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  • Stephen Dames

For the Archives

In memoriam yearbooks of yesteryear.

By Stephen Dames


“The Mortarboard has, with its usual thoughtfulness, selected for certain defunct societies of Barnard a pleasant site for a cemetery, a sketch of which it submits to the public,” reads the 70th page of Barnard’s 1900 yearbook, Mortarboard. “Here in undisturbed repose, shaded by weeping willows may lie the Southern Club, the Arthur Brooks Literary Society, Sans-Souci, ‘Aiai = Hui,’ the Tennis Club, the Bicycle Club, the Banjo Club, and that aged Mesthuselah the ‘G. P. S.’” The undersigned editors furnished the named societies with penciled headstones arranged in a field before the tomb of one General Grant, inscribed with a doleful epitaph from Thomas Gray’s 1750 poem “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.”


Illustration by Watson Frank

I came upon this page while procrastinating in the University’s digital archives, scrolling through the yearbook’s records of Barnard student groups. Each club’s page featured a witty description, an opulent illustration, and a complete list of members. Yet it was this graveyard of departed clubs that captured me. None of the organizations thus honored had lasted five years, yet the Mortarboard treated each as a pillar of community on campus. As I paged through the yearbooks more—both the Mortarboard and Columbia’s analogous Columbian—the reverence with which they honored these intrepid student bands grew only more obvious.


The entire constitution of the early 20th-century Barnard debate society Cui Bono, for example, was printed in the 1905 edition of the Mortarboard. “Those are eligible to membership,” it reads, “who can philosophize, psychologize, bimetallize, or what-notize. If you don’t know what these things mean neither does anyone else—cui bono.” The following year, the club found itself on the page for the defunct, laid to rest beneath the gothic engraving “In Memoriam.”


Tongue-in-cheek though these remembrances may have been, that these yearbooks offered space even to short-lived and farcical student groups meant something. In the century since these yearbooks came out, however, the presses have mostly gone silent.


In the early 20th century, yearbooks were often over 300 pages long and filled to the brim with student writing, illustrations, and photographs. Run as student clubs with large staffs and financed in part by high-profile advertisers—the 1902 Columbian included ads for Steinway Pianos and the Clyde Steamship Company—these yearbooks almost exclusively honored student achievements. University-run events featured only scantily. Pages that did not detail the comings and goings of student clubs and societies teemed with student writing. Each graduating class, for instance, satirized their four years on campus in “class poems” like the following, from 1904:


Did you ever, gentle reader,

Meet the species’ sophomore?

Celebrated not in hist’ry

Recked of not in ancient lore.

Did you ever note his visage

Stamped with high unworldly pride,

Or remark the zeal with which he

Doth a freshie boy bestride?


These early yearbooks included such things as “Reports from the Mines”—in reference to the then-named School of Mines—to document the trials and tribulations of SEAS students, entries in a “college dictionary,” sonnets “to the apartment-house overlooking the quadrangle,” and satirical letters to notably bad professors. The 1904 edition wasn’t the only yearbook to place the sophomores in the hot seat: Two years later, the Barnard class of 1906 published a Homeric “Sophmoriad.”


Today, Barnumbia yearbooks tell a different story entirely. A single University-paid editor-in-chief runs the Columbian, a yearbook increasingly slim in size and substance. The books contain little-to-no text and only meager references to most student clubs. Few people order them, and for the casual reader, they’re hard to come by: If you didn’t buy the book yourself, last year’s issue of the Columbian is only readable by appointment at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The Mortarboard appears to be dormant: The archived issues stop at 2013, and Barnard’s list of student organizations makes no mention of it.


It seems high time a wry editor of days gone by listed our yearbooks among such clubs as Cui Bono and Sans-Souci on a page reading “In Memoriam,” epitaphs and all.


Without yearbooks to glorify clubs, it seems as if no one else has stepped up to sustain the commemorative rituals. Undergraduate Student Life has not updated its student groups webpage for what seems like years. Long-dormant clubs with links to dead websites and abandoned Facebook pages bookend thriving campus fixtures. Little explicitly indicates what remains and what is gone. The ceremonial records of the nineteen-aughts seem almost gone for good, and today’s yearbooks seem little more than expensive photo albums of University-sponsored events.


Senior class president Nicolas Turrill, tasked with helping to hire this year’s Columbian editor-in-chief, has change in mind. He sees the yearbook as a time capsule for future students and hopes the editor can document what it means to be a Columbia senior in 2022 for generations to come.


“I would like the role to be capturing a picture of our class that isn’t necessarily for our class, but for people who come to Columbia 50 years from now,” he told me. “I want it to be a collection of stories and images of how much we accomplished during and post the pandemic despite hardships.”


When I mentioned the class of 2023’s pandemic years, Turrill grew weary even while emphasizing his peers’ resilience. I thought back to a poem I had read in Barnard’s 1903 Mortarboard, capturing so well this fatigue we haven’t bothered of late to record:


When college days are old, lass,

And you, a weary grind,

With more than it can hold, lass,

Have crammed your little mind—

Go home and take a rest, lass,

The spent and flunked among;

Life is not quite the jest, lass,

It seemed when you were young.

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