Everything about the story seems apocryphal. As a Penn freshman in 1901, Ezra Pound C1905 G1906 appeared on campus one day wearing a pair of luridly colored socks. His sophomore elders, who had issued a decree limiting the chromatic palette of freshman footwear, found him grievously in breach. So they chucked him into a frog pond, and compounded that indignity by coining the nickname “Lily Pound.”
It’s anyone’s guess whether that dreadful pun was what pointed the aspiring poet down the road to becoming “the center of modernism,” as one literary critic later dubbed him. But to judge from a new exhibit at the Rosenwald Gallery in Van Pelt Library, the sock statute was likely real enough to have been inked on a sheet of sophomoric commandments by a local printing press.
The turn of the last century was the high-water mark of the Freshman Broadside, an all-but-forgotten form of undergraduate hazing that is memorialized in “Oh Fresh! Sophomore Proclamations of Freshman Rules, 1866-WWII.” In posters often exceeding three feet in height and sometimes illustrated with cartoonish violence, sophomores would lay down the law for their new whipping boys, “lately deposited upon the campus from the kindergartens of the country,” as Penn’s Class of 1905 described them.
Some rules were standard from one year to the next, and from one college to another. Freshmen were typically required to wear beanie caps. Their trouser legs could not be cuffed. Pipe-smoking was often forbidden on campus grounds—but match-carrying was required, for the convenience of upperclassmen. There was also a fair dose of idiosyncrasy. No thumb-sucking in chapel. No parting of one’s hair down the middle. No wearing of “white duck pants,” lest a freshman “soil them when engaged in making mud pies.”
Special relish was taken in the enumeration of punishments. Penn’s Class of 1906 threatened “spankings, corrections, castigations and numerous and similar degradations if indeed it be possible to further degrade you from your present state of groveling inferiority.”
Over at Penn State, further degradations seem to have become something of an art form. In 1913, one freshman there was spotted “with a girl, one crossed the Campus & one was caught smoking.” All three were covered from head to foot in molasses and feathers, and memorialized in a photo postcard as an example to other would-be scofflaws.
According to curator Peter Zinman, who began collecting broadsides as a freshman at Dartmouth and supplemented this exhibit with material from the University of Pennsylvania Archives, sophomore proclamations actually represented a de-escalation of class rivalries.
“The tradition of posting such rules proliferated,” Zinman writes in a lively catalogue, “when colleges began to clamp down on more violent forms of hazing.” At Penn, these included the Bowl Fight, which resulted in the death by trampling of freshman William Lifson in 1916, and the Pants Fight, which routinely ended in displays of mass nudity [“Yea-a-a … Who?,” July|August 2002].
So perhaps Ezra Pound got off easy. He may have paid for his taste in socks with a brisk dousing, but at least he was able to keep his underwear preferences all to himself.
“Oh Fresh! Sophomore Proclamations of Freshman Rules, 1866-WWII” is on display until December 19 in the Rosenwald Gallery, on the sixth floor of Van Pelt Library.