The Eating Clubs and Princeton University


In the first of a series of articles, the Tory examines the status of Princeton’s eating clubs and their relationships with the University.


When Princeton undergraduates decided to break themselves off University sustenance in the late nineteenth century and form their own dining communities, they began a system that has lasted until today: the eating clubs. It marked the beginning of a long, complicated, and at times strained relationship between Princeton’s students and its administrators. Because 75% of upperclassmen today are members of one of the eleven currently-operated independent clubs, the University has no direct control over the meals those students eat, many of the club-hosted events they attend, or the (often) alcohol-induced disorder that ensues in some clubs.

The clubs’ independence is not completely unrestricted, however. Because all club members are University students, the University has had a stake in monitoring and at times getting involved with the clubs, and this has not always been welcomed by club members, past and present. For club presidents and officers, reaching out to the University for seemingly small benefits, such as free wi-fi and University-hosted club websites, may also serve to give away a bit of that independence. Will this matter in the long run? Will the University ever use its influence to take control of the eating clubs and re-shape them as it likes? Perhaps not, but if clubs do not value their own independence, why must the University respect it?

The Genesis of the Clubs

Historically, undergraduates at the all-male Princeton-of-old ate in the commons operated by the college steward. However, beginning in 1843, some men began to board with families in town, where the rate was higher than that charged at commons. Over the next decade, they began to form their own associations that were cheaper than boarding with families in town. These led to the rise of the small associations, less formal than the eating clubs, which became increasingly prominent after the University banned Greek-letter fraternities in 1855. Through the 1860s and ‘70s, the number of groups grew to as many as a dozen, using whimsical monikers such as “Numquam Plenus” (Latin for “Never Full”) and “Knights of the Round Table.” However, these associations were not very sustainable: once a class of close friends graduated, the nucleus of the smaller groups departed. Thus these associations came and went.

In the fall of 1876, the University, presided over by James McCosh, instituted a new centralized dining hall, called the Commons, which was located at the corner of Nassau Street and what is now University Place. According to Frederic Rich in his historical book, The Ivy Club, the interior of the Commons featured one large room with a dozen tables, and was described as having both “monotonous” food and atmosphere. There were just two non-student-run alternatives at the time: the Nassau Inn and the University Hotel. A group of young men, disillusioned with the University fare and shut out from local boarding-houses, which were at full capacity, began to rent the former law school building, Ivy Hall, on Mercer Street, and employed their own steward (rather than paying dues to a landlady, as did other associations). After informally taking meals there for a couple of years, in 1879 the upperclassmen began a more formal kind of eating club, the Ivy Hall Eating Club.

In 1883, Ivy received permission to build its own clubhouse, becoming the first self-perpetuating upperclass eating club. Over the following years, additional clubs started up, including the University Cottage Club in 1886, the Tiger Inn and Cap & Gown Club in 1890, Colonial in 1891, and the Cannon and Elm clubs in 1895. All with their own buildings, the clubs claimed about a quarter of University students at the time, and did not hold a majority of students for another decade, until six more clubs had been formed: Campus, Quadrangle, Charter, Tower, Terrace, and Key & Seal.

Having evolved from the “Numquam Plenus” informal association model to the formal model, incorporating their own buildings and chefs, the independent clubs began to take on a larger role in the social life among students at the University. Underclassmen, previously forced into University Commons or boarding-house associations, began forming sophomore clubs at the boarding houses, with names such as Sphinx, Faust, and Fafna. The sophomore clubs became a sort of feeder system into upperclass eating clubs, but were eventually deemed unhealthy by both the University and the clubs. They died off by the first decade of the new century.
Besides meals, the social life of the eating clubs in the 1890s and early 1900s included teas and luncheon parties, as well as major upperclass dances. Billiards and music were popular diversions from academics the rest of the time, and students were no strangers to alcohol, as the drinking age from the 1880s until Prohibition was 18. However, the clubs provided alcohol much less frequently than they do now, and Frederic Rich records that students more often drank at the Rathskeller Bar of the Princeton Inn, then located on the corner of Bayard Lane and Nassau Street.

After the turn of the century, the eating clubs had become a social hub among Princetonians, and by 1906, clubs claimed membership of about two-thirds of University men.

The Quad Stand-Off

In the early 1900s, during the college presidency of Woodrow Wilson (class of 1879), the former University professor and progressive led the University to make a concerted effort to change the club culture, which he saw as harmfully selective and elitist. In 1906, Wilson presented a plan, eventually approved by the University’s trustees, to establish centralized residential quadrangles or colleges, each with its own dining hall, common room, resident master, and resident preceptors. Every undergraduate would be either assigned to or randomly put into one of these quads, and the independent clubs would either be absorbed into these or abolished.

Wilson announced the plan at commencement in June of 1907. Though the trustees had approved the quad plan, the alumni had not. They argued that the plan would “deprive undergraduates of freedom of social choice and destroy class spirit.” Under pressure from alumni, Wilson scrapped the quad plan, and maintained the clubs’ freedom.

Prospect Club and the Co-op Factor

According to retired Army Col. Charlie Rose ’50, the eating clubs’ independence wasn’t necessarily about elitism. Rose was a member of the old Prospect Club at Princeton, which rented the old Gateway clubhouse on Washington Road from the University in the 1940s and ‘50s. As Rose describes it, “Prospect was a club started by students to offer an alternative to the existing clubs that catered to what was then the more traditional mainstream membership dominated by graduates of elite boarding schools.” This forerunner to today’s co-ops reduced students’ costs by having the students themselves perform all of the work except cooking, which was done by a chef. The club had no graduate board. However, as the new Woodrow Wilson Lodge, forerunner of Wilson College, come onto the stage in the late ‘50s, interest waned and ultimately the club was forced to close its doors in 1959. During Prospect’s decline in membership, the University subsidized its existence, so as not to be like an “elephant stomping on a mouse,” Rose recalls. Although co-ops still exist today, the buildings in which they operate are owned by the University, and they do not hold the same independence that the eating clubs have.

Buying Buildings

Over the history of the clubs, as clubs went under financially, the University bought up many former club properties and converted them into University buildings. So, some former clubs such as Dial, Elm and Cannon (DEC), Prospect Club, and Key & Seal Club are now the sites of the Carl A. Fields Center, the Center for Jewish Life, and the Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, respectively.

This purchasing is not unprecedented, as the University owns land completely surrounding the clubs, and even some existing clubs’ lands. University Vice-President and Secretary Robert Durkee, Class of 1969, said that the University currently leases small chunks of University land to other clubs for parking lots and volleyball courts but declined to name which clubs, saying they did not wish to make such specific knowledge public. For any clubs with land owned by the University, at least some independence is clearly at stake.

Into the Present

While the University’s relationships with the clubs from their origins over a century ago “have been erratic,” according to Vice President Durkee, the University no longer considers proposals like that of President Wilson, to dissolve the clubs into a residential system. But the University does do many small things on behalf of the clubs. For example, it has taken the steps of modifying students’ financial aid as upperclassmen to adjust for higher eating club costs, as well as allowing upperclassmen to live and dine in their four-year residential colleges if they so choose, rather than living in upperclassman housing and eating in a club or independently. The University provides wireless access and snow removal to all clubs, and some clubs even have official web domain addresses. In these ways, the clubs do not have complete independence; because of their members’ affiliation with the school, the University maintains close ties with the clubs.

For club presidents, the question arises: how much independence—albeit in individually small things—is the clubs willing to give up to the University simply for the sake of convenience? When asked if these ties could ever be used to change the clubs, Vice President Durkee said he believes that the “clubs are very fully integrated into Princeton … I can’t even imagine a scenario in which the clubs were not playing the role” they are now. And to get rid of clubs entirely? According to Durkee, unlike in the early 1900s, that is now an “unrealistic hypothetical.” Yet in becoming the landowner in some cases and the small-service provider in others, the University has assumed a powerful position of influence with respect to the clubs. Club presidents and graduate boards would do well to take note of this going forward, even if Wilson’s hostile consolidation and control ethics remains in the past.

James Haynes is a freshman from Cullman, Alabama, majoring in the History Department. He can be reached at jh39@ Beau Lovdahl is a senior from Falls Church, Maryland, majoring in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. He can be reached at

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