One of the more peculiar Princeton traditions
from the early part of the Twentieth Century was an exam time
ritual known as Poler's Recess. Every night during the final examination
period, as the nine o'clock bell began to ring, all dormitory
windows on campus were thrown open and a riotous cacophony ensued
for ten minutes. Firecrackers were exploded, pistols, revolvers,
and shotguns fired with blank cartridges, horns blown, drums and
tin pans beaten.
As an undergraduate writer observed
in 1918, it was ``probably the most juvenile'' of all campus customs,
but it brought ``a welcome break for everyone in a long night's
This noisily observed Princeton custom
lasted from the turn of the century almost up to the Second World
War and its origins have been linked to "standing frolics" or
'horn sprees' occurring much earlier in the 1850s. On such occasions,
"the students mount the tall trees on campus, and being provided
with tin-horns and bugles blow away, until forced to retire by
the Faculty throwing off their dignity, and following the students
up the trees if the students below do not pull them off when
they attempt to climb up." "The disorderly institution" inevitably
awoke most inhabitants of the town, in addition to the entire
"By September 1856, the horn spree
had become formalized as an annual affair sponsored by the sophomore
class, which took up a subscription, invited select members of
other classes to participate, got a good start by fooling [President]
Maclean about the date of the spree, and ran around campus with
him in hot pursuit from 10:30 PM until 4 in the morning."
Ten years later, when students received
word of the fall of Richmond to Union forces, the faculty actually
authorized a spree that featured horn-blowing as well as bell
ringing, fireworks, and a cannon fire.
By the turn of the century, the horn
spree had evolved into the "poler's recess." A "poler was an early
epithet for one who was thought to study too zealously. It was
a common term since at least 1853 with negative connotations:
"a hard poler is the opposite to a smart fellow. This sort of
being does everything in an amazingly short time... a smart fellow
does not pole much," derived from the laborious poling of a boat.
All students were required to be
in their rooms by 9 PM, but when the bell rang out that hour,
the undergraduates would open their windows and use all means
to "produce a din that would divert the most diligent poler from
The first description of the event
was in the Alumni Weekly in its February 1, 1902 issue. After
describing the solemnity and studiousness pervasive on campus
during exam periods, the writer explains the "much needed rest
and recreation of the Poller's Recess[sic].
"   " This comes to pass with unfailing
regularity at least once every night. Do you recall the old habit
of holding informal 'fresh fires' as they were called until recently?
Most of the younger alumni will remember them. The poler's recess
is the same thing except that it is so much louder and more violent
that the thrilling, inspiring words 'fresh fire!' are drowned
out by the volume of sounds from the great number of guns, revolvers,
cannon crackers, drums, horns, tin pans, watchman's rattles and
other dormitory bric-a-brac; perhaps that is why it is no longer
called fresh fire. "
The 1918 recess "produced an entirely
new effect on the campus. The men in the government school of
aeronautics," located at Princeton during World War I, "to whom
this Princeton custom was a new thing, evidently thought they
were receiving their first taste of Hun atrocities in a bombing
expedition from Berlin. One of the aviation office is said to
have grabbed his revolver and rushed over to Dod Hall, and demanded
the meaning of it all; and when he found it was only a harmless
Princeton custom, he expressed the hope that hostilities might
cease for the night at least so that his cadets could study."
A description of the event of 1936,
indicates several students "took it upon themselves" to maintain
the tradition, but then the poler's recess seems to have taken
a 15-year hiatus, until students were exhorted to renew the tradition.
In January, 1949, the Daily Princetonian
published a letter from an outraged alumnus from the class of
1947, which read: "It has come to my attention that the ancient
and honorable custom of the 11:00 p.m. break during finals is
no longer observed. For the sake of those who are too young to
remember the benefit of this emotional catharsis, the rules of
procedure are repeated below in the hope that their obvious value
may once again be invoked by the student body." He then told the
students how to carry on a poler's recess, pushed back to 11:00
because of evening exams. The event was to last exactly ten minutes,
during which "all radios, phonographs, pianos, saxophones, trumpets,
etc. are to be played at full volume," "firecrackers to the diameter
of three inches are to be set off in strategic areas," and "all
ice-box pans will be emptied and beaten vigorously."
Despite some administrative efforts
to minimize the disruption, the 1949 poler's recess was extremely
successful. Holder Hall residents were specifically commended
for a "dazzling performance," which included "flaming tennis balls,
a mock war replete with blank shells and falling soldiers, and
a huge shower of dry beer cans."
But the following year, opinion was
split as to the benefits of the event and the necessity of yet
another study break and well-enforced ban on firecrackers helped
put a damper on the students' spirits.
Subsequent sporadic observance of
the event led to its fading from student memory within a few years.
Today, students still vent frustration from studying with impromptu,
late night noise making. The unofficial tradition of the Holder
Howl is a minute-long, stress-relieving primal scream in that
dormitory. But nothing approximates the scale of the early twentieth
century poler's recess.
in large part from the Junior Paper of Elizabeth Greenberg, Class
of 2002. Ms. Greenberg deserves all the credit, and any blame should
be directed towards that person who summarized her work.