Both fraternities and sororities have played a significant role in student life at Penn for more than 150 years. Fraternities established chapters at Penn’s first campus in Center City Philadelphia, beginning in 1849. The motto of Psi Upsilon, one of the first Greek organizations at Penn, was: “To us has befallen a mighty friendship.”
Before fraternities arrived on campus, many Penn students joined Philadelphia’s local literary clubs, which served as popular social groups of the day. However, when fraternities began forming, their rise aggravated some of those literary clubs because they began losing members to the frats. By 1891, there were at least 17 fraternities at the University.
The fraternities quickly became a vital part of undergraduate life, giving students a new way to socialize and bond with people who held similar interests. Many fraternities (and later, sororities) attracted members of a particular religious faith. Other Greek organizations sought members based on academic interests or athletics.
For 30 years, from 1890 to 1920, new fraternity chapters opened at Penn nearly every year. By 1928, the University was home to 56 fraternities and 17 sororities.
In this 1920 photo, members of the Delta Upsilon fraternity pose outside of their clubhouse.
In the late 1920s, the University administration endorsed the use of fraternity houses as dormitories in an effort to meet the overwhelming demand for residence halls on campus. By the late 1940s, nearly 40 percent of male undergraduates lived in fraternity houses, and more than 30 percent of female undergraduates lived in sorority houses.
Today, according to the Greek Life at Penn website, there are 48 Greek social fraternity and sorority chapters. There are 29 chapters in the Interfraternity Council, eight chapters in the Panhellenic Council, and 11 chapters in the Multicultural Greek Council. An estimated 25 percent of current undergraduates are actively involved in the fraternity and sorority system.
For more information about this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on March 15, 2012