Penn Traditions of the not-so-Distant Past

Before there were skimmers or Hey Day, Penn was home to a number of yearly contests and rituals pitting Freshman students against their Sophomore counterparts. The Push Ball Fight, an athletic event where the two opposing classes carried a six foot high ball around a field in an attempt to score goals, was quickly dismissed as “not very interesting to the spectators, nor to the participants.” With hundreds of participants shoving one another in a bid to move a giant sphere across a line and final scores ranging between upwards of 0 and 2 points (who among us can forget the excitement of the tie 0-0 Push Ball Fight of 1911), Push Ball came to an unceremonious end in 1913.

Proud Penn men preparing to push a ball, 1908.

Dating back to 1867, the rules to the Bowl Fight were relatively straightforward. The freshmen provided a student to serve as “bowl man” and the sophomores provided the bowl. If the elder class succeeded in placing the bowl man into their vessel, they were declared the winners. If the freshmen broke the bowl before this occurred, they were crowned the victors. As time went on the competition became more spirited and bloody, with the Provost himself attempting to intervene in 1873. Finally, in 1916, the fighting had become so fierce that a student was killed during the course of the battle. The Bowl Fight was quickly abolished, however the bowl (along with other awards such as the spade, cane, and spoon) is still awarded to a member of the senior class during Hey Day even today.

Scrambling for the Bowl, 1895.

Perhaps one of the stranger and longest enduring traditions was that of the Sophomore Cremation.  From 1877 to 1930, members of the Sophomore class would don black robes and process from the U.S. Mint in downtown Philadelphia westward to campus. The school band would play a funeral dirge, while the students clutched volumes of their most hated text books in their hands. Upon arriving at Penn, the books, along with effigies of less popular professors, were placed upon a burning funeral pyre and cremated. Afterwards attendees were given the chance to eulogize the incinerated tomes through poems and prose. Of course the freshmen, not wanting to be left out of the festivities, pelted the funeral goers with rotten eggs and other projectiles; an act that often led to escalating violence. Because of these transgressions and clashes with local law enforcement, the Sophomore Cremation was officially abolished in 1930.

Advertisement for the Sophomore Cremation, 1908

You can read more about these and other colorful student traditions from throughout the university’s history at the Penn Archives Website.

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Filed under Historical, Jason S.

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