Cheerleading of the ’20s: Epitome of masculinity

Fight, fight for Yale.

We’ll raise the slogan of Yale triumphant.

Smash, Bang, we’ll rip old Princeton.

Whoop it up for Yale today!

One of the earliest recorded Yale cheers, this chant printed in the News on Nov. 15, 1912, exemplifies the same confident optimism and catchy lyrics often associated with today’s cheerleading. But in sharp contrast to the often sexualized, feminine role of cheerleaders in today’s society, photographs and the News articles in the 10-year period from 1912 to 1921 reveal that the early Yale Cheerleaders were perceived as respected models of manliness and success.

Cheerleading arose from the development of intercollegiate athletics, and its transformation over the past century has echoed the shifting priorities and perspectives of sports and the university atmosphere as a whole.

The Yale-Harvard crew race of Aug. 3, 1852, marked the first official intercollegiate sporting event, but it was not until the first intercollegiate football game, between Princeton and Rutgers on Nov. 6, 1869, that the first cheer was recorded . A rocket cheer that came to be known as the “Princeton Locomotive”, the words originally consisted of “Siss, boom, Ahhh!”, possibly followed by chanting “Princeton”. The cheer, however, was in fact copied from a rocket cheer by the New York 7th Regiment during their Civil War march through Princeton. The earliest cheering, then, had its roots in military chants that were re-contextualized with the rise of organized intercollegiate sports.

Eventually the formation of organized crowd participation at collegiate athletic events in the late 1800s necessitated the designation of official cheerleaders. Out of the role created by impromptu volunteer leaders emerged a new position: that of the “yell leader,” also known as the “rooter king,” “yell king,” “yell master,” or “yell marshal.” These individuals would “stand at ground level with their backs to the field, waving their arms and exhorting the crowd.” By the early 1900s, these yell leaders banded into the first official cheer leading squads. Though the official date of its conception is unclear, by 1912 the Yale Cheerleading Squad had become a distinct entity.

The 1916 cheerleaders — like many of their classmates ­— came from elite secondary schools such as Andover, Hotchkiss, St. Paul’s and others. In fact, George W. Bush ’68, his father George H.W. Bush ’48 and his grandfather Prescott Sheldon Bush ’16 were all members of the Yale Cheerleading Squad. In these ways, the early cheerleaders truly served as leaders of the Yale community in all aspects of their lives.

In addition to their prominent backgrounds, the early Yale Cheerleaders gained respect from the media of the time. A Nation article from 1911 writes, “The reputation of having been a valiant ‘cheer-leader’ is one of the most valuable things a boy can take away from college. As a title to promotion in professional or public life, it ranks hardly second to that of having been a quarter-back.”

The News mentions of the cheerleaders themselves treat them with respect and status, too. In a 1912 issue, in an article entitled “Yell Yale Not Yea!” the News writes, “The cheer leaders wish to caution the student body that the siren part of the new short cheer is Y-a-l-e and not yea or ray.” Even seemingly banal requests by the cheerleaders were taken seriously, and forwarded on to the student body accordingly.

The cheerleaders’ position of influence and respect appears as well in descriptions of their interactions with the student body featured in the News. In a 1914 issue, the News describes an “enthusiastic impromptu football parade” of 2,500 men “led by the cheer leaders, the ‘Y’ men of the Senior class, and a band.”

The cheer leaders then announced that the parade would march down High to Chapel and down Chapel to the Green. They marched to a bandstand in the possession of the cheer leaders and musicians. The team was cheered individually and collectively and all the songs were practiced with great success. The meeting was brought to a close with the singing of “Bright College Years.”

Clearly exercising their power over the crowd, the cheerleaders here are portrayed as leaders of the student body who enthusiastically induce the crowd to cheer “with great success.” Masculine and triumphant, the cheerleaders were in full control.

As cheering and its leaders evolved, the crowds doing the cheering changed as well. The crowd did not consist merely of students; fans from all surrounding areas attended faithfully. Hanson points out that “urbanization, mass transit, the emergence of mass print and radio media, and increased leisure time fostered spectatorship as a means of affiliation and entertainment. Game crowds grew from hundreds to thousands.”, which contributed as well to the massive development of stadiums.

Because cheering was elevated to such high status, its leaders gained respect and admiration accordingly. In a speech to the student body, Captain Ketcham of the football team was quoted as saying, “ ‘I want to thank you for the spirit you showed Saturday … no Yale Team has ever had more loyal support … We feel that we can beat a team 25 percent stronger than we are because of the spirit you have put into it.’ ”

In a similar address to the student body, Captain Black of the 1916 football team recognized the cheering and support of the crowd as an essential ingredient in their own success.

“You know it is not always the team,” Black declared. “You people in the stands have something to do with it, too. I want you to realize this fact. You can all help the team.”

In addition to the significance bestowed upon cheering by the football captains, the News itself contributed to this sense of importance. In 1912 the News announced a school-wide march to the football field for the last practice before the Harvard-Yale game, in which “Songs and cheers will be run through. Every man in the University is urged to join the march, as upon the undergraduates rests the responsibility of doing all that is possible to aid the Team next Saturday.” Indeed, the News even asserted that a very large crowd “is necessary to make the practice tomorrow a success.” This idea that upon the spirit and cheering of the students, rather than upon the players, rests the responsibility of making the practice a technical success appears contradictory, thereby heightening the importance accorded to the enthusiasm of the crowd. As the initiators and facilitators of this crowd enthusiasm, then, the cheerleaders gained a new significance as the very means of the football team’s success on the field.

In accordance with this newfound importance assigned to cheering, the crowds attending the Harvard-Yale football games during this period certainly seemed up to the challenge. Though megaphones were normally utilized only by the cheerleaders themselves, a 1912 News article states that “every man who is to be seated in the cheering section Saturday is urged to secure a megaphone. They may be bought at the Co-op today for 10 cents apiece.” Aside from conveying a sense of the overt enthusiasm of the crowd, this reference to the existence of a distinct “cheering section” also reveals an interesting aspect of what must have occurred come game day. In fact, the use of flash cards in rooter sections, despite Stanford’s claims, is now believed to have been first invented at Yale on the Yale Bowl Dedication Day of 1914, a further testament to the spirit of the Yale audience. At the Yale-Princeton game of 1913, the News reports that “At 1:45 the cheering sections of both stands were in action, with bands playing and cheers echoing back and forward across the field. There has seldom been a more noisy demonstration at Yale Field,” whereas the football team, the paper reports, did not arrive until 1:50. In this way the successful interaction between cheerleaders and crowd created this fervent atmosphere for the team’s success.

The early Yale Cheerleaders furthered their influential role in the student body by holding mass meetings in which they taught the cheers to the entire school.

“The last organized indoor mass meeting of the year in support of the University Football Team will be held in the baseball cage tonight at 7:30,” a 1913 article in the News announces. “A number of the graduate coaches and probably Captain Ketcham will be on hand to address the meeting, and the songs and cheers will be rehearsed. Every man in the University is expected to attend this meeting.”

Similarly, a 1912 article announcing a University mass meeting to practice cheers for the Yale-Harvard game asserts that “it is essential that every member of the University should be present tonight.” The cheerleaders were therefore not only able to organize and assemble the entire student body, but also the way in which the articles emphasize the importance of the meetings, even encouraging total participation, demonstrates the respect with which the cheerleaders and their activities were viewed. Clearly these men were not ones to be ridiculed, but rather, they were perceived as champions of a noble cause.

Those cheerleading men of the early 1900s represented an influential student, confident and bound for success. But the perception of what exactly makes an influential, confident student has changed significantly from 1924, rendering the stereotype almost comical in contrast to today’s standards, as a New York Times article from 1924 makes clear.

“A contemporary of Pericles, strolling into one of our football stadiums, would … delight in those lithe, white-sweatered and flannel-trousered youths in front of the bleachers, their mingled force and grace, their gestures at the same time hieratic and apparently jointless, that accompanied the spelling out of the locomotive cheer.”

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