Halls, Tombs and Houses: Student Society Architecture at Dartmouth
II. Greek-Letter Societies 1841-1860 | The foundations
What were these organizations? That they continued to use Greek letters in their names was certainly not unusual in light of the existence of Phi Beta Kappa of 1776 and many others. The early 1800s enjoyed what we now call the Greek Revival, a voracious interest in all things Greek that helps explain why Reed Hall (1839) has Ionic pilasters. One early but ephemeral Greek-letter society at Dartmouth of c.1827 was called Phi Sigma, with the letters being initials for the Greek words "Assembly of Debaters." Normally the letters stood for secret mottos and passwords. Reminiscing with a hint of sarcasm in the 1860s, Alpheus Crosby wrote "What would College Societies do without the Greek alphabet?"47
These new societies paralleled the literary societies by holding debates and orations. At Dartmouth, scholarship was an important factor in deciding on the most desirable candidates. But there were several differences. Rudolph points out that though the Greek-letter societies copied the form of the literary societies, debating was not the reason for their founding. The new fraternities created a "higher level of loyalty" than the literary societies had: they provided for social and emotional influences that students, removed from their families, required. Secret societies allowed students to escape the normally dull regimen of school by institutionalizing drinking, smoking and cardplaying.48
Several key aspects set Dartmouth's new organizations apart from their predecessors. One was their social exclusivity, the control they held over the selection of members. Unlike the literary society these organizations had small memberships, carefully selected. In a process called "chinning" members elected new blood into the groups at the end of the freshman year.49 Also important was secrecy. At first even the memberships were secret, since membership could mean expulsion. Later only the meetings and activities remained hidden from the public.50 Indeed historian Thwing in 1883 lumped conventional fraternities into the category of secret societies along with the Skull & Bones at Yale, contrasting them with open literary societies.51 Even in the 1890s the Aegis was classifying what we would call fraternities as secret.
Indeed students positively reveled in mystery and ritual. The solemn oaths, symbols and ceremonies that were an essential part of the secret society movement reflect the same fascinations that fueled the growth of Freemasonry and adult fraternal orders as Mark Carnes describes in Secret Ritual and Manhood in Victorian America. Founders of fraternal orders emphasized ritual from the start and added other activities as an afterthought; they continuously rewrote the ritual books to find more compelling ceremonies and attract new members. Such rituals gave psychological guidance as young men passed into manhood, Carnes argues, in an environment that was religous in character but free of women. Symbols and secrecy allowed members to address their anxieties indirectly.52 It is clear that similar interests propelled student societies.
College secret societies had been growing since the first lasting examples appeared at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. in the late 1820s. The new organizations were yet more clubs with Greek letters for names. But unlike the earlier literary societies, the secret societies were no longer local but replicated themselves across the country, making use of the power of expansion that Phi Beta Kappa had poineered after the successful model of the Freemasons. The secret-society meme spread from school to school, now programmed not only to perpetuate itself within a school over time but horizontally as well, to other schools. And at each new school the newly-arrived society caused competitors to spring up and then propagate themselves to yet other schools. In these days the clubs tended to spread in all directions, with all chapters of an order having the authority to establish new branches--the societies were decades away from having overarching national organizations as they exist today.
Historians traditionally cite Union's Kappa Alpha (1825) as the first Greek-letter organization; others were earlier but none were as successful. It grew as a response to Phi Beta Kappa, which Harvard had established at Union in 1817.53 This first fraternity and its immediate followers were originally senior societies.54 Sigma Phi formed as a response in 1827, and importantly was the first such organization to establish a chapter at another school when it fostered a branch at Hamilton in 1831. The chain continued: competing Hamilton students founded Alpha Delta Phi in 1832, then transported their club to Miami University in 1835. At Miami, responses came from the originators of Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi, all by 1850. Hamilton's third fraternity, Psi Upsilon of 1833, spread the idea eastward to Yale in 1839, where the competitor Delta Kappa Epsilon began in 1844. In some cases groups that were unsuccessful in petitioning for a Phi Beta Kappa charter opted for one of the newer fraternities instead, as Kappa Alpha did at Williams (1833). By 1840 the eastern organizations had 1,230 members, almost ten times the number of a decade before.55
While some colleges supported the new secret societies (Presidents Chadbourne of Williams, Chamberlain of Bowdoin) most frowned on them. Crosby of UCNY and Robinson of Brown were among the opponents.56 Harvard banned secret societies, but Alpha Delta Phi (1837) and others managed to survive.57 At Miami University the Board of Trustees resolved in 1841 that any student known to be in a secret society was required to withdraw, and that none could join societies in the future. The Literary Halls there, the Union and Erodelphian Societies, voted to exclude members of the secret societies. Nevertheless, by 1855 the societies were flourishing.58 Only Princeton did manage to prevent the societies from gaining a foothold, and the eating clubs later in the century seem to have taken their place.
The most visible example of student anti-secrecy feeling is the founding of the national "Anti-Secret Confederation" of 1847. Undoubtedly drawing from contemporary Anti-masonic sentiment, the organization originated in the Social Fraternity of Williams (1834), which found like-minded groups at Union, Amherst and Hamilton. The organization became Delta Upsilon59 and later replaced "anti-secret" with "non-secret" in its constitution in 1881 as it became more like its opponents.60 Similar if less-successful groups formed elsewhere, including Vermont (Delta Psi of 1850) and Brown (Phi Kappa Alpha).61
The administration of Dartmouth did not favor secret societies. In 1846 the Trustees banned any elections to secret societies after 1849. President Lord opposed the societies and praised a general anti-society sentiment in his report of 1847, noting that the two lower classes seemed predominantly opposed. 62 A Dartmouth freshman in 1846 described the societies as "the cause of division, envy, and malice. About one-half the men in college belong to them, these are the most talented."63
The places where the societies met at Dartmouth for their first two decades are not easy to find, since they usually were students' rooms, now gone. At this time the College owned just the four buildings of Dartmouth Row and kept all classes and dormitory rooms there.
Dartmouth did not enforce its 1840s ban on fraternities as Princeton had, and by the mid-1850s the societies' public standing had improved.64 Four more secret societies began in the 1850s. Zeta Psi was a short-lived one, lasting from 1853 to 1863;65 and Delta Kappa Epsilon was chartered 14 July 1853.66 The other two fraternities sprang up to serve the Chandler School at Dartmouth (1852). Like Harvard's Lawrence Scientific School and Yale's Sheffield, both of c.1846, Dartmouth had its Scientific school, parallel to the Academical Department of Dartmouth but with its own board of visitors and scientific curriculum that led to a B.S. The College remained a literary institution and absorbed Chandler in 1892, but during its separate existence Chandler students created two societies that later became College fraternities: Phi Zeta Mu of November 185767 and Sigma Delta Pi in the fall of 1858, later to become known as Vitruvian.68 By 1855 more than 64% of students, mostly upperclassmen, were in secret societies.69 (Even in the 1870s meeting "with any forbidden club or society" was among the College's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," though it is not known what clubs were forbidden.)70
Around 1860 the six societies began to occupy the first dedicated and privately-owned meeting spaces at Dartmouth. (Delta Kappa Epsilon, according to the Aegis 1893, occupied a hall a year after its 1853 charter.)71 These halls began as single meeting rooms, used for weekly gatherings and therefore probably similar to the Society Hall in Dartmouth Hall, which was still in use at this time. But the fraternities added new functions to the mere debating chamber: their spaces fostered a comfortable, clubby atmosphere for lounging and in some cases included bedrooms for members. These halls, though usually not expressed on the exterior of their buildings,72 also attempted to impress. This atmosphere befitted the secretive nature of the clubs and reflected their status as organizations that were funded privately and therefore more susceptible to extravagance. The most common sort of meeting hall was an upstairs room on Main Street, though in one case an organization built a freestanding hall.