Alumni reunions date back to Princeton's earliest years, when the entire College of New Jersey, as it was then known, was housed in Nassau Hall. The close association of students who roomed, ate, prayed, and attended classes together in the same building gave birth to a spirit of camaraderie that continued after they left.
"My jovial hours at Nassau Hall...I shall always consider my happiest," wrote James W. Alexander, Class of 1820 and later professor of belles-lettres at Princeton. "I often recall a merry circle of careless college blades seated at the 'witchingtime of night' around a Nassau fire, by the way a preeminently good one, enveloped in fragrant clouds, enjoying all that flow of youthful hilarity and good humor which a release from irksome duty engenders."
Graduates returned on Commencement Day, which for about the first hundred years of the college was held in late September, to visit professors and undergraduates friends. Yet Commencement drew non-Princetonians to the campus as well, according to John Maclean, Class of 1816 and the 10th president of Princeton. In his two-volume History of the College of New Jersey, published in 1877, Maclean recalled that Commencement provided a good excuse for farmers to come to town for a public holiday -- not to watch the ceremony, but to hold a saturnalia in which "everybody felt at liberty to take part in every amusement or entertainment he thought fit." Nassau Street, along the front of the main campus, was "crowded with wagons and tables and hundreds of men, women, and children bent upon nothing but amusement." Alumni found the carnival atmosphere of excessive consumption, gambling, and horse racing conducive to their own merriment. The popular drinking spot then was the Nassau Tavern, and meetings that began in campus recitation rooms often ended there.
By 1826, the steward of the college anticipated alumni guests and offered wine and a special dinner, paid for by the college president, on Commencement Day. That same year, Maclean helped establish an organization that would "promote the interests of the College and the friendly intercourse of its graduates." On Commencement Day, he announced the formation of the Alumni Association of Nassau Hall with James Madison, Class of 1771, as its first president, and himself as secretary, centering its activities around Commencement.
When graduation was moved to the month of June, in 1844, the Alumni Association meeting and class reunions moved with it. According to Alexander Leitch '24 in A Princeton Companion, soon after the Civil War alumni coming to Commencement Day took part in "an ordered procession to the place of their dinner meeting." While enjoying their dinners, guests listened to a variety of alumni speeches.
By the turn of the century, Reunions had become a robust convention that began as long as a week before Commencement. Admission was restricted to alumni. Families were invited to watch the Princeton-Yale baseball game, a rivalry that began in 1868. The Saturday afternoon game became the focal point of reunions, and as alumni attendance grew, occasional classes would hire a band to lead their group to the playing field.
Distinguishing class buttons soon gave way to elaborate reunion costumes and corresponding hi-jinx. At its tenth, the Class of 1898, clothed in white Roman tunics with orange Roman bands, classic buskins, and orange lacings to the knee, bore shields painted with the '98 insignia. They wreathed their white helmets with ivy and carried short Roman swords. Apache dancers, Spanish toreadors, Scotch Highlanders, bellhops, cooks, soldiers, sailors, baseball players, Arabs, and monks descended on the town each June thereafter. The Class of 1909 shuffled in as a deck of cards for one reunion.
In 1906, reunion planners were vexed by the problem of how to get the alumni to the baseball game in an orderly fashion to prevent the wild rush for the best seats. Someone suggested that the alumni be formed together in a procession and marched down to the ballfield. Classes who would not submit to any other regimentation gladly accepted the chance to parade. They had already been practicing for several years. The procession of classes soon acquired the sobriquet Pee-rade and, as well, a menagerie if animals from elephants to tigers. Marching bands and exotic floats joined in.
At first, only alumni marched in the P-rade, but as Princeton entered the '20s, the alumni welcomed boys and girls up to the age of 16. Older girls and women were barred, lest they draw attention away from the alumni marchers. The edict against women in the P-rade continued well after W.W.II.
Reunions were canceled during W.W.I, but they resumed in the '20s with as much glitter as ever. Yachts motored up the Delaware-Raritan Canal from Trenton and anchored by Lake Carnegie at the south end of the campus. Class flags were hoisted and boisterous parties were held, during which people sometimes fell overboard.
As Reunions entered the '30s, conversations in the tents and at class dinners changed. Alumni heatedly debated everything from Communism to Franklin D. Roosevelt and WPA. One class carried a P-rade sign that read "FDR is a Harvard man with a Yale honorary degree." Six months before Pearl Harbor, the 15th-year reunion class electrified the wires along the tops of its barricades to keep out the undesirables.
Throughout W.W.II, Reunions were canceled again. In the spring of 1946, more than 10,000 alumni returned to celebrate what was called the Victory Reunion, a catch-up for all of the classes that had missed their major (five-year) reunions during the moratorium. The next year, for the first time, a class held its reunion on campus; 1922 celebrated its 25th inside Holder courtyard, close to Nassau Hall. The university would not allow liquor on the premises, but 1922 posted a bar on the other side of University Place, near its headquarters. Other classes followed suit. Five years later, the university caved in and liquor became a part of on-campus reunions.
Following the war, too, Reunions increasingly became a family affair, although the women were not officially welcome in the P-rade until the advent of coeducation at Princeton in 1969.
Nineteen sixty-six marked the last Princeton-Yale Reunions baseball game. Yale explained that it had become too difficult to rally its team so long after the end of the regular season and withdrew. In its place, a three-inning alumni game was instituted the following year. Then on June 4, 1968, Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles. The funeral train was to travel through Princeton Junction, a few miles from campus, the same afternoon as the P-rade. A debate arose between those who thought the P-rade should be canceled in respect for the Kennedy family and those of who thought it should take place as usual. They compromised. The baseball game was canceled, and the P-rade followed a revised route that kept it on campus. The game was never revived. Since it was no longer necessary for the P-rade to end at the baseball field, on the outer limits of campus, new routes were tried during the next few years.
Another crisis tested the mettle of the P-rade in the spring of 1970, when the U.S. incursion into Cambodia heightened anti-war sentiments on college campuses. As Reunions drew near, Princeton's senior class voted not to march in something as frivolous as the P-rade. A small delegation appeared at an emergency meeting of the Class Affairs and Reunions Committee and asked that the P-rade be canceled altogether. An alumnus on the verge of apoplexy stood up and declared, "Young man, I have come 2,500 miles to march in the P-rade, and you are not going to stop me." The committee chairman quickly thanked the seniors, announced the P-rade would be held as scheduled, and adjourned the meeting. A group of seniors broke ranks and marched and were cheered by the other classes.
The P-rade rested from its perambulations for sixteen years, beginning in 1975, when Clarke Field was decided upon as a terminus. A meeting of the Alumni Association substituted for the baseball game.
Today the P-rade follows a new route down Elm Drive, the main artery through campus, and ends at Poe Field. An increase in participants, from around 6,100 alumni and relatives in the late '60s to more than 9,000 in 1990, had lengthened the time of the P-rade to three hours. Huge gaps and bottlenecks at the 1879 arch led many to break away from the procession before reaching Clarke Field and the president's reviewing stand. As a result, few had been staying for the meeting of the Alumni Association.
The new route, inaugurated in 1991, has no bottlenecks, is 15 percent shorter than the old one, and provides ample room for spectators. Reminiscent of the local festivities of the early 1800s, the new terminus has featured a carnival atmosphere with pony rides, clowns, jugglers, a steam calliope, and a hot-air balloon to entertain alumni and their families as well as townspeople.
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