate from their tombs: Book and Snake, for example, maintained a house at One Hillhouse Avenue known as Cloister. Others included Theta Xi (1865), St. Anthony Hall (1867), Chi Phi (1878), St. Elmo (1889); Phi Gamma Delta (1909); and Phi Sigma Kappa (1890). Of the former Sheff houses, Berzelius, Book and Snake, and St. Elmo (1889) live on as senior societies, and St. Anthony Hall (1867) remains as a “final society.”
Organized music began at Yale in 1812, when 12 men came together to sing regularly at chapel as the Yale Musical Society. Twelve years later, the larger Beethoven Society came on the scene with a mixture of sacred and secular music. By 1861, Class glee clubs and quartets met regularly to sing on the Yale Fence. One of these clubs, from the Class of 1863, soon organized itself as the Yale Glee Club, the oldest musical group at Yale that is still in existence. (The Glee Club begat the Whiffenpoofs, which would in turn lead to a complex system of a cappella groups—see below.) As early as 1864, the Club was touring New England, a tradition that has since taken later Glee Clubs around the world.
Meanwhile, organized instrumental music began with banjo and mandolin clubs in the 1880s, and bands were being cobbled together for sporting events as early as 1917. While the Banjo Club disappeared after 1927, the band program grew stronger and came to include a concert band, a (precision!) marching band, and a jazz ensemble. In 1965, the bands were joined by the Yale Symphony Orchestra. Today’s music scene includes a number of small chamber music groups, the Guild of Carilloneurs, a flute choir, and a Korean drumming and dance troupe.
A Cappella Groups
The organizational impulse hardest to explain to outsiders is the Yalie’s need to sing a cappella with a dozen or so close friends on a regular basis. Where most schools have perhaps one or two a cappella groups, Yale has 12. It all started with the fabled Whiffenpoofs in 1909. The Whiffs, a highly selective all-male group for seniors, spawned a farm-club system that includes the Society of Orpheus and Bacchus, the Spizzwinks, the Alley Cats, and the Duke’s Men. Coeducation brought all-female groups (New Blue, Something Extra, Proof of the Pudding, Whim 'n' Rhythm) and co-ed groups (Mixed Company and Redhot and Blue).
In recent years, groups have sprung up with particular specialties, including Christian music (Living Water), folk music (Tangled Up in Blue), and multiculturalism (Shades). Regardless of their composition, though, the groups have always been as much about collegiality as singing—that’s why an audition is only one small part of the membership process.
Today’s Yale undergraduate is always assured of something to read over lunch: Entrances to the dining halls are always clogged with stacks of the College’s 20-odd undergraduate publications. But it hasn’t always been true. While a publication or two came and went every few years beginning in the 1780s, it wasn’t until the Yale Literary Magazine’s founding in 1836 that there was a lasting journalistic presence at Yale. The Lit would soon became a respected publication (and, as depicted in Stover at Yale, its chairmanship was one of the sure roads to senior society membership).
After the Civil War came two new weekly newspapers, the Courant (1865–1918) and the Record (1872). While the Courant would last until 1918 in its original form, the Record would quickly transform itself from what its own history calls “a godawful boring weekly” to a humor magazine. (It still publishes, very rarely, today, but the campus’s humor publication of choice now is Rumpus, a sensational, gossipy tabloid founded in 1992.) Then, in 1878, came the Yale Daily News, which quickly established a seemingly permanent dominance among campus publications.
Periodicals came and went in the early 20th century, among them the acclaimed Harkness Hoot (1930–34), best known today for its scathing and widely reprinted criticism of Yale’s new Gothic architecture. In 1967, with the “New Journalism” all the rage in American media, undergraduates started—what else?—the New Journal—a monthly magazine. In the 1980s, with the dawn of desktop publishing, things expanded further with the founding of the feminist Aurora, the conservative Yale Free Press and Light and Truth, the newsweekly Yale Herald, and Nadine, “the magazine that wishes it were a band.” Of these, the Herald has become the most influential competitor of the News for both stories and writers.
One more thing: The publication you’re reading now—the oldest independent alumni magazine in the country—started life as a student publication, an 1891 spinoff from the News.
Drama and Improv Groups
Hard as it is to imagine today, when an undergraduate theatrical production is offered nearly every weekend, there was a time when taking to the stage was punishable by fine or “public admonishment.” It was not until the middle of the 19th century that an annual event called the Thanksgiving Jubilee evolved into an annual performance featuring male undergraduates in both men’s and women’s roles. (This practice continued through the 1910s.)
In 1900, the Yale Dramatic Association was founded, taking undergraduate drama to a higher level of quality and organization. The residential college system inevitably spawned college dramats, which have thrived in recent years as a result of a fund established by Louis Sudler ’25.
On a lighter note, the last 15 years has seen the establishment of five groups specializing in improv and sketch comedy. Patterned in organization after Yale’s singing groups, the Purple Crayon, the Exit Players, Just Add Water, the Viola Question, and the Fifth Humour think on their feet in on- and off-campus performances.
Debate and Political Organizations
One of the functions of the original literary societies was to sponsor debates among their members, but debate and political concerns did not die with those organizations. The Yale Debate Association is one of the oldest groups of its kind in the country. In 1934, future Yale president A. Whitney Griswold founded the Yale Political Union, which has been known for decades for bringing important speakers to campus and for arcane internecine disputes. The Union currently includes six political parties—Liberal, Progressive, Independent, Tory, Conservative, and Party of the Right.
The YPU’s supremacy has been challenged recently by the Yale College Student Union, which brings speakers to campus but has no political parties. Rounding out the scene are more pragmatic political groups (College Democrats and Republicans, an ACLU chapter) and more theoretical ones (the Allan Bloom Forum, the Objectivist Study Group).
A campus religious organization would have seemed redundant in the early 1700s, when almost all of Yale’s students were New England Congregationalists (with a smattering of Anglicans). But today there is a vast range of undergraduate religious groups. While Baptists, Congregationalists, Mormons, Episcopalians, Jews, Lutherans, and Catholics have established official campus ministries over the years, other undergraduate-led groups such as Yale Students for Christ, the Black Church at Yale, the Muslim Students’ Association, and the Unification Church fill in the spectrum.
Once, students formed clubs at Yale based on what prep school they had attended or from what region of the country they originated. Like religious organizations, though, cultural groups based on ethnic and racial identification have thrived as Yale has expanded the diversity of its student body. Since the Afro-American Cultural Center on Fraternity Row was founded in 1969, it has been joined by two other University-sponsored centers on Crown Street, the Asian American Cultural Center and La Casa Cultural, a Latino center.
But the list of undergraduate groups devoted to common racial and ethnic heritage is much longer: The registered ones alone include Black Students at Yale, the Chinese American Students Association, the Italian-American Heritage Society, Kasama (Filipino), Korean American Students at Yale, the Latin American Student Organization, MEChA (a Chicano group), the Vietnamese Student Association, and the group with the tastiest acronym on campus, the Student Association of Thais at Yale (SATAY). The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered Co-Op provides support for students with alternative sexual orientations. And while there is no longer an Andover or Hotchkiss Club, the Texas Club and the Canadian Students Association still exist to carry their respective flags.
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