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A Brief History of Social and Residential Life at Princeton

When the 10-year-old College of New Jersey moved from Newark to Princeton in 1756, all residential, dining and social facilities for undergraduates were located in Nassau Hall. All undergraduates lived there or had lodgings in town until 1833 when the first dormitory, East College, was built. Over the next century and a half Princeton built 40 dormitories, three of which were subsequently razed (East College in 1896, Upper Pyne in 1963 and Reunion Hall in 1965) and three of which were converted to other uses (Lower Pyne in 1950, 1979 Hall and West College in the 1960s). Over the last 30 years Princeton has built additional dormitories, while also razing five that were constructed in the 1960s as what was known as the New New Quad. While most undergraduate housing was originally built to serve as dormitories, Forbes College is a former hotel; the 2 Dickinson co-op is a former private home; and Spelman Halls were built in the 1970s to provide apartment-style living.

In 1804 the college's dining room and kitchen were moved from Nassau Hall to Philosophical Hall (the current site of Chancellor Green), and in 1834 a second refectory was built on William Street to offer board at a cheaper rate ($1.50 rather than $2 a week). The college spent as little as possible on food, and there was significant student dissatisfaction. Beginning in 1843, students were permitted to take their meals with local families, and in 1855 the college discontinued food service entirely, forcing all students to make dining arrangements in town.

With extracurricular activities prohibited except for the Whig and Clio literary societies, students expressed considerable interest in Greek-letter fraternities, which arrived at Princeton in 1843 with the founding of a chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Though these groups remained unofficial, within a few years 12 fraternities had Princeton chapters. Wary of their small size, cliquishness and (especially in this pre-Civil War era) their division of the student body along sectional lines, the trustees and faculty voted in 1853 to ban fraternities. Beginning in 1855, all undergraduates were required to pledge that they would not join one while at the college. Despite the ban, a few fraternities operated in secret until 1875, when the identification and suspension of 50 fraternity members effectively eliminated all remnants of the system. The required pledge remained in place until the late 1930s when the writers of Princeton's rule book decided that it had become moot and no longer needed to be stated.

With the elimination of campus dining options and the prohibition of fraternities, students from all four classes began taking their meals in boardinghouses in town. These arrangements came to be known as eating clubs, and by 1876 there were 25 of them, although few lasted more than a few years. Over time more formal arrangements for juniors and seniors took root, beginning in 1879 with Ivy Club, and eventually a system of independently owned and operated clubs grew up along and near Prospect Avenue, reaching a high point of 18 clubs shortly after World War I with more than 90 percent of juniors and seniors as members.

As upperclass clubs flourished in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th, the phenomenon of freshman and sophomore clubs faded. The college acquired the short-lived University Hotel (on the corner of Nassau Street and University Place) in the mid-1880s, renamed and converted the building to "University Hall," and began to serve regular meals in "Commons." All freshmen ate their meals on this site by 1906, joined two years later by all sophomores.

In 1907 University President Woodrow Wilson proposed to eliminate the eating clubs and replace them with undergraduate colleges. He envisioned a system in which a group of dormitories with a central dining hall and other social facilities would be self-governed and presided over by a faculty master with other resident faculty. The plan was rejected by the trustees and through the first half of the 20th century most freshman and sophomore dining and social life took place on campus while most juniors and seniors ate and socialized at the clubs. (During this period there were significant restraints on the occasions when freshmen and first-semester sophomores could be at the clubs.)

In the late 1960s a special trustee committee recommended the creation of a variety of dining and social alternatives, partly in response to the growing diversity of the undergraduate student body that began in the aftermath of World War II. From the end of the war until 1959, Prospect Club (on the current site of the Center for Jewish Life) operated as a student-led co-op. In 1957 a group of upperclassmen established the Woodrow Wilson Lodge in one of the halls of Commons (Madison Hall) as a nonselective alternative to membership in an eating club; in 1961 it moved to the new Wilcox Hall as the Woodrow Wilson Society; and in 1968 it evolved into Princeton's first four-year residential college. In 1969 the University reopened the former Court and Key and Seal clubs as Stevenson Hall, a nonselective University-operated dining and social facility for juniors and seniors with a faculty master; in 1972 membership was extended to sophomores and a kosher kitchen was added. In the fall of 1969 the University created the Madison Society, which allowed juniors and seniors to eat breakfast in Wilcox, lunch at Commons and dinner on the top floor of New South. In 1970 the University converted and expanded the former Princeton Inn to create Princeton's second four-year residential college, later renamed Forbes College.

In the early 1980s the University created a system of five two-year residential colleges (Butler, Forbes, Mathey, Rockefeller, Wilson) to house, feed and provide social facilities for all freshmen and sophomores. The colleges largely utilized existing dormitories and dining halls, with the major exception being the construction of Wu Hall as the social and dining facility for Butler. In 2007 the residential college system was increased to six colleges with the opening of the entirely new Whitman College, and revamped so that three of the colleges (Butler, Mathey and Whitman) would enroll students from all four classes. (Each of the four-year colleges is paired with one of the two-year colleges.) At the same time a new director of student life position was added to each of the six colleges to help students build a greater sense of community and enhance the residential and social experience of the college. A shared meal plan program was developed under which all of the eating clubs offer some of their members the option of living in one of the four-year colleges and taking meals in both the college and the club. Even juniors and seniors who do not live in the colleges or have shared meal plans are permitted two meals per week in the colleges at no additional cost, and all juniors and seniors receive nondepartmental academic advising in their college.

The 2000s saw several other developments that reshaped on-campus social and residential life. One was the opening of the Frist Campus Center in 2000, after nearly a century of calls for the creation of such a facility that would provide recreational and dining facilities open to all four undergraduate classes as well as graduate students, faculty, staff and visitors to the campus. Another was the conversion of Campus Club from an independent eating club to a University-managed but student-programmed non-dining recreational, social and meeting space open to all undergraduates and graduate students. A third was the relocation of the Carl Fields Center and Community House into the expanded and thoroughly renovated former Elm Club at 58 Prospect Ave. There also was a growth in student interest in dining co-ops, two of which are located on campus and one of which is immediately off-campus on Dickinson Street.

Certainly the most profound change in on-campus residential and social life in the modern era occurred in the fall of 1969 when Princeton began admitting women undergraduates. After one year of housing all women undergraduates in one dormitory (Pyne Hall), women were permitted to select rooms throughout the campus. Coeducation dramatically changed social life on campus (gone were the days of busing in women en masse from other colleges for major dances) and at the clubs. By the end of 1970 nine of the then-existing 13 clubs were coeducational, and by the early 1990s all were. Coeducation shifted the dynamic of Prospect Avenue from one in which women were present only on designated party weekends to one in which women and men ate and socialized together throughout the week. Coeducation quickly led to the demise of the longstanding practice of prohibiting freshmen and first-term sophomores from being on "the Street" (Prospect Avenue) and at the clubs, which in turn led to freshman and sophomore social life, in addition to junior and senior social life, largely revolving around the clubs.

The creation of a residential college system for all freshmen and sophomores in the 1980s had the effect of housing underclass students in dormitories that excluded juniors and seniors, except for a handful of resident advisers. The change in the New Jersey drinking age from 18 to 19 in 1980 and then to 21 in 1983 led to the closing of a popular 10-year-old on-campus pub, which meant that essentially all drinking in larger settings took place at the clubs or in dormitory spaces of adequate size. Both the creation of residential colleges and the increase in the drinking age seem to have contributed to the reintroduction to Princeton of fraternities, and then sororities, in the 1980s. In 1982 William Robinson '51 wrote a column in the Princeton Alumni Weekly advocating the return of fraternities, and he worked with others to encourage national fraternities and sororities to establish Princeton chapters. In 1983 the trustees denied official recognition to the organizations, but by 1993 there were 18 unofficial Greek organizations enrolling about 15 percent of the student body, a percentage that has remained fairly constant. While it was initially suggested that fraternities and sororities would be of particular interest to students who were unfamiliar with Princeton's social structure and traditions, in time it became clear that they were attracting many students who entered Princeton with a desire to join a particular eating club with which a particular fraternity or sorority was associated, thus creating a pipeline relationship between some of the fraternities and sororities and some of the clubs.