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After a century, eating clubs continue to define social scene

In 1879, a group of students was dismissed from the University's dining facilities for "obstreperous behavior — minor escapades such as throwing butter" while at meals, according to William Selden '34.

The students hired a cook and moved to a house on Mercer Street, establishing the first of Princeton's eating clubs — Ivy Club.


This week, 90 percent of the sophomore class has become part of the tradition started by that small group of students, bickering and signing-in to an eating club system that is now more than a century old.

However, according to Selden, the author of "Club Life at Princeton," the history of the eating club system has been punctuated by change.


As early as 1895, more than a quarter of University students were members of eating clubs. In the fewer than 20 years since Ivy had been established, Cottage Club, Tiger Inn, Cap and Gown Club and Elm Club lined Prospect Avenue, which had been completed just a few years before.

At the dawn of the Bicker process in the early 1900s, members extended invitations to friends in younger classes, and clubs competed for the most desirable individuals.

In the years following World War I, the clubs' popularity spiked, with 90 percent of the students joining clubs by 1929. Though the Great Depression shattered much of the nation's economy, Princeton's eating clubs were largely unaffected, with the exception of Gateway and Arbor, which began to suffer serious financial problems.

The University took over Gateway in 1937, making it the first non-selective eating club, and Arbor closed in 1939.


William Englis '35 said in an interview that he dropped out of Gateway his senior year because it was too expensive, adding that his situation was unique compared to that of other Princeton students, even during the Great Depression. "Back then Princeton was a country club for rich boys," he said. "Everyone had to have social status."


As Princeton's enrollment grew in the 1950s, many eating clubs sought to achieve "100 percent Bicker," offering at least one bid to any student who bickered.

However, in 1958, a group made up largely of Jewish students was denied bids at all of the eating clubs.

In this incident, which became known as "Dirty Bicker," the University realized that eating clubs could not fulfill many students' needs.

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"The University recognizes that larger enrollments and the process of growth and change have intensified such pressures in recent years," President Robert Goheen '40 said in a speech to alumni in 1958. "The solution is to provide more adequate alternatives for those undergraduates who do not join clubs."

The University responded to Goheen's call and established additional dining options for undergraduates. These alternatives attracted many students who might otherwise have joined an eating club, eventually causing Prospect Club, Court Club and Key and Seal Club to close.

In 1967, Elm Club graduate board chairman Wallace Latour '47 blamed the club closings on the University. "To date, the University has confined itself to the statement that it wishes to 'reduce the dominance' of the clubs over the social life on the campus," he said. "However, its actions appear to be an organized plan to embarrass the clubs financially and acquire them, one by one, for University purposes."

Social change

In keeping with the liberal spirit of the late 1960s, some students during the period refused to be part of clubs that excluded others. Members threatened to drop out unless Bicker was abolished and an open selection system adopted, causing some club memberships to wane.

In 1978, Robert Massie '78 led a march on Prospect Avenue demanding more campus social options and condemning the Bicker process.

The University and the clubs responded to Massie's march. With more students seeking alternatives to the 'Street,' the University founded Spelman Hall and two additional residential colleges — Forbes and Wilson.

As the University offered more flexible dining options, many clubs became non-selective to remain competitive.


Though the University began accepting women in 1969, clubs did not follow suit for almost a decade. In 1979, Sally Frank '80 sued Ivy, Cottage and Tiger Inn for discrimination because they were the only clubs who would not admit women. "I thought that since the most prestigious clubs discriminated, it gave license for discrimination to radiate broadly across campus," she said in an interview.

Frank eventually won her case in the New Jersey Supreme Court in the early 1990s. "I feel good every year at reunions when women in clubs thank me for allowing them to become members," she said.

Despite the increasing number of clubs switching to the sign-in system and the new influx of female members, some clubs continued to suffer from cyclical bouts of low membership.

In 1981, Jamie Isbester '83 joined Colonial with a large group, and sophomores assumed leadership. "It was difficult to get insurance that we'd all get into the same club," said Isbester, who signed in with friends from Witherspoon Hall.

The following year, because of mounting maintenance costs, Colonial's graduate board announced that it was no longer able to continue operations, despite the large sign-in class.

With hopes of preserving the club, Isbester said he set out to prove the club was as important to past members as it was to current members. He launched a phone and letter writing campaign to alumni for donations. His efforts resulted in an outpouring of alumni support, and Colonial remained open.


Dial experienced a low sign-in turnout in 1986. The club merged with members of the recently closed Cannon Club two years later. Then, instead of closing in 1990 because of insufficient membership, Elm joined the pair to form DEC, which existed until 1998.

In 1998, DEC's graduate board agreed to exchange the Dial and Elm buildings to the University for an option to buy the old Cannon building. "The buildings were pretty rundown," former DEC president Jen Bello '98 said. "No one wants to be a member of a rundown club."


Once home to as many as 18 clubs, Prospect Avenue now boasts only 11.

"Eating clubs will become dinosaurs unless they have financial support and graduate boards who take care of traditions," said John Gates '63, a former member of Key and Seal.

Another potential obstacle for the eating clubs could be the Frist Campus Center, which will offer dining facilities next fall. "My anticipation is when the student center opens, it will put more pressure on one or two clubs," Selden said.

Isbester noted the increasing influence the University administration has on the clubs. "The future of the eating clubs relies on to what extent the University values the club system and wishes to sustain it," he said.