On November 29, 1954, a Yale Daily News headline read, “All 48 States Have Students at Yale…”
Although there have been some changes since 1954 — notably the addition of two more states to the Union — there have been no breakthroughs in partying. Yalies of the 1950’s may have danced different steps to different styles of music, but they danced all the same. They may not have had all the liquor brands to choose from that we do today, but they drank all the same. But despite these overall similarities, social conventions played a role in distinguishing the party scene of the 1950’s from that of today.
For starters, securing an actual date for the game was a priority, and students on Yale’s then-all-male campus went to great lengths to meet girls. Many ventured to nearby women’s colleges — among the most popular were Smith, Wellesley and Mount Holyoke. Others went to The Game with girls they had known from high school or prep school, or were fixed up on blind dates by friends.
“It was a big date weekend, and you would almost always hear people say, ‘Who are you asking to the Harvard game?’ If you didn’t have a date you were sort of out of it, perhaps there was sort of a stigma,” Jim Boorsch ’55 said.
But while the 1950’s Yale man had to have a date, he also had to keep his hands off of her. This was not an era when random hookups were socially acceptable.
A week before The Game in 1951, a panel discussion of ministers and social workers convened to discuss the question, “Should we do what comes naturally?” in which the Rev. Douglas Cooke discouraged students from defining love purely by “biological” desires.
Boorsch said many of his classmates seemed to be doing a very good job of following Cooke’s advice.
“My impression was that most undergrads, a clear majority, were not very experienced sexually, and maybe a clear majority were even virgins on graduation as seniors,” he said.
The men would meet their dates at the train station, usually on Friday afternoon. Most of the women would bunk at the Taft Hotel — now the Taft Apartments — for the weekend.
Once a Yale man had his date, he could take her to any of a familiar assortment of social activities, in addition to The Game itself.
Though some traditions, like the annual football match-ups between Yale’s residential colleges and Harvard’s houses, have faded into oblivion over the years, present-day Yalies can still participate in some of the events that were popular back then. The Harvard and Yale Glee Clubs still perform a joint concert the night before The Game, and — when the game is at Yale — the Yale Dramatic Association still puts on a show Game weekend.
And although it did not feature the same music as last year’s dance thrown in Commons by the Yale College Council, an official freshman dance was typically held on Saturday night of Game weekend in the 50’s. Many residential colleges hosted dances as well, with a live band or orchestra typically providing the music. Although rock and roll would not establish itself until the decade’s later years, Yale featured a lively jazz scene, and ballroom dance steps such as the fox trot were popular.
Informal parties in suites and entryways were another notable option for students. But according to Boorsch, the parties tended to break up earlier than they do today, with most students turning in around midnight.
These parties varied widely in mood — some were loud and rambunctious, while others were more quiet and gentlemanly.
“I think [students’ behavior] was pretty decorous overall,” Roger Stone ’55 said. “The one respect in which it was not decorous is the drinking, which is to say there was a heck of a lot of it.”
Indeed, attitudes regarding alcohol appear to have changed little at Yale since the 50’s. While there were a few sporadic threats of crackdowns on underage drinking during the decade, especially with regard to fraternities, Yale’s administration never fully pursued tighter drinking policies, and alcohol was never difficult to come by.
Fraternities hosted dances, dinners, cocktail parties and the occasional open house throughout the weekend. Unlike today, though, fraternity parties were usually not open to the general student body. Bouncers guarded the doors of some events, and only the frat brothers and their invited guests were allowed to enter.
Paul Blanchard ’61 said he perceived the fraternities at that time as an exclusive social sphere for students who were generally wealthy and well-connected. The frats, he said, were symptomatic of a social environment that was highly stratified according to class.
“I don’t think there were any rules about this, or really any sort of conventions, but it was very clear when you came into Yale where you fit in socially,” Blanchard said.
This rigid social structure was no less remarkable when The Game was in Cambridge. Those who had graduated from such prestigious boarding schools as Andover and Exeter had an opportunity during Harvard weekend to visit with dozens of old friends. Blanchard, who had matriculated from Louisiana, said these impromptu reunions left unconnected students like himself to strike out on their own in Cambridge.
But Blanchard said he always enjoyed the weekend, in large part because Harvard students always treated Yalies well.
Many of the planned social events at Harvard mirrored those that Yale had to offer, with Harvard’s houses substituting for the residential colleges and its social clubs substituting for fraternities. The school’s proximity to Boston afforded students a variety of opportunities for experiencing city life, and some took advantage of the local nightclub scene. For the aristocrats, there was tea at the Signet, an exclusive “eating club” similar to Yale’s Elizabethan Club.
Another popular and less genteel event was the annual football rally in Harvard Yard, though it was temporarily suspended after 1950 when a riot broke out. Rioting students from both schools shouting “Let’s raid Radcliffe!” overturned a streetcar and set off fire alarms. The rally did not again commence until 1954.
Yet for all that has changed – from the makeup of the student body to social mores – the weekend of the Harvard-Yale game remains a tie that binds generations of Yalies.
“It’s always an incredible thrill seeing the two teams coming out onto the field after so many years of rivalry,” Blanchard said. “You’ll have these memories the rest of your life.”