A fanciful trip into Yale’s leisure past

You enter into Sterling Memorial Library — a cathedral of learning, an architectural marvel, but you take no notice. Familiarity has blinded you to its beauty.

You take an immediate sharp right turn into the “Green” Reading Room. You scout out an empty alcove. Perfect: the first one is empty. No one else is in the expansive room but you.

You plop down on the myrtle green recliner by the wrought iron windows, sinking in as its aged cushion hisses under the weight of your body. You pull out your dusty book and rest your feet on the windowsill.

A gentle breeze carries the dust up.

Swirling, swirling, it drapes a somniferous canopy around your relaxed, reclining body. In the limbo state between sleep and wakefulness, you feel a tingling sensation on your skin. Like the Brancusi, you melt into the chair. The division between skin and leather fades away as you drift in and out of consciousness.

Darell Koh

“Bright college years, with plea—“ Is that music?

“—sure rife,” Is that the Whiffs?

“the shortest glad—“ From Mory’s? (Did you remember to apply for your Mory’s membership?)

“—dest years of life;” Dapper suits, dapper men. Where did you come from, where and when?

Snap out of it, my dear sleep-deprived soul.

Open your eyes, my internet-rimmed friend.

Old Yale is well and alive, there’s no need to pretend.

Enter Revolutionary War-time Yale — Puritan Yale, that is.

Academia and religion were the centerpieces of student life. Literary societies such as the Linonia and Brothers in Unity sprang up to give the boys a place to debate and polish their oratory to a shine that would have made Cicero smile. Before these debate societies completely faded away, they gave birth to the Yale Union, which then came to be the Yale Political Union.

Founded more than a century before the institution of the residential college system, societies were an integral part of Old Yale. They were the threads of the campus social fabric. Practically every student belonged to a society of one kind or another. If one didn’t get a society of choice, one simply started a new one. (Remember how you obsessively read about the founding of Skull and Bones before you came to Yale? That’s right: a few individuals were bitter about not getting into Phi Beta Kappa, so they started their own secret senior society.)

While there were societies for each class, being a member of a senior society ­— beginning with the establishment of Skull and Bones — was considered the pinnacle of the Yale experience. By operating under a shroud of secrecy, the senior societies achieved an enviable mystique as they deliberated and tapped those they believed were the best of the class.

Societies still tap the accomplished and distinguished, but societies themselves have lost much of their aura in recent times. As the student population steadily grew, extracurricular activities diversified and the the number of campus sports swelled. With a greater offering of activities, societies lost some of their prominence on campus.

During the time period between the Civil War and World War I, Yale was a sports POWERHOUSE. The baseball teams and crew became focal points of campus life. And then came the invention of football. Harvard might have won the first Game, but the Old Blue defeated the Crimson the following year. Shall we keep that in mind as we head up north this November?

The ritual of afternoon tea is still served on campus today. Head to the Elizabethan Club (the “Lizzie”) to “have a cuppa.” But you must be invited first. In 1910, the society was established as to place for members to discuss founder Alexander Cochran’s 1896 collection of 16th and 17th century British literature. Since its beginning, the Lizzie has served afternoon tea. Although discussion has transitioned from literature to be more about history and politics, members still say that tea is a central part of the club.

Many traditions are kept alive on campus, but others have decayed with time. The Wooden Spoon Exhibition was one of them. Beginning in 1847, the ceremony centered around the presentation of a wooden spoon to the member of the junior class with the lowest grades — or “appointments,” as they were called. This event was not without pomp and circumstance: elaborate speeches were made, the band played, the class sang “Song of the Spoon” and the event was rigorously covered by the New York Times.

Pretty soon, to receive the wooden spoon became a glamorous status symbol. The original custom of giving the spoon to the “greatest glutton” in his class was lost. The recipient was then chosen, as described by an 1856 New York Times article, for “his powers as a wit, his talent as a speaker, or his capacity to please the ladies” or in more modern terms, “Mr. Popularity.”

Reviving the dead is not an impossibility at times. Lining the corner of College and Chapel Streets on what is now Old Campus was the Yale Fence. These plain wooden beams became integral parts of campus life as students sat on them to chat with friends, smoke cigars and ogle at fair girls in the Elm City. The strict faculty, of course, was not quite pleased with such public convivial activities.

“The Students shall be told that they are liable to be marked for sitting upon the College fences and for making noises of any kind upon the College grounds,” they wrote in a 1858 decision. Who knows what these professors would think of today’s rager-inclined Fence Club?

“For God, for country and for Ya—”

“Excuse me, the library is now closed.”

You wake up, wipe the drool off your face and walk out of the room. As the security guard ushers you out of the room, you turn around and notice a plaque on the wall.

It reads “The Linonia and Brothers Reading Room.”

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