Old Yale

When "weekending" was the thing

After mandatory Sunday chapel was abolished, students of the roaring twenties discovered Manhattan.

Judith Ann Schiff is chief research archivist at the Yale University Library.

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A golden age of Yale College student life dawned in 1926, when the Yale faculty and the trustees voted to repeal the college rules requiring attendance at worship services. “For the first time in its two-and-a-quarter centuries of history, Yale holds its Sunday chapel services with no student present who does not come of his own free will,” President James Rowland Angell declared at the matriculation sermon in October. Freed of their Sunday morning obligations, many students began to leave the campus for the weekend—most often headed to New York City.

Probably no other repeal was so joyfully celebrated. Undergraduates of the 1920s had been required to turn up for chapel on Sunday and for short weekday services at 8 a.m. (This was generous compared with the mid-1800s, when the daily chapel bell rang at 6 a.m.) Only about six Sunday absences per year were allowed.

But by 1926, enrollment in Yale College had mushroomed with the return of World War I veterans and the addition of Sheffield Scientific School students; even with two daily services in Battell Chapel, there was not enough room. And as none of the other Yale schools had a similar compulsory attendance rule, it was felt that the situation could only improve if students attended chapel by choice.

For many, the choice was to get out of town. On weekends, wrote university historian George Pierson ’26, students “fled—elsewhere, anywhere, everywhere. Released by the abolition of the Sunday chapel requirement, seemingly the whole community left town. . . . In 1932, the Record published a cartoon showing the statue of President Woolsey on the campus rising, dropping his book, grabbing a suitcase, and rushing off for the weekend.”

The lure of New York City speakeasies, café society, and the Greenwich Village scene was irresistible. Young alums in the city helped to set the tone: the exploits of prankster Lucius Beebe ’26 and the cartoons of his classmate Peter Arno filled the pages of the New Yorker, and their crooner friend Rudy Vallée ’27 provided the soundtrack.

Ads in the Yale Daily News told students where to stay and what to wear on their outings. An ad from Langrock’s Fine Clothes at Elm and York recommended: “Weekending—For shore or country wear, four-piece Gold Models of exclusive tweeds tailored by Langrock afford a complete weekend ensemble.”

Even the coming of the Great Depression in the fall of 1929 does not appear to have put a damper on weekending. But official Yale wasn’t happy about the trend. In 1930, President Angell called the weekend exodus “unquestionably damaging, both to Yale and to her students.” The administration encouraged the student body to work with them in “stopping the flow of students from New Haven” and to “discourage the spirit of restlessness,” leading to “week-end mindedness.” The News retorted that at the same time, administrators were encouraging off-campus activities by sending student groups to entertain alumni.

Forty years after the demise of daily chapel, Milton White ’36 included a conversation between two freshmen in his novel A Yale Man: “Mike continued spending his weekends in New York City. Pale and red-eyed, he returned to New Haven in the early hours on Monday morning, woke me, and sprawling on the window seat told me about the shows he’d seen . . . and about the Biltmore and his dates. ‘Debauchery and sex,’ I said to him enviously.”

A memorable feature of weekending in New York City was meeting one’s date “under the clock at the Biltmore,” a hotel adjacent to Grand Central Terminal. This was often a necessity when one had a blind date with a young woman from one of the “Seven Sisters” colleges or a “finishing school” in the Northeast. Patrons in the hotel’s Palm Court were entertained by the assemblage of raccoon and camel-hair coats sorting themselves out under its famous gold-figured clock. When the Biltmore was gutted and turned into an office building in 1981, the iconic clock was installed in the new lobby.

Looking back in 1955, Pierson evaluated the modernization of student life in the 1920s in his chapter “The Awakening Campus” in the book Yale College 1921–1937. The old Yale, he wrote, “had been noted for a certain New England rigor, and confidence of belief” and “conformity.” The most significant consequence of the changes, he wrote, was “the fact that for hours and days repeatedly, strenuous, competitive, self-confident Yale faced outward and mingled with the world.”

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