Student rites of passage: From organized mayhem to celebration


As each new class of Penn undergraduates arrives on campus, it is told about traditions that have been handed down through the generations. Some of these have been adapted to the times. Still others have—in some cases mercifully—been left behind. All of these have shaped student life at Penn.


Class Fights

In the early 1900s, a young man didn’t get into Penn without a fight. The annual Bowl Fight, held on the first day of classes, was the oldest and biggest of the organized brawls that pitted freshmen against sophomores and initiated the former into undergraduate life. Among other ritual fights was one that involved removing as many of the opposing class members’ pants as possible.

The death of a freshman in the 1916 Bowl Fight began a concerted effort to channel male students’ excess energy into more constructive pursuits. Alongside the demise of organized rowdiness rose an unorganized form known as…



Joseph T. Rowbottom EE’12 had a reputation as a bookworm, which may be why several of his classmates, returning from an evening of drunken revelry in 1910, decided to annoy him by yelling out his name beneath his Quad dorm room window. As he tried to quiet his comrades, they got the idea of rousing the entire dorm, placing alarm clocks on windowsills and making general noise.

From this relatively innocuous prank arose a tradition of unsanctioned springtime mayhem that spilled out into the surrounding neighborhood, causing widespread damage. Efforts to clamp down on the practice met with little success until the mid-1950s, when even student leaders began to understand how Rowbottoms injured them and their alma mater.


Hey Day

Of all Penn’s traditions, this one has proved among the most durable. Hey Day in its current form dates to 1931, when two separate springtime events—Class Day and Straw Hat Day—were combined into one. A third event, the Junior Cane Parade, was incorporated into Hey Day after World War II.

Hey Day—held on the last day of classes in the spring—marks the official passage of the junior class to senior status. As now observed, Hey Day has four major components: the march of the junior class from the Junior Balcony in the Quad to College Green, the President officially proclaiming them seniors, a picnic on Hill Square, and the sporting of fake straw hats, red T-shirts and canes. Of more recent provenance is the practice of students taking bites out of their fellow students’ hats and spraying one another with whipped cream.

Even here, rowdiness has threatened the celebration—in 1990, a group of students poured beer over President Sheldon Hackney, carried him out of his College Hall office on their shoulders, then dropped him coming down the steps, putting the following year’s celebration in jeopardy—but student-led changes in the event kept it alive.

Originally published on January 15, 2004