The Hat Clubs of Cornell

13 08 2010

Cornell has always been an institution known for its academics, which is perfectly fine. However, for many years, day-to-day life was a bit of a drag. A hundred years ago, one had few options – if you were rich and/or well-connected (as well as white and Christian), you enjoyed the exclusivity of Greek life; if you were independent, then your options were pretty limited, your social activities confined to the (even then) socially conservative Cornell U. Christian Association’s social rooms, or to the cheap and rather ungainly boarding houses of Collegetown and the city.

Around the early 1900s a movement began that was purely social in nature, vestigial in purpose but attention-grabbing in activity. Hat Clubs were formed by several different student groups. Hat Clubs only existed for one remarkable purpose; they instilled upon their members the right to wear a certain, funny-looking hat [Bishop 409]. Yes, life was that boring. On a deeper level, the clubs were designed to instill a sense of camaraderie among students and to allow friendships to be built among students who couldn’t afford or were excluded from other social societies.

Well, needless to say, campus leaders (read: rich white fraternity men) were not pleased. The presidents of fraternities and the editor of the Daily Sun publicly denounced the existence of these silly groups, and in 1913 they decided to take action against them by drumming up public disapproval and by trying to force them to disband.

It’s hard to try and compare this to today’s Cornell because the idea seems far-fetched. These clubs were nothing more than run of the mill clubs; they rarely maintained a permanent house or meeting place (dues were quite low as a result) and meetings were few and far between. Dinner banquets (often at a boarding house or cheap banquet hall) and social gatherings were their only real activities. Hat Clubs occupied a sort of hazy area vaguely similar to prominent clubs on campus today.

Well, thanks to the work of the well-connected, most of the clubs succumbed to bad P.R. and ceased to exist by the end of the decade. However, two survived. Originally, these two clubs were called Mummy and Nalanda. However, to avoid some of the bad publicity, they changed their names, to Beth L’Amed and Majura respectively. They managed to not only survive the decade, the went on to exist for another forty years.

A Cornell Alumni News from December 1936 provides a little background. Mummy was founded in 1900 by the freshman class (1903). Nalanda began with the following freshman class (1904), and the Class of 1906 had a new club (Stoic) that was quickly taken over and absorbed by Mummy. Mummy and Nalanda would alternate, with Mummy pulling students from classes with even years, and Nalanda from odd years. The two changed their names in 1911 (a discrepancy when compared to Morris Bishop’s account) after their hats were outlawed. According to the article, they were an active part of Junior Week and Spring Day (the predecessor to Slope Day), and did a reunion dinner at the Cornell Club in NYC every year on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

So what happened? Well, their social gatherings did them in. In December 1949, they did a joint initiation celebration for their new members and threw a big jamboree right before the Christmas holiday. Unfortunately, one partier, a Mech E. named Harry Melton, drank for more than he could handle. According to Time Magazine:

In about an hour, he had wolfed down more than a quart of Martinis. At that point he collapsed, was rushed to a hospital where he lay unconscious for 15 hours. For a while doctors feared for his life.

A quart of martinis in an hour? Holy crap. Personally, I can’t stand gin. The taste of gin is like running through a pine forest with your mouth open. But, to each their own.
Well, their actions cost them big time. The acting president of the university, Cornelius de Kiewiet, immediately suspended them. Pending a faculty review and denunciation by the Sun for their foolish activity that almost had fatal consequences, the president made the ban on the last two Hat Clubs permanent. To quote the Sun’s piece:

“Cornell’s doctrine of ‘freedom with responsibility’ had clearly been abused . . . The administration will not and should not allow us to kill ourselves . . .”

…and with that, the Hat Clubs were confined to the dustbin of history.