The Freshman Beanie

11 06 2012

Distinguishing between the years of students of Cornell can be rather difficult after about the first month of the academic year.  Unless it’s orientation, Greek rush, or some other telling factor, you can take a glance at some random person crossing the quad and have no idea whether or not they’re a freshman, a junior, or perhaps even a young grad student (whereas for older grad students, they might be mistaken for professors). However, it’s not like anyone worries about that; except in the case of love and relationships (senior to senior: you’re dating a freshman? Robbing the cradle much?), someone’s year usually doesn’t merit much attention. Well, things were a bit different back in the day.

In the days of yore, it was traditional for freshman males at Cornell (known as “pikers”, like those referenced in “Give My Regards to Davy”) to wear a rather peculiar-looking felt cap called a “Beanie”, which was like a snow hat (wikipedia directs the query to “tuque”, a word I’ve never used in my life), red in color with a grey button on the top. Examples can be seen in the below photo, which dates from a 1919 Cornell football game.

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Beanie was part of the mandatory rules for freshmen, and they were required to wear it in public until the spring, when all the freshmen burned their caps in a ceremonial bonfire. This was a kinda cutesy little sentimental event meant to instill class camaraderie and make warm fuzzies, when the sophomores weren’t trying to kick the crap out of freshmen in the occasional class battles.

The cap rule, along with other rules such as not walking on the grass and not wearing any high school or prep school emblems, tended to be strictly enforced, and with harsh consequences. Violators were liable to have their heads shaved or go for a quick dunk into Beebe Lake.

Of special note regarding the beanies is the case of Frederick Morelli, a freshman originally of the class of 1924, who absolutely refused to wear his beanie. After numerous dunkings and warnings from his peers (including a double dunking into a public fountain and the lake, with a placard hung on his neck saying “Moral: wear a frosh cap”), Morelli ended up being pursued by a mob of angry upperclassmen, and had to be saved by the president of the university to avoid serious injury. The Sun actually condoned the mob’s behavior. But George Lincoln Burr, the most senior faculty member at the university at the time, threatened resignation over the manifestation of “lynch law” on the campus. Fred Morelli withdrew from the university, but returned a couple years later and graduated in the class of 1926. Perhaps his penchant of pushing his bounds played into his undoing; after graduation, he became a gangster and nightclub owner, and was gunned down outside of his club in Utica in 1947. Fun fact: the city of Utica was run by the Mafia and its associates for decades, up through the early 1990s.

The caps faded out, as did the class battles, as a result of the changing demographics post-WWII. Frankly, after killing men in trenches, and now married with children, most vets who came in under the G.I. Bill as freshmen could not give two salts for collegiate antics. When the sophomores made an attempt to enforce the rules in 1949 by shaving the heads of three frosh, the enraged students brought their grievances before the mostly G.I.-composed Student Council, who promptly banned enforcement of the practice. The beanie remained voluntary up to the early 1960s, when it faded out completely.

So nowadays, students can feel completely to engage with members of the other classes. Unless it involves doing a walk of shame to Collegetown from a freshman dorm. That would be awkward.

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2 responses

14 06 2012
Ex-Ithacan

Not Cornell related, but I recall in the early 1960s some hi-jinks my friends and I use to do while going to DeWitt Junior High downtown (now the DeWitt Mall). Ithaca College was still in the downtown area at the time. Many of the IC freshmen wore beanies. As a test of our youthful metal we would run by the frosh ICers, grab the beanies, and head for the alleys and backyards which were oh so familiar to us, though not the new out-of-towners. Most of the time we got away, but if caught there was hell to pay.
Thanks for indulging another one of my memories from the days of black & white TV.

29 10 2012
Matthew

Oh my god, I had so many friends make “robbing the cradle” references when I dated a freshman. Like, all the friends.

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