Princeton bonfires through the years
"A bon-fire will be held around the cannon for which wood must be gathered. No fences or valuable lumber must be taken.”
Those are not the words of USG president Bruce Easop ’13, nor do they come from this century — nor the last. They can be found in the Sept. 26, 1896, edition of The Princetonian, and they tell of one of Princeton’s longest-standing traditions. The bonfire, which will be lit Saturday, will be only the most recent chapter in a story nearly as old as Old Nassau itself.
The oldest bonfire mentioned in the ‘Prince’ was an 1882 blaze celebrating the baseball team’s victory over Brown. The common practice was to celebrate with a bonfire on Cannon Green if the baseball team won its final game — usually against Yale — in June. The football team could also earn a bonfire, though it is difficult to tell what merited one and what did not. It seems the only requirement for a bonfire was a victory over Yale in anything, but today the bonfire has become synonymous with a Big Three sweep in football.
“Because the Yales and the Harvards, I guess, were the ones who founded Princeton, they wanted to have a championship where they could beat up on Princeton,” said Dick Kazmaier ’52, Princeton’s only Heisman Trophy winner. “There was this built-in rivalry because of Princeton, which was the last of the three to be founded. And this football competition was a natural one, because they’ve always had a natural academic competition.”
By the beginning of the 20th century, the official bonfires could be held only twice a year — once if the baseball team defeated Yale and again if the football team swept the Big Three or achieved something else bonfire-worthy. Bonfires continued to be held for reasons other than Big Three sweeps — such as other momentous victories — into the 1980s, and it is only in the last 25 years that they have been held exclusively after victories over Harvard and Yale.
Rules for what merited a bonfire were never written down, but the rules of its preparation were common knowledge. Around the turn of the century, separate Bonfire Committees existed to arrange the baseball and football bonfires, and everyone knew who was supposed to gather firewood.
The “Dink Wearing Freshmen,” forced by school rules to wear a black skull cap called a “dink,” were the only ones charged with collecting the kindling, though donations from professors and townspeople were also solicited. The freshmen were warned not to take wood from fences or houses, and they were often criticized if they failed to live up to expectations. In May of 1899, the ‘Prince’ accused the freshmen of being “singularly negligent” in gathering funds for the football bonfire.
“In my time, you could count on passing it along,” Kazmaier said. “If you were one of the freshmen that got stuck, you knew you had a pretty good chance of sticking it to the next class.”
Indeed, the history of the bonfire speaks to the impressive history of Princeton football. Bonfires were a fairly common experience in the early 1900s, even after the campus ceased to mark baseball victories around the interwar period. The first serious drought of bonfire-worthy seasons came after 1911, when Princeton went 11 years without a celebration. The first consecutive Big Three sweeps were marked in 1925 and 1926, but that record was soon to be smashed.
Despite one writer’s speculation that the failure to sweep Harvard and Yale in 1936 marked the end of the bonfire era, the golden age of the tradition was just getting started.
Some of the greatest years in Princeton football history were 1947-1952, during which the Tigers — or “Bengals,” as they were nicknamed for decades — never lost to Harvard or Yale. Thanks largely to Kazmaier, three classes graduated having seen a bonfire all four years. Another sweep occurred in 1958, with three more from 1964 to 1966, a period during which the Tigers won 17 straight games.
Since then, however, the bonfire has appeared irregularly enough to be classified under “Disappearing Traditions and Customs” on the Alumni Council’s Princetoniana website. After the three-peat of the 60s, the Orange Bubble went 19 years without a Big Three sweep. A few bonfires were held after big victories, but this period was Princeton’s longest-ever streak without beating Harvard and Yale in the same season. Though it may seem like forever since the last bonfire, which was held in 2006, the most recent six-year gap is about average.
When the streak came to an end in 1985, not much was different, as it was still the duty of the freshmen to gather wood. Like the vast majority of Princeton bonfires, the 1985 celebration took place on Cannon Green, and a few other items have linked virtually every Big Three celebration through the years.
First, as the ‘Prince’ said before the 1985 bonfire, “If you want to build a bonfire, you’ve got to get an outhouse.” Kazmaier explained that, as outhouses were becoming outdated by his time, they symbolized Harvard and Yale’s lack of sophistication.
“If they could ever find one, that was kind of a symbol of, ‘they’re behind the times,’ ” he said.
Generations of Princetonians have placed a toy bulldog, representing Yale’s mascot, Handsome Dan, inside the outhouse, usually with his head poking out. Dan is often joined atop the blaze by an effigy of John Harvard. A telephone pole seems to have been at the heart of a number of celebrations, although the bonfire tradition likely predates the widespread use of telephones.
The vast majority of bonfires have taken place on the Thursday or Friday before the last game of the season. Sam Howell ’50 explains on the Alumni Council’s Princetoniana website that it should be “both a Big Three celebration and a rally for the season finale.”
The bonfire functioned effectively as a pep rally in years past. The flame was usually lit by the members of the football team — current head coach Bob Surace ’90 lit the bonfire in 1988 — and preceded by a parade featuring the band and thousands of cheering students, faculty and townspeople. The procession and the ceremony provided a rare opportunity for the entire community to come together.
“It was a good celebration for the Princeton campus,” Kazmaier said. “It’s one of the few events for celebration purposes that I can remember that undergraduates participated in.”
Speeches by coaches and members of the team typically followed a formula of thanking the fans and vowing to win the upcoming game. Kazmaier said that, though he remembered enjoying bonfires, they were never as important to the team as winning games, a sentiment echoed by Surace after the Yale game last week.
Other schools have gotten involved in this tradition on multiple occasions. In 1951, during a streak of Princetonian Big Three dominance that lasted for six years, the bonfire was lit prematurely when watchmen assigned to keep vigil were called away from the green by an anonymous telephone call. When they returned, the pile of timber was already on fire, and a sign had been posted with the score of the last game in which Yale had defeated Princeton, leading the campus to suspect this was “the work of Yale men.”
Interestingly, Princeton is not the only school to have held a bonfire after a Princeton victory. In 1891, Princeton’s bonfire was preceded by a bonfire in Ithaca, where Cornell celebrated having lost only 6-0. The ‘Prince’ reported the Princeton bonfire was not as enthusiastic that year because students were more relieved than excited and that many a Princeton man “betook himself to quiet enjoyment” instead.
Times have changed, and none of the teams that have lost to the Tigers this season seemed particularly happy about it. That may be because only two teams had done so in 2010 and 2011 combined, and Princeton’s hopes looked just as bleak at the start of this season.
“It’s really a remarkable and pleasing result, since they were voted in the preseason predictions to be the last team in the league,” Kazmaier said. “A couple weeks ago, when they beat Harvard, I woke up and saw ... they were in first place in the local paper.”
The six years that have passed since the last bonfire may seem like forever, but this is not unusual for Princeton. Whether 2012 is a fluke or the start of another grand streak remains to be seen, but even if current students do not see it again while they are on campus, the tradition of the bonfire is not going anywhere.