In the early years of the College of New Jersey, alumni regularly returned to campus for the Commencement exercises. The 100th Commencement in June 1847 drew an impressive 700 graduates for a formal dinner. Alumni from all years would gather together until 1859, when Alfred Woodhull, Class of 1856, organized the first "Class" Reunion, a triennial.
By the 1890s, Class Reunions at Commencement time were numerous but modest affairs — meetings held in classrooms followed by a dinner in a dining hall or nearby inn. At Princeton's sesquicentennial (1896), 2,000 alumni returned to take part in a grand procession that marked the formalization of the P-rade as a Reunions tradition. From then on attendance grew and programs became more elaborate, sometimes lasting two or three days. Houses were rented to accommodate class members, bands were engaged for their entertainment and various means of identification and differentiation were gradually adopted — banners, hatbands and jackets and costumes matching a class-specific "theme" for the occasion.
It became a custom for each class to have major Reunions at five-year intervals following graduation, though alumni were encouraged to return for "off-year" celebrations too. Among these quinquennial celebrations, the 25th and 50th are considered the most significant.
In 1996, in celebration of the University's bicenquinquagenary (250th anniversary), a spectacular fireworks display dazzled spectators on the Saturday night of Reunions. With thousands of shells, a customized soundtrack and tailored choreography, the fireworks became an annual tradition of Reunions — and a much-anticipated event in the Princeton community.
Graduate Alumni Reunions
When Princeton's Graduate School was established in 1900, there was already a strong tradition of elaborate reunion celebrations for undergraduate alumni.
Graduate alumni, however, did not follow suit until 1948, when the University held a graduate alumni "reunion-in-miniature" to assess interest in greater engagement. This conference sparked the creation of the Association of Princeton Graduate Alumni and established the framework for graduate alumni reunions.
Starting in December 1949, two-day reunions conferences took place every 18 months at the Graduate College. The conference topics were related to graduate education, such as "Is Higher Education Meeting its Responsibilities Today?" and "American Intellectual Resources: Their Discovery, Development and Use."
Around 1962 graduate reunions became annual events held during the traditional May-June celebration. The two-day conference format changed around 1980 with the introduction of on-campus panels presented by University departments.
Reunions dress also evolved: A polo shirt with Cleveland tower in 1975; tee shirts with various designs in 1991; a diagonally striped orange and black polo in 2000; a jacket in 2003 and today's attire of themed tees, with a jacket, a vest or short-sleeved shirt.
Two important events led to major changes in the overall character of reunions: graduate alumni were included in the P-rade in 1975, and they were assigned a tent on main campus in 1994. Themed reunions began in 2000 with "The Graduate School Centennial," followed by lighter themes like "Mardi Gras," "Dragons & Tigers & Dreams, Oh Yes" and "Galileo's Galactic Magic."