The Depression Era years hardly affected the social life of the Virginia student, if the plenitude of the dances and parties is any indication. The first 2 and half years of the decade saw the YMCA responsible for much of the social programming at the University. However, that organization folded as a result of financial troubles brought on by the Crash. In its place, the Virginia Union coalesced for the same purposes (Baxter, 101). They did a fine job.
Big dances on the weekends were the rule, with the likes of Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Guy Lombardo, Ozzie Nelson, Count Basie, and Glen Miller playing on grounds. Dates were shipped in from the surrounding countryside. An element of the social scene distinct from other periods was the predilection for asking a girl up, from Sweetbriar for instance, and having a friend meet her, take her around from party to party, while never once laying eyes on her. Simply inviting up a friend of a friend was far more important than actually entertaining her. Student Union began a series of themed dances in the fall of 1934. College Topics reports the hosting of the Barn Dance, in which pumpkins and colored lights, along with bales of hay, provided the decorations. Presumably, folk music, as well as the standard big band jazz combo, laid the foundations for a fun evening. In a distinctly self-referential look at their surroundings, the Union offered the Depression Ball (College Topic, Fall 1934). An orchestra for accompaniment and a thirty-four cents per couple fee meant party-goers would gain the chance to dress as slovenly and "uncouth" as possible. If one were to look for evidence of the people staring hard times in the face, or for simple class elitism, look no farther.
But the biggest dance and party weekend, by far, was Easters. Months spent in preparation yielded athletic contests (boxing or baseball), dances, concerts, and special student publications. Often, students' names, with their dates and hometowns, were listed in the Daily Progress. Palmer Weber noted during his time at the University that sales of prophylactic devices increased 4-500% over the course of the weekend. Another story had a naked co-ed falling from a window at a house on Madison Lane (Fraternity Row) and breaking her leg (ibid., 19). Such happenings brought renewed calls for fraternal responsibility. Curiously, the administration responded by according the student body with more, not less, control over their actions. Calls were made for fraternity men to exert greater control over their brothers. President Alderman might provide an example for modern day administrators in his handling of the drinking controversy in 1925. Appealing to students' sense of honor and recognizing their ability to govern themselves with temperance, if given the option, Alderman cemented the ideal of student self-governance at Virginia for years to come. The tradition of Easters lasted well into the latter half of the century, carried on by similar Virginia men in pursuit of the perfect party.
Oral accounts speak to the prevalence of fraternities in setting the social scene. Richard Brandt linked the fraternity system with the prep schools in the state. St. Christopher's, Woodberry Forest, and Episcopal apparently
acted as feeder schools for St. Elmo's Hall, St. Anthony's Hall, and Delta Kappa Epsilon. Brandt characterized the Virginia leadership as run by prep school boys with elitist, well-to-do background. "The University," he said, "catered to a fairly wealthy class...There was a pretty strong class system" (Oral History).
These sentiments seem in keeping with Brandt's role as an outsider in Charlottesville, but when one considers he was a member of Alpha Tau Rho, Glee Club, Theta Tau Engineering Fraternity, PK German Club, T.I.L.K.A., and played a couple varsity sports, his comments carry greater weight. If someone with so many activities still imagined himself an outsider at the University, then fraternity social dominance can only be described as total. Baxter discusses fraternity sway at length, but does offer religious groups as a viable alternative to some of the Greek parties (441).
By 1928 Virginia had a reputation as the hardest drinking school in the country. An estimated 400 [sic] gallons of liquor per week were consumed and as many as 90% of the student body drank (Baxter, 100). Brandt believed the reputation was well deserved. Great emphasis on drinking and holding one's liquor was part of the Virginia Gentleman tradition. Any trouble associated with drunken hijinks was laughed off, although being "too blotto" in public could get you a paddling (ibid.). The University did have rules against public drunkenness and there were expulsions (Dabney, 93). President Alderman, a prohibitionist himself, asked only that students not act like heathens or endanger the University name through embarrassment. All men were warned not to look conspicuous; the tradition held Virginia men to be chilvalrous, upstanding, and capable of drinking like a fish (Baxter, 93).
During the tail end of Prohibition, students learned to brew their own beer (Dabney, 92) and many bought moonshine from the locals. This "white lightning" came from Shiflett's Hollow in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and was said to give the user alpine highs and prodigious hangovers. Brandt lists Carol's Tea Room, Fry Springs, and the Virginian on the corner as the popular drinking houses following the 1933 repeal. Drinking, it was said, was done in full sight, "without any of the hypocritical sneaking to 'catch a short one' in the back room or lavatory" (Dabney, from College Topics, 150). A distinct and prevalent part of the student culture in the 30s, as now, drinking provided another means for the Virginia Gentleman tradition to be reified.
First-year men coming from home experienced culture shock upon arriving at the University and being subjected to all manner of specialized speech, dress, and behavior. During the first year of his studies, a first-year might concern himself with schoolwork and perhaps a job or one extracurricular activity. Anything more was considered overstepping his bounds as low man on the totem. All first-years wore hats from the time they stepped on grounds until the end of their year. This practice already found itself under fire in 1932. A College Topics op-ed piece targets "goats...discarding their hats" (May 5, 1932). A simple system of hierarchy, hat-wearing represented one of the various ranking measures implicit in the Virginia Gentleman tradition. Knowing where one stood in relation to his peers was an important filtering mechanism for social behavior. The CT piece goes on to rail against the impudence of "new men", asserting that "sans headgear the inflated heads of First Year men are so much more in evidence." Similarly, the practice of hat-tipping reached far and wide. All gentlemen tipped their hats in passing friends and professors, and expected a tipped hat in return. A popular story during the first few years of President Alderman's term had him accused of brusque behavior, resulting from his negligence in tipping. When questioned about this, Alderman replied, "Tell me, then, why I've worn the brims out on all my hats with their tipping." In fact, more formal accoutrements served as another aspect of the particular Virginia tradition. Coat and tie were the rule for all students, regardless of class (Baxter, 55). With an understanding strikingly out of keeping with the sense of class elitism, the label did not seem much to matter, says Baxter (436), so long as the clothing was worn in any climate at all times. A further stabilizer of the status quo was the propensity for students to speak only to men, or women, to whom they had been formally introduced (Dabney, 156). While such a practice would seem to make for awkward silences, the sense of formality and social hierarchy remained in place, a more important consideration given the time and place. Throughout the period "don't give a damness" lived in every breast. An admonition to not "stick one's neck out," (Vincent Shea Oral History, 49) delivered to first-year men in their first few hours on grounds, meant an atmosphere of restraint, in and out of class. Sticking one's neck out encompassed answering professors' questions in class (a sure faux pas) as well as appearing incongruous in social situations. In everything, a manner approaching genteel was cultivated. Shea also recollected "the stomp" (ibid.). Students stomped their feet in class upon hearing ideas or announcements by a professor with which they agreed. Curiously, the same practice was employed for ideas contrary to student opinion. Perhaps growing out of the desire to express themselves in light of the "sticking one's neck out" fiat, the stomp too has faded into memory.
Two customs that have maintained their hold over current generations of students are the specialized vocabulary and the process of naming. Virginia does not have a campus, only a "grounds." Freshmen are called "first-years," in the past "new men." The rectilinear grassy area in front of the Rotunda is the Lawn, never the quad. Professors are called by the title Mr., and today Mrs. or Ms, instead of Doctor or Professor so and so. And the University, as its known, (as if there can only be one) was founded by Mr. Jefferson. Referring to him as if he sat down the hall is preferable. All these permutations arise out of myths surrounding the founder. It was said because Jefferson never attained a doctorate himself, he forbade anyone to be called Dr., so as to maintain scholarly equality. Believing an education does not cease upon setting foot from a defined space (campus), Jefferson called his last project the grounds to de-emphasize the sense of disparity. Because learning can rightly be considered a lifelong pursuit, Jefferson wanted no man to be labeled senior to another in education. Thus, the first-, second-, third-, and fourth-year sobriquets.
With perhaps the exception of Yale, no other university can claim as many secret societies among its ranks. Virginia's horde includes the super-secret Seven Society, whose members are only revealed upon their death, as well as the semi-secret ring societies like the IMPs or Zs. P.U.M.P.K.I.N., T.I.L.K.A., Raven, Rotunda Burning, Purple Shadows, K.O.T.A., and Eli Banana compose an inexhaustive cross-section of the groups. During the Depression, and especially in the few years prior, with smaller student bodies, nearly every man at Virginia held membership in one or more society. These cliques represented a further social ordering mechanism for Virginia's boys. While some societies had explicit altruistic purpose, many existed for reasons no deeper than good natured fun. Eli Banana, for example, would often hold Saturday night parades, replete with bass marching drums, and sing carousing ditties like, "We are drunk boys, yes every one!" (Dabney, 92). Secret societies may perhaps be the best extant link to the tradition-doused University of the Depression. A certain unassailability of old ideas and ways exist in the rituals and behavior of these groups. Any self-respecting Virginia Gentleman would do his damndest to be asked to join.