Stargazing, Vanderbilt football and 'Bachelor of Ugliness' reigned 100 years ago  printer 

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletic Department The 1901 football team defeated four opponents by a combined score of 131-0, including victories over the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia.

Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletic Department The 1901 football team defeated four opponents by a combined score of 131-0, including victories over the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia.

by Bill Carey

A hundred years ago, while many people had lingering memories of the Civil War, Vanderbilt was still searching for its role in the New South. The institution was beginning to struggle with its connection to the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, which began nearly three decades earlier. It was also being shaped by James Kirkland, the academician, who had was its Chancellor in 1893. Kirkland had visions of the University's future grandeur that almost no one else could see.

Of course, students had little knowledge of these things at the time. The young men and women who attended Vanderbilt a century ago lived, studied and thought in ways that would be hard for us to imagine. An in-depth look through the Vanderbilt Hustler and Nashville's daily newspapers from the 1901-02 school year gives an interesting snapshot of what life on campus was like then.

For example ...

  • Vanderbilt, as well as the rest of the country, was recovering from the assassination of the nation's 25th president, William McKinley. McKinley had been shot by an anarchist Sept. 6, 1901. During the first week of the academic year, the work of the school was suspended for a day out of respect to the fallen president. Students were required to attend a special service that took place in Old Main (now Kirkland Hall) and highly encouraged to attend another one in downtown Nashville at the Union Tabernacle (now the Ryman Auditorium.)

  • The Vanderbilt campus was still largely undeveloped, with only five academic buildings. Vanderbilt was also located in a section of town that had only recently been developed. Virtually everyone reached the campus via the West End Avenue streetcar line, and the main Vanderbilt stop was located close to Old Main.

  • Students spent their class time in four buildings: Old Main, where many classes met and where the University library and chapel were located; Science Hall; Wesley Hall (located where Library Lawn is today), housing the School of Religion, faculty offices, and residential space for faculty and students alike; and Mechanical Engineering Hall (a portion of which is now a part of the Owen Graduate School). The Gymnasium was a center for student activities. Kissam Hall (located where Alumni Lawn is today), a new dormitory, was another center of activity. Students who were looking for something to do at night could drop by the observatory (located right in the middle of campus) to look through the telescope at the Moon, stars and planets.

  • The Vanderbilt football team enjoyed one of its most successful seasons ever, routing such opponents as Georgia (47-0), Auburn (40-0), Kentucky State College (22-0) and Tennessee (22-0). The only game the team lost was a 11-10 defeat at the hands of Washington University of St. Louis. The descriptions of these games by Hustler reporters makes for wonderful reading. (Auburn's team played "the dirtiest game of football that ever has been." Tennessee "resorted to dilatory tactics to kill time and keep the score down.") However, it should be noted that in those days, the game was hardly organized by today's standards. Head football coach W.H. Watkins also coached basketball and baseball. All the players were walk-ons, and some of the better ones were medical students. In fact, there was some concern at the beginning of the year that Vanderbilt wouldn't have enough players to field a team.

  • The Vanderbilt football, baseball and track teams played their games on what is now referred to as Curry Field (the area in front of and on where Wilson Hall is now located) but then known as Dudley Field. The "Commodore" nickname was not yet officially used for Vanderbilt teams. There was no band, no cheerleaders and few organized cheers. Despite these things, Vanderbilt students could get pretty excited after a big win. The day after defeating the University of Nashville 10-0, a near riot between several hundred Vanderbilt and University of Nashville students broke out downtown. According to the account of the event in the Nashville Banner (repudiated in the Hustler), the trouble started when a number of Vanderbilt students "tried to paint the stone fence of the University of Nashville yellow and black."

  • Among the more popular organizations on campus were the Dialectic Literary Society, the Philosophic Society, the Mandolin Club and the Young Men's Christian Association. One of the more active groups was the Glee Club, which sang in several towns in the surrounding area, as well as at Nashville's Union Tabernacle. Campus debates, usually on national political issues, were frequent and often reported at some length in the Hustler. Meanwhile, a new organization to appear on the campus was Phi Beta Kappa. The Nashville chapter of this honorary fraternity was chartered in November 1901 through the efforts of Herbert Tolman, professor of Greek (see Dec. 3-9, 2001 Register).

  • Most of the students were men, so meeting young women outside the University was quite a challenge. At one point, a young alumnus named Arthur Dyer (founder of the Nashville Bridge Co. and for whom the Dyer Observatory was later named) organized a daylong outing to Mammoth Cave. (Tickets, which included round-trip train fare, cost $5.90.) In an article about the outing in the Hustler, Dyer made it clear that he intended to recruit as many young ladies as possible from surrounding female schools such as Belmont and Boscobel.

  • Vanderbilt publications other than the Hustler included the Comet yearbook -- named to honor renowned Vanderbilt astronomer, Edward Barnard (See Oct. 29-Nov. 4 Register) -- and the Observer, a literary journal that came out monthly. In addition to fiction and poetry, the 1901-02 contained editorials and articles about local, national and international politics.

  • The most frequent advertisers in the Hustler included clothing retailers, tailors, laundries, banks and public baths (convenient, comfortable bathing was a luxury to students in 1901.)

  • One of the highest honors that a student could achieve was the "Bachelor of Ugliness," a title given to the student believed to be most representative of ideal young manhood. In the spring semester of 1902, that honor was given to football star John Edgerton. Edgerton was considered such a celebrity that advertisers in the Hustler used his name to sell their products. One such ad read: "John E. Edgerton will be glad to see his friends at Varley, Bauman & Bowers: One Price Clothiers, Hatters, Furnishers and Merchant Tailors."

  • The concept of medical schooling was quite different than it is today, and the philosophy of the Vanderbilt School of Medicine was still affected by the University's affiliation with the Methodist Church. This was exemplified by comments that were made by Dr. G.A. Lofton, who spoke to medical students when the school year began. "There is a grand affinity between medicine and religion," Dr. Lofton told students of the school, then located on a separate campus (see Dec. 3-9 and Dec. 10-12, 2001 Registers). "The body, which is the temple of the soul, should only be looked into by those who possess religion, and I simply urge that you rise to the very highest point in your profession, for I believe that next to a preacher, a doctor is the noblest calling."


    Bill Carey is a Vanderbilt alumnus, a local journalist and the author of Fortunes, Fiddles and Fried Chicken: A Nashville Business History.

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