Ask the Archivist: Flag Scrap

Dickinson Magazine, Ask the Archivist

What in the world was going on?—William G. Durden '71

by Jim Gerencser '93

Friends of President Durden recently donated several photographs that they found at a local antiques shop. The snapshots, apparently taken by a Dickinson student, date from the late 1920s. What led to the president’s question were five photos featuring a crowd of men on Biddle Field clad only in jockstraps or completely naked, all apparently gathered around a pole. 

The students in these photos were engaged in an annual activity known as the “flag scrap,” one of several competitions among the undergraduate men begun in the early 20th century that pitted sophomores against freshmen. The “freshies” or “greenies” were challenged to capture the flag at the top of a pole that was being guarded by the “sophs,” and they needed to do so in only 10 minutes. What ensued was generally a violent melée, and only on very infrequent occasions were the freshmen successful.

Of course, college traditions come about in many different ways, and they often evolve over time. When it first started around 1910, the contest took place on the academic quad. The students did not intentionally shed their clothes in these early years, though photos do show rather disheveled warriors following the fracas. After a few years the flag scrap was moved out to Biddle Field, and after a few years more the sophomores began to grease the pole on which the flag was perched. Then, just to make things even more challenging, the sophs began to grease themselves too. Rather than ruin their own clothing, the freshmen naturally stripped down. One of the only rules listed in the student handbook was that “contestants must wear tennis shoes.” All other clothing was clearly optional.

The flag scrap continued until at least 1940, a year when the freshmen were disqualified because some of their members had secretly sawed through a portion of the flag pole the previous night. Shortly thereafter, the outbreak of war and the accompanying changes at the college forced a suspension of such interclass scraps. The handbook for the 1947-48 school year leaves it “up to the classes involved as to whether they wish to revive these old Dickinson traditions.” With no mention of the scraps in subsequent years, we know that the students chose to leave that particular college custom in the past.

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Published April 11, 2013