The Roaring Twenties at Tufts

Photographer Melville Munro was on the spot and documented what the university looked like a century ago
A four-man band, with drums, saxophone, banjo and piano, from the 1920s. Photographer Melville Munro was on the spot and documented what Tufts University looked like 100 years ago
If it’s got swing, the Jumbonians were ready for it in 1926. Photo: Melville Munro/Tufts Digital Collections and Archives
February 13, 2020

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One hundred years ago, Tuft freshmen respectfully touched their beanies when they passed upperclassmen on an unpaved Professors Row. This pleasant thoroughfare, once but a country lane, made chums of all who walked beneath its stately elms.

For Poet John Holmes, A1929,  those friendships would forever tether his heart to Tufts; a place he recalled with nostalgic fervor in his famed poem, “Along the Row”—saying —“My college—mine!”

Fortunately for Tufts historians—both armchair and otherwise—the written record of these bygone days is richly supplemented with the remarkable photographs of Melville Munro, E1904. Munro joined the engineering faculty right after graduation; in 1914 he was named a professor of electrical engineering.

Melville Munro in 1924, looking dapper and carrying his trusty camera. Photo: Tufts Digital Collections and ArchivesBy then, he had become fascinated by the potential of photography to capture daily life at the college, and he would go on to photograph Tufts for more than three decades.

His vast body of work totaled nearly 30,000 images by the time of his death in 1945, and now comprise the Melville Munro Collection housed in the university’s Digital Collections and Archives (DCA) . The collection, one of over seven hundred held by DCA, can be viewed by students, faculty, staff, and the public in the DCA reading room. Many photographs have also been scanned and are available online.

Munro’s hobby, as the story goes, began in 1913 when he borrowed a camera to take picture of a Tufts tradition, the Parade of Horribles, where young men tried to outdo themselves with outlandish costumes.

The sale of thirty-six photos to students yielded a profit of $1 for each negative made, Munro later recalled. Professor Edwin Rollins, E1904, soon joined the venture, and the Munro-Rollins team joined forces to advertise and distribute photos of college activities.

Munro’s hobby evolved into an even more invaluable public relations effort when President Albert Cousens, A1898, H1930, recognized the power of photography to boost the struggling college’s reputation. Cousens covered Munro’s expenses in a partnership that would last until Cousen’s death in 1937.

Another co-worker, Joseph Morton, director of the publicity office, partnered with Munro to keep Tufts highly visible in the local press. Munro estimated that together they increased production from about 100 negatives a year to nearly 1,000.

Below are but a few examples of how Munro captured every corner of the college campus during the 1920s, though clearly his legacy exceeds the span of one decade. “It is an almost superhuman task to keep track of this changing Tufts,” as one Tufts Weekly reporter wrote in 1937, “but this energetic little gentleman is equal to the task.”   

Jackson Dorm Room, 1920
“In all my pictures I have tried to show Tufts as I know it. All of it,” Munro said in a 1938 interview. That intensive focus included chronicling the changing nature of how and where students live on campus.

In 1923, 51 percent of male undergraduate liberal arts students and 62 percent of male engineering students lived off campus, along with 29 percent of Jackson College women. President Albert Cousens, however, sought to abandon the “cottage” system of dormitories for Jackson College then prevalent and construct one large dormitory.

That came to pass in 1925 with a bequest from Martha Stratton Ensign, which was used to build Stratton Hall, constructed in 1927. For men, Tufts in 1926 built Fletcher Hall (now Blakeley Hall, and a residence for Fletcher students). Both additions to housing helped to strengthen Tufts as a residential college and make it “less of a ‘trolley-care university,’” wrote Russell Miller, longtime Tufts professor of history and author of Light on the Hill: A History of Tufts College from 1852 to 1952.

Jack Moody, “The Sandwich Man,” November 2, 1928
Munro’s photographs paint a picture of a close-knit community and personal community. That’s not surprising, given that in 1920 the senior class numbered just 123 students, and the Class of 1924 totaled 303.

Over the decade, enrollment would grow modestly but steadily, reaching just over 1,000 undergraduates by 1929. Munro captured that friendly, everybody-knows-everybody quality with his portraits of everyday life and activities.

The Jumbonians, June 14, 1926

Clearly, if it’s hip, these guys were playing it. Maybe it was Al Jolson’s “I’m Sittin on Top of the World,” or Gene Austin’s “Bye Bye Blackbird”—the number-one and number-three hit songs that year.

“Hairston’s Quartet” or the Shenley Four, February 10, 1929

Many a musically minded student found Tufts a welcome place to grow their talents. This quartet brought together (l-r) Herbert Barrow, Theodore Carter, Lucien Ayers, and Jester Hairston, A1929, H72. Hairston went on after graduating from Tufts to become an acclaimed composer, songwriter, arranger, choral conductor, and actor, and a leading expert on Negro spirituals and choral music. 

Leo Lewis, circa 1920

Leo Lewis, A1887, H1922, was professor of music and head of the Department of Music for fifty years. One of the “Grand Old Men” of the college, he composed the music for Tufts’ song “Alma Mater” in 1898 and was responsible for making Tufts known as “the Singing College.”

In 1922, Tufts conferred on Lewis the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his many contributions to the college, and his stature left no doubt an impression on young students, among them future poet John Holmes, Jr., A1929, who wrote in his poem “Leo Rich Lewis, 1865-1945,”  “We heard his music rise, his morning shout. We heard his heart in light.”  Lewis Hall, the first co-educational undergraduate dormitory at Tufts, is named in his honor.

Tufts Baseball Team, 1920

Baseball was the national pastime in 1920, and the Tufts team had some serious looking players—perhaps they were World War I veterans? The Tufts college team was in good company in the Hub: that same year, professional baseball had sixteen teams—including one from Boston in each of the National and American leagues.

Three Jackson Tennis Players, 1922

In the year that Helen Wills lost the women’s singles final at the U.S. Open, these young women were inspired to take up their racquets and play. Wills went on to win nineteen Gland Slam titles.

Chapel Tower Through Alumni Gate, June 16, 1929

Alumni pride reached a crucial milestone in 1925 with beginning of the Tufts College Alumni Fund. Donations would be the source from which the Alumni Gate, across from the Campus Center on Professors Row, and several sections of wrought iron fence were financed.

By 1929, subscriptions exceeded $20,000, and one of the first priorities was to support the construction of the War Memorial Steps.

President John A. Cousens, 1928 
Inspiring the decade of dramatic growth was the astute strategist, Tufts President John Albert Cousens, A1898, H1930. Cousens lit a fire that traveled to every corner of the college during his sixteen-year tenure. Taking over first as interim president in 1919, he set his sights on adding at least one building to the physical plant of the college each year of his administration—a vision he nearly kept.

Generous philanthropy supported, among other capital projects, construction of Pearson Memorial Chemistry Laboratory in 1923 and Braker Hall, home to economics, in 1927. Cousens was only sixty-two when he died in office at home from a heart attack in 1937, but he left an indelible legacy.

President Cousens operating shovel at Gym construction site, 1931One of his priorities, Cousens Gymnasium was completed in 1933 and remains, as Miller writes, “a fitting memorial to a man who had played Varsity football as an undergraduate and whose enthusiasm for athletics remained undiminished throughout an energetic lifetime.”

Jackson Students E. Beattie and M.D. Rourke with Jumbo, 1922

As Miller wisely observes in the first volume of Light on a Hill, “The Tufts student body would not have been normal if it had not developed its campus customs and traditions and had not indulged in escapades of varying seriousness.” Munro photographed them all.

The most honored of traditions centered around that massive mascot, the famed Jumbo the elephant, who held court in Barnum Hall. How he came to reside at Tufts is a story until itself, but in short, university trustee P.T. Barnum had the elephant’s hide stuffed after Jumbo’s tragic death and gave it to Tufts in 1889 to be displayed in the Barnum Museum of Natural History, constructed in 1884.

Jumbo was believed to bring good luck. Before big exams or games, students would tug on his tail or put pennies in his trunk to ensure a good outcome.
 

Jackson Freshmen Wearing Buttons, circa 1921

All Jackson College first-years—women were segregated into Jackson College at the undergraduate level—had to wear green buttons, which were replaced by green bows in 1931.

Beanies were required of freshmen; men were also expected to touch their caps upon encountering an upperclassman and to doff them when passing a professor or the president. Freshman beanies are perhaps Tufts’ longest-running tradition, beginning in 1854 and ending in 1969. 

Parade of Horribles, Junior Day, 1926  

Another tradition was the Parade of Horribles, an annual parade of juniors held on Junior Day through the 1920s.

Members of junior class, enjoying a day of suspended classes, parade around dressed in outrageous costumes, competing for prizes. These two may have won “most tormented,” as they exhibit the “aftereffects” of chem lab.

Dr. Leary Teaches Pathology in Amphitheater at City Hospital, circa 1920
Medical and dental education grew rapidly in the early 1900s and shared close instructional ties. The medical school, located then at 416 Huntington Avenue in downtown Boston, was the fourth home of the school and the first for the School of Dental Medicine. The medical school occupied the right side of the building while the dental school was on the left.  

Two Student Surveyors, 1928

By 1920, enrollment in the engineering school had grown considerably and Dean Gardner Anthony recognized the growing need to formalize “a new type of education” that centered around “early training in shop, field, and laboratory for experience and observation,” prevailing over the study of theory.     

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.