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Princeton’s History

Princeton’s History

Princeton University is a vibrant community of scholarship and learning that stands in the nation's service and the service of humanity. Princeton is one of the smallest of the country's leading research universities. A signature of undergraduate life at Princeton is the close interactions among students and faculty members inside and outside the classroom. Here, your student will have an opportunity to learn from faculty as well as fellow students in a close-knit campus community. A timeline of Princeton's history is available in the Princeton Profile

Early History and Nassau Hall

Chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey — the name by which it was known for 150 years — Princeton University was British North America’s fourth college.

Located in Elizabeth for one year and then in Newark for nine, the College of New Jersey moved to Princeton in 1756. For nearly half a century, the entire college was housed in Nassau Hall in Princeton — classrooms, dormitories, library, chapel, dining room and kitchen. Nassau Hall, named to honor King William III, Prince of Orange (of the House of Nassau), was one of the largest buildings in the American colonies. During the American Revolution, it survived occupation by soldiers from both sides and today bears a cannonball scar from the Battle of Princeton (Jan. 3, 1777). In 1783 the Continental Congress met in Nassau Hall, thus making it the capitol of the United States for a short time.

University Expansion

As part of the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1896, the College of New Jersey changed its name to Princeton University and adopted as an informal motto “Princeton in the nation’s service."

Six years later, Woodrow Wilson became Princeton’s 13th president. During his term of office (1902-10) plans for building the Graduate College were finalized, and what had been the College of New Jersey began to grow into a full-scale university. Wilson also proposed the undergraduate dormitories be divided into quadrangles or “colleges” in which students would live with resident faculty heads and have their own recreational facilities. A variation on this plan became a reality in 1982, which has since been expanded and enhanced into today's residential college system.

As Princeton looked toward expansion, the University focused on the quality of the individual teaching and learning experience. The system of “preceptorials,” or small discussion classes, was developed. Preceptorials to this day supplement lecture courses in the humanities and social sciences.

During this time, the size of the faculty doubled, an administrative structure was created and the curriculum was revised to include general studies for first-year students and sophomores and concentrated study for juniors and seniors. 

Co-education and 250th Anniversary

The period of 1919 through 1930 saw the founding the School of Architecture, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. 

Originally an institution devoted to the education of young men, Princeton became fully coeducational in 1969.

In 1996-97, Princeton University celebrated its 250th anniversary and re-emphasized its historic commitment to civic engagement. 

Princeton Today

For the most recent 2015-16 academic year, approximately 5,260 undergraduate and 2,700 graduate students were enrolled at Princeton. Today, more than 1,100 full- and part-time faculty members (including visiting faculty) teach at Princeton, forming a single faculty that teaches both undergraduate and graduate students. The ratio of undergraduate students to faculty members is 6 to 1.

Christopher L. Eisgruber, a renowned constitutional scholar, is Princeton's 20th president.

The Princeton campus is constantly evolving. The University's 500-acre main campus contains more than 180 buildings, with new, state-of-the-art facilities for chemistry, psychology and neuroscience among them.

University Fun Facts

University mottos. The University’s official motto "Dei Sub Numine Viget" translates as “Under God’s Power She Flourishes.” The University's informal motto is "In the Nation's Service and the Service of Humanity."

Why orange and black? When your student comes home, you may see all kinds of orange and black clothing. As early as the 1860s, Princetonians began wearing orange ribbons at athletic competitions, perhaps in reference to William III, Prince of Orange (of the House of Nassau), for whom Nassau Hall was named. When students began to write class numerals in black ink on their orange ribbons, the two colors became associated. The tradition was solidified within a decade. The trustees adopted orange and black as Princeton’s official colors in 1896.

Mascot. Princeton’s mascot, the tiger, was adopted at the end of the 19th century through custom rather than proclamation. Throughout the 1880s, football players sported wide orange and black stripes on their jerseys, stockings and stocking caps. Sportswriters of the day referred to some of the players as tigers. A popular cheer used “Tiger!” as a rallying cry. College songs began to refer to tigers. In 1882, the senior class issued a humor magazine called the Princeton Tiger. In 1893, one of the eating clubs, the Inn, changed its name to Tiger Inn.

You can learn more about the history of the Princeton mascot and colors on the website of Mudd Library, home to the University Archives.

U.S. presidents. Two Princeton alumni have served as U.S. presidents, James Madison, Class of 1771, and Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879.

Princeton firsts. A sampling of Princeton "firsts."

  • The first-recorded use of the now common understanding of the word campus, in 1774, was generally attributed to Princeton’s sixth president, John Witherspoon.
  • On Nov. 6, 1869, the first American intercollegiate football game was played between Princeton and Rutgers.
  • The nation’s first cheer took place at Princeton during a football game in the late 1880s, when a group of male students led a crowd in the first recorded, organized chant, which today is Princeton’s legendary “locomotive.”
  • During the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, Robert Garrett, Class of 1897, won first place in both the discus and the shot put, and second place in both the long jump and the high jump.
  • On Nov. 19, 1969, Charles “Pete” Conrad, Class of 1953, became the third person to walk on the moon.
  • Michelle Obama, Class of 1985, was the First Lady of the United States from January 2009 to January 2017.

Alma Mater

“Old Nassau,” first verse:

Tune ev’ry heart and ev’ry voice,
Bid ev’ry care withdraw,
Let all with one accord rejoice,
In praise of Old Nassau.
In praise of Old Nassau, we sing,
Hurrah, Hurrah, Hurrah!
Our hearts will give,
while we shall live,
Three cheers for Old Nassau.