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The Then and Now of the Yearbook

The Halcyon has been a College constant through times of war and peace, often leavened with humor

 “The yearbook is the bastard of the school publications—at Swarthmore anyway. It is too big to be easy, too important to omit, and too permanent to handle sloppily or jocularly.”— Bill Hoyt ’65, editor of the College’s centennial-year 1964 Halcyon.

The staff of the third Swarthmore yearbook, published by the Class of 1887, expressed its experience in a different tone:


The Editors now one and all
In vain for contributions call;
And when a Junior comes in view
They boldly ply their trade anew;
“Stay, for the Halcyon you must write!
Now will you promise honor bright?”
The Junior turns with frightened eye;
“Why I can’t write, I’ll tell you why,”
And then begins a list of reasons
He has stored up for needy seasons … ”

The Halcyon is an imperfect but important field guide to student life at Swarthmore. Just how that time is represented is something that the editors grapple with anew each year in revealing, often soul-searching and entertaining forewords. They apologize for errors and omissions, due either to lack of space or lack of organizational interest. Some protest that they are only thinking of the here and now (1939 states that “none of us will claim that this year’s Halcyon has been written for the ages”) while many recognize it as an historical record (1925 declares that one of its goals is “to provide a permanent record”). The books’ humor, when present, has evolved from gentle ribbing to more boldly ironic.

The first Halcyon covers the academic year 1882–83. It was published by the then-junior class and is thus labeled “ ’84.” Confusingly, until the mid-1950s, the books are identified as the publishing junior class’ graduating year, though the book covered that class’ junior year.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the yearbooks reflect Swarthmore’s resemblance to a small Quaker boarding school rather than a college. Biology Professor Spencer Trotter, for example, good-humoredly recalls seeking out bedtime “illicit candles,” and President Edward Hicks Magill runs ads touting Swarthmore’s “healthful location.” Most student activities, other than classes, are segregated by sex, though the Halcyon and Phoenix were always co-ed.

The early yearbooks resemble humor magazines, with a section devoted to roughly drawn cartoons and jokey poems. One of the goals of the 1889 Halcyon describes that of many succeeding ones: to present “a delineation of the follies and foibles of student life,” including lighthearted descriptions of individuals.

There is also a strong tendency toward clubbiness, with plenty of small, silly groups like 1890’s women-only “The Adipose Tissue Association,” whose motto was “Laugh and Be Fat.” Each class is treated as a kind of club, with its own cheer (“Re, Rah! Re, Rah! ’89 Re, Rah!!”), colors, motto, and badge. Freshmen are hazed—forced into midnight immersions in the Crum.

In sobering contrast, student obituaries appear nearly every year into the 1920s. There are also long lists of the ex-members of each class.

The first yearbook photo depicts the 1888 football team (with a 62-0 victory over Haverford reported three years later). Faculty members appear in the next set of photos. The first musical group featured is the all-male “Mandolin Society” and eight Swarthmore songs are reproduced in the 1893 book.

For quiet Quakers, there is a lot of talking: a public-speaking department, three literary societies, debating, and contests involving oratory, extemporaneous speaking and declamation. 

During his tenure in the early 20th century, President Joseph Swain boldly promotes the College in the yearbook by proclaiming its “ideal home atmosphere and moral tone,” “intimate contact of the specialist professor and the student,” and “carefully controlled” athletics. He proudly notes the College’s continual growth, commenting on the existence of a waiting list, with one family contributing five children. Expansion also takes the form of new ads for European travel and the establishment of a Western Swarthmore Club—for alumni west of the Alleghenies. Presidents William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson visit the campus. World War I’s impact is evident in the 1919 book’s dedication to “men in service,” exhortations to buy war bonds (“the college student’s way to put lead in Kaiser”) and an honor roll of College students in the military and in Quaker relief work. 

By the 1921 book, a clear sense of College history is being cultivated with second-generation students, an original Founder’s Day tree-planting re-enactment, and a growing number of buildings.

President Frank Aydelotte shows up in stern photos, always at work. Honors students begin to appear, dispersed among the sports, fraternities, and “women’s fraternities,” as sororities were called. The 1931 book “tried to picture the spirit of modernism and progress that is at the heart of Swarthmore … ”  Shortly thereafter, the women’s frats are disbanded. Though Swarthmore still consists of students largely from the mid-Atlantic states, often from Quaker schools, it continues to expand in size and outlook. Students are awarded Rhodes scholarships, and more luminaries like American Socialist party leader Norman Thomas and singer Marian Anderson make appearances on campus.

During the tumultuous 1940s, the separate yearbook humor section ended. The Halcyon reports the establishment of such activist groups as the American Student Union, involved in a range of global concerns, and an International Club run by a Japanese student. Aydelotte departs (with a smile) and the pivotal 1944 yearbook states that it tried to focus on peacetime Swarthmore but “it may be some time before this familiar way of life shall return.” The immediacy of the war’s impact is signaled by the change in academic schedule to three terms per year: “ … friends became elusive people who graduated every four months.” 

The male student population fluctuates dramatically with the loss of draftees and the influx of Chinese and American Navy service men. Perhaps the most direct indication of those pressured times is the yearbook’s comment: “More harried than their also harried predecessors, this year’s staff … underwent hair-raising sessions … concerning techniques involved in persuading about-to-be-drafted sophomore try-outs to hand in assignments.” An antidote to war is the prominent Matchbox section.

The 1946 (covering  ’44–’45) book concludes, “With this fable [of the halcyon kingfisher] in mind, and a great trust in our hearts, we silently and sincerely pray that next year’s Halcyon will fly forth in days of a real and lasting peace.” Postwar books feature some color photography and much more co-ed activity. Student photos reveal a more ethnically and geographically diverse group; by 1952, the yearbook states that applicants are no longer asked their religious affiliation and, for the first time, the junior-year-abroad program is mentioned. Perhaps not coincidentally, by the mid-1950s, the Halcyon becomes a senior class book.

By 1959, the yearbook begins to favor more unlabeled, candid photos and less verbiage—a full-blown style by the 1970s. There are local photos of three United States presidents. Frisbees and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations increase, and fraternities decrease. The 1968 Halcyon states, “The primary student activity at Swarthmore is talking about Swarthmore … The second biggest activity is trying to forget about it … ”  

By the 1980s the Halcyon starts returning to a more straightforward presentation of campus life. Dormitories become identifiers, and the term “Swattie” turns up in the 1990s. Moving into the 21st century, full-color books depict a greater diversity of political and social opinions, along with multiple organizations for people of color. 

Has the rise of digital communication affected yearbook publications? Articles discussing the demise of the yearbook appeared as early as 1991, when the future Facebook founder was in first grade. The Halcyon remains a permanent record of the College from a student perspective, readily available online at It may become even more accessible as McCabe Library considers how to take identifying tags collected from alumni and integrate them into the library’s digital collections. The yearbook is an annual milestone, that “pencils down” moment, a full stop in this 24-hour digital-information world. It’s the formal senior photo bumping up against the endless stream of selfies. It’s the most expensive student publication on campus, and it has weight. This 1916 Halcyon fragment still rings true, despite its old-fashioned tone:

To Our Readers
... And when in twenty years or more
You turn again these pages o’er
They’ll mind you of the days of yore
In Swarthmore.