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University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Spots at the University of Illinois

  • Attention Sucklings:  Sophomore Proclamation (1909 class) of 1906 to the freshman class. Attention Sucklings: Sophomore Proclamation (1909 class) of 1906 to the freshman class. Record series 39/2/24, Box 1, Folder 101-201 University Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • Freshman Cap Burning: circa 1913; postcard image of a large bonfire with a crowd gathered around on the baseball diamond at Illinois Field with the Men’s Gymnasium and Gym Annex visible in the background. Record Series 39/2/20, Box ACT 6, Folder Homecoming 1911-14 Freshman Cap Burning: circa 1913; postcard image of a large bonfire with a crowd gathered around on the baseball diamond at Illinois Field with the Men’s Gymnasium and Gym Annex visible in the background. Record Series 39/2/20, Box ACT 6, Folder Homecoming 1911-14 University Archives, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • Green Freshman Cap: donated by Jon Edwards/Ruth Edwards Roy; from 1931 Green Freshman Cap: donated by Jon Edwards/Ruth Edwards Roy; from 1931 Student Life and Culture Archival Program, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
  • The Co-Op: Daily Illini advertisement from October 3, 1908 The Co-Op: Daily Illini advertisement from October 3, 1908 Student Life and Culture Archival Program, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

 

Compared to other universities, freshman cap burning at the University of Illinois occurred with reduced ceremony. Throughout the early years of the twentieth century, the Daily Illini regularly exhorted freshman to increase the cermony's significance with ritual and tradition. Despite this negative perception of the burning ceremony, however, the University of Illinois actually has a rich thirty-year tradition surrounding freshman caps.

At least since 1906, men wore green “spots” to indicate their rank as underlings at the University of Illinois. Though the cap color remained the same, each year the Freshman Cap Burning Committee chose different cap button colors to indicate their individual college. In the 1910s, a popular place for members of the freshman class to purchase the headgear was at R.E. Zombro’s, which sold about 450 caps in 1914, with another 100 sold by the Co-op, the University of Illinois supply store. Each year from approximately 1906-1934, the Freshman Cap Committee met to discuss event details, particularly the freshman cap burning each spring that signified the impending graduation to sophomore class. After nine months of constant wear, freshman arrived at these events with their caps “ragged, tattered, and besmeared.”1

By the 1920s, the event grew to include a twilight concert before the cap burning, sometimes held on the Illinois Field and other times at the Orpheum theater in Champaign. During this era, destruction of local property accompanied the freshman cap burning, with Champaign theaters left with shattered windows, battered doors, and broken seats. The wanton destruction caused much argument, explanations, and promises to University administrators, who threated abolishment of the tradition. In 1923, after successfully negotiating to continue the tradition, the Daily Illini editor pled with the freshman class: “Are we so unruly and incompetent of self-discipline as to need backers of law and order to guide our footsteps? That impression of us is undesirable on the campus. Do we want to be guilty of the death of another Illini tradition? That would be unfair to our successors.”2

At one of the final freshman cap burnings in 1931, members of the University band assisted in gathering freshmen by snake dancing through the streets. The line progressed to the Illinois Field, preemptively water-soaked by the Twin City fire departments. Freshman class president Gordon Buck lit the bonfire and threw in his cap as a signal for the other freshman to act in kind. The men concluded the ceremony with a less formal tug-of-war and mud battle. However, destruction of property and general mayhem continued to be a problem; after a hectic melee in 1934, the Student Council prohibited freshman cap burning. This action precipitated the end of a three-decade tradition. Just five years later in 1939, Tom Mayhill, Daily Illini editor, lamented the loss of tradition and school spirit, including freshman caps and snake dances.”3

Angela Jordan


1“Freshman Cap Burning Scheduled For Friday,” Daily Illini, May 16, 1918.
2“Don’t Destroy a Tradition,” Daily Illini, May 16, 1923.
3“Campus Traditions—Are They on the Road Back?”, Daily Illini, September 28, 1939

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