In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Penn students (all men until the 1880s) created and engaged in initiation rituals and competitions as rites of passage. It was believed that the competitions built class unity and school spirit, and also tested the courage and character that was expected of a college man.
One of the earliest competitions was the Bowl Fight. When it was created in 1865, the sophomore class presented a wooden salad bowl and salad spoon to the freshman with the poorest academic record. The just-for-fun award ceremony also included a physical clash, with sophomores grabbing the dishonored freshman and placing him into the bowl. Then, members of the freshman class would join the rumpus and attempt to break the bowl.
Another game that pitted sophomores against freshmen was called the Push Ball Fight. It was a short-lived Penn tradition, lasting only five years, from 1908 to 1913. The object of the competition was to volley a jumbo-sized inflatable ball—five feet in diameter—over the opposition’s goal posts. The game, consisting of two, 15-minute halves, was similar to football. It started with the ball positioned in the middle of Franklin Field. This photo from 1911 shows the two classes on the field at the start of the match.
Members of each class rushed toward the ball and tried to score by using their hands to bat the ball toward the goal post. Inevitably, some students would end up injured in the shoving and jostling for position. An article from Penn’s Archives quotes one unnamed student from the class of 1910 saying, “It is good fun, and it does a young fellow a lot of good to go through that kind of experience. It teaches him to shut his jaws tight, to bear pain unflinchingly and to fight under a disadvantage.”
The competitions between students were among the campus’ most popular events. Some photos from that era show students as well as faculty members in the crowd applauding the participants.
The student government, known then as the Undergraduate Committee, abolished the Push Ball Fight in 1913, because the committee believed the event allowed only a few students to actually participate in the game.
For more information on this and other historical events at Penn, visit the University Archives at www.archives.upenn.edu.
Originally published on October 28, 2010