Nassau Hall 1874
Origins of Cane Spree
Each Fall, representatives of
the entering Freshman Class take on the Sophomore Class in a series
of athletic competitions, that now include volleyball, swimming,
touch football, and basketball. Although the date, locale, number
and kind of events have changed since the first contests in the
1860s, Cane Spree has always played a significant role in forging
While a victory in head-to-head
competition is sought, it is the overall competition that is the
most important, and in most instances the Sophomores have prevailed.
The winning competitors in each contest are given the tee-shirts
sporting the Class Numerals of their vanquished foes. These prized
trophies serve to taunt the losers throughout their Princeton career,
sometimes even reappearing in later years at Reunions.
Hazing of Freshmen had been a
common practice, with a 1764 account stating that students of the
day gave and received "tokens of respect and subjection." This took
several forms, such as head shaving or forcing a student to wash
his feet. In a highly publicized instance, several freshmen in the
Class of 1882 retaliated by capturing two sophomores, shaving their
heads, and paddling them severely. Upon being freed, the two sophomores
armed themselves and shot and wounded the prime instigator.
Cane Spree evolved from more
informal class customs around the time of the American Civil War,
when it became fashionable for gentlemen to carry walking canes.
The University Archives in Seeley Mudd Library has many examples
of these artifacts, some quite elaborate. Among the intricate details
chiseled into the wood are the owner's name, class, and hometown;
his classmates names and states (often carved by the classmate himself),
names of the Faculty, and in some instances, the University Seal,
names of the college, Greek phrases, etc.
In 1865 upperclassmen concluded
that freshmen should not carry canes. One evening the sophomores
attempted to enforce this "rule," by seizing the canes when the
classes were strolling on Nassau Street, resulting in a major brawl.
This encounted is generally considered to the the first "cane spree,"
the latter word a then-common term for ruckus. In the years that
followed, the confrontations became a standard, scheduled --though
unsanctioned-- fixture of the college, with established rules and
dates. For a period, the Freshmen were advised and supervised by
representatives from the Junior class, while the Sophomores were
coached by the Seniors.
Disperse, Young Gentlemen
In the fall of 1868, newly appointed
President James McCosh is reported to have seen his first cane spree.
Newly arrived from Ireland, and little acquainted with Princeton
customs, he was surprised to see cane spree well under way and things
becoming rowdy. The townspeople had gathered round to enjoy the
fun, and there was quite a crowd, all cheering and with fights breaking
out. With great excitement, President McCosh came running from his
home and with an agitated voice vibrating with broad Celtic r's
cried: "Disperse, young gentelmen! For shame! Disperse to your rooms!"
By 1869 the sophomore class published
a proclamation forbidding freshmen to carry canes, and confronted
those who dared ignore their orders. These informal skirmishes soon
gave rise to an organized contest, and in the early 1870s it moved
onto campus, with an elaborate set of rules.
The traditional spot for the
event was in front of Witherspoon at midnight on the evening of
the October full moon. Students carried oil-soaked broom torches
to improve visibility, and the freshmen, dress in white, and the
sophomores (in black) selected representatives in three weight classes.
However, these organized bouts did little to quell the inter-class
mayhem. Rather, they were considered "preliminary" bouts, to be
followed by more chaotic "general cane spree" (sometimes called
"Class Rush") involving all underclassmen present that included
much tearing of clothing and blackening of eyes.
Dear Family-- Freshman Year
at Princeton is a Riot
According to published reports,
the Class of 1878 defeated the Class of 1879 by taking 70 canes
to a mere 20 captured by the freshmen class.
The date and location of Cane
Spree has changed throughout the years, as well. In early years,
it occurred on what is now Cannon Green, later it was held in the
Trophy Room of the gymnasium (before Dillon or Jadwin), often on
Brokaw Field, and for many years, on the lawn by Witherspoon Hall.
A 1932 letter reports that this last location featured "bleachers
around a hollow square and the installation of powerful spot lights
on one of the upper floors of Witherspoon." The use of lights eliminated
the use of broom torches which had been "more effective and picturesque,
although less hygienic."
It would appear that the general
mayhem of Cane Spree continued virtually unabated for several decades,
as this letter from Bob Clifford '33 to his parents in 1929 would
The Cane Spree was most exciting,
nearly 750 boys being present. The Freshman won the lightweight
fall and a Soph took the middleweight bout. Following this second
bout, old fruit was exchanged between the two classes. After the
uproar was over, the heavyweight bout was staged and the Soph won,
whereupon the Sophs charged the Freshmen. About a half [sic] of
the Freshmen left. A free-for-all ensued. Frank, the chief proctor,
and two or three football men tried to stop the rumpus. Then everybody
turned on them. We roughed them up for about fifteen minutes and
then turned and headed for Nassau Street. The riot was on! Somehow
of or other I found myself in the front rank of the mob, 500 or
600 strong, tearing down Nassau Street. We all piled into the first
movie, stayed there for a minute, and then tore out for the other
movie. Frank and the other proctors, Mike and Harry and two policemen
beat us there,, so we did not get in.
In an effort to tame the event
and keep it on campus, published rules for Cane Spree appeared at
about this time, stating:
1. General hostilities are
not to begin until after the individual bouts.
2. Dangerous missles are not
to be used by the participants.
3. After the conclusion of
the Cane Spree, there will be no parading in the streets in an
And perhaps most importantly,
the so-called "Riot Clause," which stated that
"Any undergraduate ...guilty...of
participating in a riot renders himself liable to dismissal from
Changes Do Not Deter Class
These rules notwithstanding,
a writer in 1941 reported:
Class fervor usually finds
means of manifestation is a host of uncensored terms of endearment,
egg throwing, and stripping of every conceivable bit of clothing
from a fellow undergraduate. The trail of torn clothing on Brokaw
Field is mute testimony that the classic encounter has occurred..
Firecrackers, rocks, and iron bedsteads were one thought to be the
solution, but cautious Christian Gauss has forbidden the hurling
of dangerous missiles. Not discouraged by this edict, undergraduates
have resolved to less terrifying methods, finding any oleaginous
mixture of unsavory foodstuffs quite satisfactory."
Additional contests were added
in later years, most notably track and football in 1951, softball
the following year, and then tennis, basketball, and swimming in
1953. The concluding event that year was a tug-of-war held on "the
narrowest portion of Lake Carnegie" so that the losers would be
pulled into the lake!
The Class of 1954 became the
first class to win Cane Spree two years in a row, a feat later accomplished
by the Classes of 1962, 1970, and 2001.
Cane Spree between the Classes
of 1973 and 1974 featured the first appearance of women in coed
competition, and shortly thereafter a full range of women's events
was added as well.
Like many aspects of Princeton
tradition, Cane Spree has its roots in student activities long forgotten.
In 1948, the Nassau Sovereign wrote these words: "Now more mild-mannered
than murderous, they still provide innumerable opportunities for
the frosh and sophs to bump heads."
This is adapted
Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion,
copyright Princeton University Press (1978).