Open main menu

Baird's Manual of American College Fraternities (1879)/Greek-letter fraternities

College students have always shown a more or less marked tendency to form themselves into societies. Whether founded upon a national, literary, or social basis, these organizations seem to have been coeval with the colleges themselves. Throughout the United States there is a class of students' societies, usually secret in their character, which rapidly grew in favor, and have become of great importance in the college world. They are composed of lodges or branches placed in the several colleges, united by a common bond of friendship and a common name, generally composed of Greek letters. From this latter fact they are known among non-collegians as "Greek-Letter Societies," or, more frequently, from their secrecy, "College Secret Societies," but among themselves they are styled "Fraternities." Before tracing their origin and progress it will be well to give some description of their customs and practices.

The name of each fraternity is composed of two or three Greek letters, as Kappa Alpha, Chi Phi, Alpha Delta Phi, Beta Theta Pi. These letters commonly represent a motto, unknown to all but the fraternity's members, which indicates the purposes, aims, or actions of the organization. The lodges situated in various colleges are affiliated, and are, with one or two exceptions, termed "Chapters." The chapters receive various names, sometimes of the Greek letters in the order of their establishment, as Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, etc.; sometimes without any apparent order, as Theta, Delta, Beta, Gamma, in "which case the chapter letter is generally the initial of some word peculiar to the college. Sometimes they are named from the colleges, as Union Chapter, Hamilton Chapter, or from the college towns, as Waterville Chapter, Middletown Chapter. In one case, at least; an these systems are departed from, and the chapter is named after some prominent member. When chapters have become so numerous that the letters of the alphabet are exhausted, they are combined, either by chance, as Theta Zeta, Beta Chi, or by design, in the addition of supplementary letters, as Alpha Alpha, Alpha Beta, Alpha Gamma, etc., or Alpha Beta, Beta Beta, Gamma Beta. In other cases a regular system is employed, and some word or words used to denote the repetition, as Alpha deuteron, Beta deuteron, or, in case the alphabet is being used for the third time, by Alpha triteron, Beta triteron, the supplementary words being generally denoted by their initial letters, Delta and Tau respectively.

The distinctive badges or pins of the fraternities are of three kinds. First, a shield or plate of gold, displaying upon it the fraternity name, together with symbols of general or peculiar significance. This kind of badge is worn as a pin, as a pendant from the watch-chain, or as a watch-key. Secondly, a monogram of the letters composing the name; these pins are by far the handsomest of all, and are almost always jewelled. Thirdly, some symbol representing the name of the society or some of its degrees, as a skull, a harp, or a key.

In addition to the badges, which are worn as pins and attached to the vest or necktie, many of the fraternities have chosen distinctive colors. As the fraternity chapters are generally known by letters, the members of each chapter frequently wear their chapter letter or letters as a guard-pin, and attach it to the badge proper by a tiny chain. When the college colors are worn in connection with the badge, and no fraternity colors are used, the college, chapter, and fraternity of an individual can thus be told at a glance.

Many of the colleges publish, what are known as "Annuals" or "Year-Books," being undergraduate catalogues, containing lists of the students, class histories, college organizations of various kinds, such as the fraternities, musical, dramatic, athletic, and social clubs, and a few caricatures. The catalogues are always in reality, if not nominally, under the control of the fraternities, and considerable space is devoted to their interests, giving rise to a peculiar class of "posters" or "cuts." These appear opposite the names of the society's members, and consist of a representation of the fraternity name or badge, together with a collection of symbols, the date of founding the fraternity, establishing the chapter, mottoes, etc. This class of pictures is of recent origin, and the style and kind of poster differs with every fraternity and nearly every chapter, ranging from a meaningless landscape to a coat of arms, having, it is true, little heraldic significance, but generally in good taste.

The systems of government in vogue among the fraternities are almost as numerous as the societies themselves. With some, the authority is given entirely into the hands of the parent chapter or some chapter appointed in its stead; with others, the government is carried out by an executive council, chosen by election or in some other way; and with others still, the government is conducted by a grand lodge or by a system of State lodges. In general, however, whenever the fraternities hold conventions, authority of all kinds is vested in that body during its sessions, and with many of the fraternities charters for new chapters can only be granted by these conventions.

These reunions or conventions are made up of delegates from the various chapters. As presiding officer, some old and well-known member is usually chosen, and in addition to the transaction of business, public exercises are held, during which the assembly is addressed, poems are read, etc. The session usually concludes with a more or less expensive banquet.. Such meetings make acquainted the students of various colleges, and promote educational interests in many ways.

Within the past ten or fifteen years, it has been the practice of the members of the fraternities not in college residence, when they have been sufficiently numerous, to form alumni chapters, and these graduate chapters of the best known fraternities are now in nearly all the large cities of the country. In some cases, the alumni chapters act in every way like the collegiate chapters, transact business, send delegates to conventions, and hold regular meetings. In others, the chapter is only one in name, an occasional supper or assessment being the only reminder which the members will have of its existence. Few, if any, of these non-collegiate chapters admit members to the fraternity.

The oldest and best of the Greek-Letter fraternities publish neat and tasteful catalogues of their members at stated intervals. These catalogues are at times expensive, and are illustrated by one or two steel engravings, and a plate of symbols or coat of arms for each chapter. The members' names are usually arranged alphabetically by classes, or by the years in which they were initiated, and foot-notes indicate the military, political, civil, or collegiate titles of individuals when distinguished. Some of the fraternities also print a series of private symbols, composed of Greek letters, numbers, astronomical and mathematical signs, etc., which denote rank held in the fraternity, the college honors or prizes gained, age, etc., of the person to whose name they are attached. Death is universally denoted by an asterisk (*). The cost of printing such symbols has deterred all but the most wealthy from incurring such an expense, and a catalogue is considered sufficiently complete if it gives the name, residence, occupation, official titles, and class of each member. Song-books are also published, both by fraternities and individual chapters, and the minutes of conventions, reports of officers, historical sketches, supper programmes, poems, and mortuary notices are usually printed.

Many of the fraternities have printed their constitutions and initiation services, but in the case of a secret organization it is a rather hazardous experiment. The laborious correspondence ,which a large number of widely-scattered chapters necessitates has of late years caused a curious class of journals to make their appearance. These journals are published either monthly or quarterly, and are devoted to the interests of the fraternity under whose badge they are issued. Published at first by private enterprise, they have generally received in a short time the official sanction of the fraternity, and are given in charge of an official board of editors. They awaken new interest in the minds of graduates, by giving them news of their former chapters, and serve an important purpose by providing means for free expressions of opinion in regard to matters of interest. These papers have generally taken their name from some peculiarity in the badge of the fraternity 'which they represent, as the Theta Delta Chi "Star," the Delta Tau Delta "Crescent," the Psi Upsilon "Diamond," the Phi Delta Theta "Scroll," the "Βῆτα Θήτα Πῖ," the “Φῖ Γάμμα Δέλτα" etc.

Musical talent has not been wanting among the members of the fraternities and their friends, and, in addition to original melodies for fraternity songs, there has issued from the musical press a "whole series of marches, waltzes, galops, et id omne genus. Of these, the best known are the Delta Kappa Epsilon March and the Chi Phi Galop.

Since the fraternities have begun to feel that they are firmly established, undergraduate and graduate members have united in contributing towards chapter building funds, and lodges and chapter houses have been built sometimes at a cost of $30,000, or even in one case of $40,000. These buildings usually entail sufficient sleeping-rooms for the higher classmen, and serve as chapter houses.

The first American society bearing a Greek-Letter name was founded at the College of William and Mary, in 1776 and was called the Phi Beta Kappa. It was secret in its nature, and tradition has brought down several accounts of its origin. One states that it came from Europe, another that it was founded by Thomas Jefferson, a third that it sprang from a Freemasons' lodge. Whatever may have been the manner of its beginning, the cause was undoubtedly the common friendship and inter-dependence of its founders. It was purely literary in its character, its meetings were held monthly or semi-monthly, and only seniors were eligible to membership.

The chapter or lodge was termed the "Alpha," and the first exoteric branch was established at Yale College; from there it spread to other colleges in the manner which is hereinafter related. It will be seen that the causes for its foundation "were friendship and the promotion of a common object. These causes, and a spirit of opposition or imitation, will satisfactorily account for the foundation of every fraternity now existing. Phi Beta Kappa. remained alone until 1821, when a senior society was founded at Yale, and called the Chi Delta Theta. Between the establishment of Phi Beta Kappa and that of Chi Delta Theta, a class of societies differing from either had arisen. These were mostly of a literary character, and bore names such as Hermesian, PhiIalethean, Erosophian, Linonian, Adelphi, Philotechnian, etc. Some of them were secret and some were not. Their exercises consisted in debates, the reading and discussion of papers on literary subjects, and the like. Encouraged as they were by the faculty, the students joined them as a matter of course, hut there was little actual interest taken in their proceedings, except at the time of a literary contest, or when elections were about to take place. These societies, though excellent in affording forensic training and practice in oratory, did not satisfy the want resulted in the formation of the secret fraternities after. Such were the societies existing in the when, in 1824, a secret and select literary society was organized at Princeton, and bore the name of Chi Phi. It was promptly abolished by the faculty on account of its secret nature, and disappeared for a time. One year later, at Union, four years of constant intercourse among a few congenial spirits promoted the formation of a club which was called the "K.A." or "Kappa Alpha Society." This was, in reality and spirit, the first Greek Letter fraternity, being the first to put into practice the principles which have since guided these societies. The new society met with much opposition, but was secretly popular with the students, for two years later, in 1827, two similar organizations were founded in the same college, Delta Phi and Sigma Phi. In these three societies we see the germs of the present fraternity system, and, curiously enough, their badges and system of naming chapters are now, with one or two exceptions, the only methods in use. Kappa Alpha's badge was a watchkey, and its chapters were named after the colleges in which they were situated; Sigma Phi's pin was a monogram, and its chapters were named alphabetically by States; and Delta Phi's pin was a cross, and its chapters were named in alphabetical order. Sigma Phi was the first of the trio to establish a branch organization, and in 1831, calling itself the Alpha Chapter of New York, the Beta Chapter of New York was placed at Hamilton College. This move resulted one year later in the foundation of Alpha Delta Phi at that college. In 1833, Psi Upsilon was founded at Union, and the year after, Kappa Alpha and Sigma Phi, having placed chapters at Williams, found themselves confronted by a new rival, in the shape of an anti-secret society, the Delta Upsilon. Alpha Delta Phi's second chapter was organized at Miami University in 1833, and in 1839 the first Western fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was founded there in consequence. Union College gave birth to Chi Psi in 1841, and Theta Delta Chi in 1847; Alpha Delta. Phi and Psi Upsilon entering Yale College as junior societies, soon after their establishment, in 1844. Delta Kappa Epsilon was founded there, its rapid progress soon giving it as great influence and greater numerical strength than its older rivals. By this time, the fraternities had established chapters in New York City colleges, and in 1847 Delta Psi originated at Columbia, and Zeta Psi at the University. In 18L18, Phi Gamma Delta started from Jefferson College and Phi Delta Theta from Miami, and these two fraternities, together with Beta Theta Pi, were to be to the West what the "Union" fraternities had been to the East. The first Southern fraternity, the "Rainbow," or "W. W. W." was founded during this year at Mississippi University.

In 1850, Phi Kappa Sigma was founded at Pennsylvania University, and immediately spread West and South. In 1852, another fraternity, the Phi Kappa Psi, issued from Jefferson, and in 1855, Sigma Chi from Miami. The next year, 1856, saw the birth of the second Southern fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, at. Alabama University. In 1857, Phi Sigma, now a local fraternity, had its origin at Lombard University, and in 1858 Sigma, Delta Pi, of the same class, was organized at Dartmouth 1859 was prolific in secret organizations. Delta Tau Delta, at Bethany, Southern Chi Phi, at North Carolina University, Northern Chi Phi, at Hobart, and Sigma Alpha, at Roanoke, were all organized in this year. The civil war then put an end to college enterprise everywhere; many of the Southern colIeges were destroyed and their faculties disbanded, and in the North some closed their doors for want of professors and students. When peace was declared, fresh activity was observed among the ranks of college men. In 1861, Theta Xi, was founded at the Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York. In 1865, Southern Kappa Alpha was established at Washington-Lee and Alpha Tau Omega at the Virginia Military Institute. As the work of reorganization went on, Alpha Gamma was founded at Cumberland University, and Kappa Sigma Kappa at the Virginia Military Institute in 1867; Pi Kappa Alpha being one year later at Virginia University, and Sigma Nu at the Virginia Military Institute. In 1869, two special fraternities were founded, the Phi Delta Phi at Michigan University, in the Law Department, and D. G. K. at the Massachusetts Agricultural ColIege. Kappa Sigma was also founded this year at Virginia University. In 1870, Zeta Phi, a distinctly Western society, was founded at Missouri University, and a second agricultural society, the Q. T. V., at Massachusetts Agricultural College. In 1872, Phi Kappa Alpha at Brown; in 1874, Alpha Sigma Chi at Rutgers and Phi Delta Kappa at Washington and Jefferson; and in 1878 Delta Beta Phi at Cornell, bring the roll down to the present time.

The first of the Ladies' Greek-Letter Societies was Kappa Alpha Theta, founded at Indiana Asbury University, in 1870. The same year Kappa Kappa Gamma was founded at Monmouth, Illinois. The third society, Delta Gamma, originated in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1872. Almost unconsciously, the fraternities, as well as the colleges, have come to be classified on a sectional basis, and we have, in consequence, Eastern, Western, and Southern fraternities, although the division cannot be made with exactness, owing to the fact that some belong as much to one section as another. Having its origin in New York State, the fraternity system could progress but in three directions: on the one hand were the New England colleges; on the other, the old but poorly supported denominational colleges of the West; and in front the State universities of the South. In speaking of Eastern colleges we will mean the colleges and universities of New England, New York, and New Jersey, Kenyon College, Western Reserve College, in Ohio, Lafayette College, in Pennsylvania, and the University of California. The latter university, though separated so far from the East in a geographical sense, is entirely Eastern in its customs. The Western colleges include those of Pennsylvania and Ohio, together with those of the remaining Eastern States, except Michigan University. The Southern colleges are sufficiently well defined geographically, but exceptions must be made in the cases of the State universities of Mississippi and Virginia. As far as fraternity life is concerned, Michigan University possesses the features of both the Eastern and Western colleges, and the same remark will apply with equal truth to the two Southern universities above named.

Alpha Delta Phi, Alpha Sigma Chi, Delta Beta Phi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Delta Phi, Delta Upsilon, Zeta Psi) Theta Delta Chi, Kappa Alpha, Theta Xi, Sigma Phi, Phi Kappa Alpha, and Psi Upsilon may with justness be styled Eastern fraternities, though one or two of them have chapters in the West and South. Beta Theta Pi, Delta Tau Delta, Zeta Phi, Phi Gamma Delta, and Phi Kappa Psi are types of the fraternities of the West. Alpha Gamma, Alpha Kappa Phi, Alpha Tau Omega, Kappa Sigma, Kappa Alpha, Kappa Sigma Kappa, Pi Kappa Alpha, Sigma Nu, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon are strictly Southern societies. Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi are Southern and Western. Chi Phi, Delta Psi, Phi Delta Kappa, and Phi Kappa Sigma are Southern and Eastern, Phi Delta Phi is Eastern and Western, and Chi Psi all three.

Until 1860 the Eastern fraternities had placed chapters in many of the colleges of the South, and some few in those of the West. The Western societies also had placed chapters in the Southern States, so that frequently the Eastern and Western fraternities would come in contact for the first time in some Southern college. The war, however, seriously crippled the fraternity system in the South, and at its close, when the colleges reopened their doors, many of the faculties denied the fraternities admission. The Eastern fraternities had hesitated about placing chapters in the South again, and the local fraternities and those from the West have undisputed possession of the collegiate field in that section. So we see that there are three different classes of the fraternities, the Eastern, the Western, and the Southern. Some fraternities belong more or less to all sections, but we have yet to see a national fraternity in the best colleges and universities from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and the lakes to the Gulf. Beta Theta Pi is the nearest approach to such a fraternity as yet, and its Eastern section is comparatively small.

The colleges and universities of New England and the Middle States have been superior to those of the South and West, in that their endowments have been larger, and being in more settled communities they have afforded better facilities to students. In the same way the Eastern societies have considered themselves superior to those of the remainder of the country. This distinction has been somewhat intensified by the fact that two or three desertions have occurred from Western to Eastern fraternities, and Western students coming East have failed to place chapters in Eastern colleges. These failures have been due to a variety of causes, but in no case to inferior ability on the part of their promoters. In the East the chapters have, on an average, been established from ten to fifteen years longer than in the West, and from twenty to thirty years longer than in the South, and Southern and Western students fail to recognize the fact that it takes time to properly establish a chapter. Being older, the Eastern chapters have built houses and lodges before the Western ones have thought of it, and being as a rule wealthier, their badges and other appointments have been costlier.

These things, however, are rapidly becoming equalized; the State universities of Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Georgia are fast becoming of equal grade with the best New England colleges, and the students are of a higher social grade than were formerly accustomed to frequent these institutions. The South is recovering from the effects of the war, and the West from a period of depression consequent upon that struggle. The course of educational as well as political empire is toward the Mississippi Valley, and in a few years the fraternities of both sections will be alike in standing, membership, wealth, and scholarship. In the East the iron hand of custom has now regulated all that pertains to the life of chapters and their peculiar practices. As we have said, the fraternity chapters are now fixed in the New England colleges, and some extraordinary event alone could cause their removal. Being crowded, a great rivalry springs up between the members of the various chapters, and extraordinary efforts are put forth to obtain members. Many of them are now between thirty and forty years old, and a freshman going to college has his mind already made up that he w-ill join some fraternity to which a brother, cousin, or other relation belonged during college life. Chapters also will often draw members from some particular town or school; friends from either place will be a great inducement to a freshman. Curious results sometimes grow out of this practice; for instance, in some New England colleges the men from Boston will all join Psi U, all from Providence, Zeta Psi, and so on. In the face of such difficulties it will be seen to be quite an undertaking to organize a new chapter. In the West, such customs have not as yet attained much force, but are rapidly doing so, while in the. South the fraternity system may be said to be in its infancy, as everything is now dated from the days of reconstruction.

A practice more or less in vogue among the fraternities has of late been somewhat prevalent, and cannot be too severely condemned. It is that of members leaving one chapter and joining another in the same college. It is euphoniously termed "lifting," perhaps with the idea that a man always joins a better fraternity than he leaves.

In the early days of the fraternities, only seniors were admitted to membership; other classmen were then taken in, until now, with the exception of Yale and Dartmouth, the members are from all classes. At Yale the chapters are only junior societies, and at Dartmouth, though members are pledged, they are not admitted until the sophomore year. In some of the larger Western and Southern colleges, such as Indiana Asbury, Emory College, Ohio Wesleyan, etc., the preparatory schools being intimately connected with the colleges, "preps" are not only pledged, but initiated, before they enter the college proper. As the colleges usually open about the middle of September, the campaign for freshman members is then commenced, and lasts until Christmas, when each chapter has secured its most desirable candidates; where there is great rivalry, however, initiations take place all the year round, and the chapters continually surprise each other with new members. In the South the chapters are often termed "clubs," a name derived from the University of Virginia, where the fraternities usually board in clubs; one or two fraternities call their chapters "colleges" and "charges." The badges worn are usually more expensive in the East than in the West. The D. K. E.'s and Psi U's pins admit of more or less ornamentation according to taste. Some are heavily jewelled, and some are as plain as possible. We should say that the average price of a badge in the East was twelve dollars, and in the West, seven dollars. All these college fraternities are secret in their character With the exception of Delta Upsilon, which is anti-secret, and Phi Kappa Alpha, which is non-secret. To one, however, who has given any consideration to the subject, the secrecy is such only in' name, and carefully worded inquiries will elicit all that is wished to be known. The societies have stolen each other's constitutions with more or less frequency, and these documents are not so difficult to obtain as might be supposed. There is a remarkable family resemblance among the constitutions, and their arrangement into articles is generally as follows:

  1. Preamble and definition of the society's object.
  2. Definition of name and motto.
  3. Conditions and degrees of membership.
  4. Outline of government.
  5. Duties of officers.
  6. Relations of chapters and officials appointment of special
  7. Oath of membership

This order is not always rigidly adhered to, but it is usually so done. By-laws are added which contain the rules for badges, colors, seals, conventions, trials, and other minor matters.

The initiation services are also very much alike, although there has been much scope for originality in their composition. A perfect initiatory service should consist of two parts, so that, after having undergone one trial, the initiate could retreat if necessary. It should, in addition, teach the candidate, in a thorough and impressive way, all the passwords, mottoes, grips, and recognition signs of the fraternity.

Certificates of membership, like diplomas, are given by a few societies, but the practice is not common.