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Bob or Behave? How NJC Dealt with the Pressures of Fads and Traditions in the 1920's - Suzanne Boyle, Douglass College '03

A sharp double standard existed at the New Jersey College for Women in the 1920's. At first glance, NJC women seemed to display an ardent dedication to the college and its mission. They abided by and, in many instances, promoted the prescribed college decorum; they fervently participated in college- sponsored extracurricular activities; and, above all, they took an intense interest in preserving many time-honored college traditions.


Early Yule Log Ceremony in College Hall, 1921? c. Schumann Photo

At a more critical glance, NJC women also reveled in the frivolous and rebellious youth-exclusive subculture of the '20s that had taken the nation by storm - bobbing their hair, smoking cigarettes, and playing the field of eligible Rutgers bachelors across town. The stark contrast between these two tenets of student life is indicative of a decade when rapid social change rocked the nation. As a symptom of this change, many youths felt torn between the thriving subculture of their peers and the conventional moral codes and expectations that had been instilled in them since birth. Such was the case at NJC.

The 1920's are characterized as a decade of prosperity. Though initially economic in nature, this prosperity diffused into all other arenas of American life. It was the age of the flapper, of speakeasies, and of trivial spending. It was an era that threatened the image of the Victorian woman - - timid, conservative and polite in character -- and an era that toyed with social taboos. The Media popularization of Freud's ideas unraveled the social hush on matters of a sexual nature and made sex appeal a staple fixture of the advertisement industry.1 In collegiate communities, especially, these new habits and ideas were able to flourish. The collegian was an emblem for the soul of energy and youth. In an environment shielded from the constant influence of family life and, at the same time, one step shy of the working adult world, collegians were able to carve out their own social niche. " 'Collegiate, collegiate, collegiate,' everything is being collegiate. It's a fad . . .".2 In the 1920's, college campuses can be seen as representative of the conscience of an entire nation.

To a degree, the New Jersey College for Women appeared to be immune to the influence of the "Roaring '20s." Reference to the Redbook, the NJC student handbook, a publication for and by NJC students, illustrates the strict rules and heavy allegiance to campus traditions at the college, and that these rules were, in fact, promoted by a strong contingent of students. This attitude can be seen in the preamble to the section that delineated regulations in the 1929-1930 Redbook:

The following regulations have been adopted to govern the student life at the New Jersey College for Women because they embody recognized social obligations and standards and have been found by past experience to be the best rules for college community life.3

These regulations were many and varied, spanning all areas of student life. Some included detailed prescriptions for etiquette within the residence quarters. For example, the following were the designated "quiet hours" of the quarters, which "connote the silence of all musical instruments, no loud talking, [and] reasonable quiet in all conduct:"

8:30 AM - 12:00 AM, Monday through Saturday, inclusive
1:30 PM - 4 :00 PM , Monday through Friday, inclusive
10:30 PM - 7:00 AM, Monday through Sunday, inclusive4

A list of approved New Brunswick eateries were listed in the Redbook; students were forbidden to visit eateries that were not included on the list.5 Chaperones were mandated for off-campus travel, and strict curfews and restrictions were applied with regard to off-campus excursions and visits from male guests within the housing quarters.6 Restrictions were also placed on dress. Most infamous of all aspects of the code was that "no student be seen off campus without a hat. This has been rigidly adhered to by the older students, who have won the admiration of the townspeople by the orderliness of the appearance and the refinement of manners."7 Though such clauses were omitted in succeeding years, the 1921 Redbook delineated rigid restrictions on dancing conduct:

Dancing is sanctioned so long as it remains clean, wholesome recreation. No exaggerated type such as camel-walking, cheek dancing, will be tolerated . . . Dancing is clean when the mind is clean. Do not offset the good influences of your college training by thoughtless action when dancing.8

Perhaps the most strongly advocated rules given by students to their fellow students were those regarding the traditions and philosophies of the college and those which dealt with maintaining and radiating an appropriate public image. The 1921 Redbook gave a word of advice on how an NJC student should conduct herself with respect to her college's heritage:

The NJC smile holds a unique place in the college history. On the campus and in the buildings it always greets visitors or residents be they friends or strangers. So does NJC courtesy. Hand in hand these two have made a reputation for the college in the state . . . The customs are being created by the students now in college, the reputation of NJC is being daily made, therefore, every student feels a personal interest and a responsibility for the campus and the building, the actions, and the conversations of her fellow students. Think twice!9

In addition to upholding the respected name of the college and embracing and promoting the etiquette of their elders, NJC students were avid participants in academic extracurricular activities, which served to expand their minds and leadership skills within the community. Some of these included the Cooperative Government Association; campus publications like the Hornbook literary magazine and Campus News student newspaper; the YWCA, the Weepies, a drama group; the math club, foreign language clubs, and numerous honor societies.10

While NJC boasted its college pride and lady-like decorum, it also possessed a flip side that was not quite so resistant to the fads of the 1920's. Even though there were many elements present in the college community that suggested such an overwhelming resistance, NJC students maintained a dual identity in that they too were members of the thriving underworld of youth culture. Barbara Solomon's In the Company of Educated Women offers insight into the mentality of college students in the '20s. This insight makes some sense when applied specifically to the women at NJC: "Peer groups at all schools were of two minds in both resisting and accepting the standards set for them."11 "Resistance" by NJC women to the "clean" and lady-like mentality espoused by the administration and the Redbook was apparent in the content of many articles published in the Campus News. These articles focused on such topics as dating and formal dances with little regard for issues of a more scholarly, intellectual nature like world news and politics. One article that typifies this common theme was entitled, "How to Enjoy Junior Prom." Appearing in the February 25, 1922 edition, it depicts one of the biggest "catastrophes" a young woman can experience on her prom night: having her roommate arrange a horrible blind date. The following is a short excerpt:

Your roommate, of course, knows bunches and bunches of Rutgers men. She is an enthusiastic thing. She just aches to get you a man for the junior. He arrives. On first sight you think that your roommate must have met him in an accident - a railroad wreck for example . . . The time our roommate had at the prom will appear in the next issue. Needless to say, it will be a posthumous piece of writing.12

Other areas also exposed the NJC woman's lack of lady-like conservatism with regard to men. For example, the biographical prose beneath the portraits of several students in the 1929 Quair made very bold allusions to heterosexual relationships. One such prose about an anonymous student read as follows:

Where the "Ivy" clings to the wall,
There her heart is to be found.
You see, she's very popular on the other side of town.13

As ambiguous as it may appear, the prose alludes to the "other side of town," and to those who are familiar with the geography of the Rutgers University campus, that "other side of town" is most certainly the Old Queens campus - home to the men of Rutgers College. Excursions to the "other side of town" for purposes other than those of an academic nature were not an uncommon occurrence. Rutgers College fraternity parties were a frequented weekend attraction for NJC women, and on some occasions, the women found themselves in trouble with the NJC administration after being spotted in a speakeasy or in an unchaperoned automobile following these Rutgers affairs.14

As the underworld of 1920s youth culture swept NJC women into its whirlwind of glamour, sex appeal, and trivialities, it also detracted from the most-important pillar of a woman's collegiate education: the development of capable, educated, enthusiastic women who display confidence in themselves. Through all the Freudian allusions and merry-making, women started to adopt a sentiment of subservience and inferiority to men. Expressions of enthusiasm for women's leadership in campus organizations and women's intellectuality in the honor societies were diametrically opposed by articles such as "Men Professors More Popular at NJC Inquiring Reporter Learns from Students," which appeared in a March 1928 edition of Campus News. The article polled five students on whether they preferred male or female professors. A resounding five out of five vouched that male professors were greatly favored over females. Even more shocking, the rationale behind their preference did not do female talent one bit of justice. One of the polled students branded women professors as "conventional and narrow," while another student praised male professors as being "franker, more tolerant, often more worldly, and [having] a keener sense of humor" than their female colleagues. "They [men] are generally more intellectual than women and certainly not so petty. Usually women lack a sense of humor," added another student. Perhaps the women professors represented a more conservative, cautious type of academic woman who was out-of-step with the changing mores of the 1920's.

Although these two very distinct and simultaneous sectors of student life - that of the dignified college woman and that of the brazen college girl - existed at NJC in the '20's, they did not exist without arousing many moral and social conflicts. In conjunction with the writings of Freud, life in the '20's was a perfect example of id and superego grappling. The fads of the 1920's were a wide swing to the left, and as a result, many students found themselves trapped between the forces of wholesome college life and that of the budding subculture of their peers. This conflict was illustrated by the chosen debate topic of a 1923 meeting of the Pro and Con Club: "should college girls have bobbed hair?" To the "pros," bobbed hair was defended as a "time-saver, becoming to most people, and hygienic." To the "cons," bobbed hair was refuted on the grounds "that bobbed hair was no time-saver if it had to be curled and that employers objected to it."15 Apparently, to advocates of bobbed hair, it was necessary to justify its violation of the status quo in order for it to be deemed acceptable; they argued that it was not a fad, but merely a convenience of modern life. In a similar manner, an editorialist in a 1923 edition of Campus News sought to justify adherence to an unpopular college rule. Her article, "The Mission of Hats," aimed to present reasons for the daily pain of hat-wearing - "the invincible custom which is stifling originality and crushing freedom." Through much contemplation, she conceded that hats - specifically senior caps - had a larger and more meaningful significance because they served as a symbol for college life.

May we in our college life be like the cap itself. As the crown is round and firm, may we be all-round students and firm in our resolutions. As the mortar board is square, may we be square in our work and our sports. Like the tassel may we be active; and as it points out the position and standing of its wearer, may be we by our actions, show what we are.16

All in all, this editorialist's method of justifying an undesirable element of the NJC dress code seems no more than a creative manipulation of reality. Her attempt to justify undesired regulations and the Pro and Con Club's debate over bobbed hair demonstrate the conflict of ideas in the 1920s. Common beliefs and practices were being challenged in a tremendous way. The situation at NJC, specifically, was a microcosm of the immense social conflicts that were playing out on a grander, nationwide scale. The older and younger generations were converging and diverging at a rapid rate, resulting in a confident, yet bewildered group of young people. They were confident as they ruled their peer-exclusive culture, and, at the same time, bewildered as they tried to maintain ties with their traditional, parental heritage. Thus, since they could not divorce themselves completely from either of these forces, the women of NJC, as well as American youth in general, continued to lead double lives in the 1920s.

Suzanne Boyle
Douglass College '03


1 Barbara M. Solomon, In the Company of Educated Women (New Haven, CT.: Yale University Press, 1985), p. 162.

2 Paula S. Fass, The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s (Oxford University Press, 1977) p.27.

3 New Jersey College for Women. Redbook, 1929-1930, p.13.

4 Ibid., p. 20.

5 Ibid., p. 13.

6 Ibid., 1931-1932 , p.29.

7 Ibid., 1929-1930, p.11.

8 Ibid., 1921-22, p.19.

9 Ibid., 1921-1922, p.9.

102 George P. Schmidt, Douglass College: A History (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1968), p.133-139.

11 Solomon, p.158.

12 "How to Enjoy Junior Prom," Campus News, February 25, 1922, p. 1.

13 New Jersey College for Women, Quair, 1929, p. 154.

14 Schmidt, p. 130-131.

15 "Bobbed Heads are Defend by Pro and Con," Campus News, ------, p. 1.

16 "The Mission of Hats," Campus News, ------, pp. 2-4.


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