July 16, 2007

The Evolution of the Slope Day Tradition at Cornell

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This article appears in the 2007 edition of The Sun’s annual Freshman Issue.

Since 1902, the annual end of the year celebration evolved from Spring Day to Spring Fest to reach its current version known as Slope Day.
Spring Day was a celebration in which the Arts Quad hosted attractions like fire-eaters, snake-charmers, cowboys, Indians and sailors. A tradition since May 1901, Spring Day was deemed one of Cornell’s first excuses to cancel class in the name of mass debauchery.
The Hill’s springtime carnival-parade-drag fest actually started because of a broke University Athletic Association. To save the Big Red’s teams, Cornell’s drama clubs and musical groups organized a benefit concert at the Lyceum Theatre downtown. The event struggled at the box office, and inspired an impromptu parade to stir-up business.
The procession featured a dog and a brass band and drove students out of class and onto the Quad to join the train, which led to the theatre to watch the show.
Thanks to the parade, the performance was so well-attended that the activities were repeated the next year. In 1902, tug of war competitions and booths were added to the day’s plans, allowing the carnival before the show to actually overshadow the production (and raise more money), thereby starting a Cornell custom.
In 1904, the University officially recognized the event with the suspension of classes from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Students filed onto the quad, following the Senior Marshals and marching band at the head of the procession.
Undergrads dressed in costumes ranging from “gaily garbed fakirs and barkers,” to a “congress of beauties” consisting of three students “grotesquely attired as female­s,” marched in the parade, according to The Sun.
The main attraction of Spring Day 1904 was the “marvelous Mzupzi,” a not-all-too-scary monster, The Sun reported: “laughter … rose anew each time [Mzupzi] was exhibited.” To see all the major attractions cost 35 cents.
As described by The Sun on May 14th, 1904, it was the “largest celebration of the kind ever held.”
By the end, students had “[blown] off enough surplus steam to last [another] year,” according to The Sun.
In addition to the shows, Spring Day events began to extend over the entire weekend. A drama or variety show would serve as the weekend’s opening act, followed by a dance beginning around 10 p.m. Saturday morning would start with a march of sorority and fraternity floats, and in the afternoon there was a carnival midway and a circus which featured “sideshows and freaks,” according to one Spring Day advertisement.
In keeping with its athletically-based origins, Spring Day started to include sports competitions. The 1934 Spring Day Scoop forecasted that “the weekend [promised] to be on the biggest athletic carnivals in the East.”
As the Spring Day events became more elaborate, planners began assigning themes to each year. Spring Day 1922 had a medieval theme, with a parade of Knights followed by jousting above Schoellkopf Field. In 1937, the theme was “Hillbilly Holiday,” with cow milking and “healthiest boy and girl” contests.
Spring Day went on hiatus during both World Wars. After World War II, the celebration gained the moniker “Spring Weekend.”
By this point, it started to focus on dancing rather than sports. It featured a Spring Weekend Queen and a Chubby Checker performance during Spring Day ’62. 1963 was the last mention of Spring Day in the Cornellian.
According to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, there were no classes held on the last day of school in 1969 and 1970 because of the political climate.
The next incarnation of Slope Day, known as Springfest, appeared in the late 1970s.
“Cornell Dining chose to hold a barbeque on the slope on the last day of classes in thanks to the community for putting up with some renovations [in The Straight],” Murphy said.
Murphy described Springfest as a “mellow afternoon on the slope with some entertainment,” where the University served alcohol to students. At the time, SpringFest was held later in the day and was not associated with students skipping classes.
Advertisements that appeared in The Sun in 1979 depicted Springfest as a weekend event. SpringFest included a concert, square dance, art show, carnival, cinema and a bagel-eating contest.
The time and reason for the transition of the name Springfest to Slope Day is not clear. The two have “always seemed to be interchangeable,” said Catherine Holmes M.S. ’85, associate dean of students for student activities.
More Slope Day changes occurred in 1985 when the legal drinking age changed from 18 to 21. The “attitudes about alcohol use were different then,” with less focus on risk and liability, Holmes noted.
After the drinking age changed, the University stopped serving alcohol but “students decided that something would happen and they showed up [with their own alcohol],” Holmes said.
“In the years that followed … a number of students were treated for alcohol related emergencies [usually pertaining to hard alcohol],” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of alcohol policy initiatives.
In response to the accidents and emergencies, the University attempted to stop Slope Day in the early 1990s. As an alternative, a University-organized event was offered on North Campus, where Court-Kay-Baur and Mews Halls are now located.
According to Murphy, the event was generally ignored and students decided to “[take] back the slope.”
In an attempt to limit activity on the Slope, the University decided to stop inviting bands and musical performances in the mid- 90s. Yet, “even in the absence of the formal event with a concert, students essentially started their own gathering,” Marchell said.
With students always returning to the Slope, the administration recognized the need for an “evolutionary process to migrate Slope Day towards an end-of-the-year healthy celebration,” Murphy said.
According to Marchell, aspects from earlier versions of Slope Day were gradually reintroduced, such as a concert and the sale of alcohol.
Continual attempts to improve Slope Day have since been made. Aside from the fence and increased security, the more recent incarnation of Slope Day is “very similar to the original model [of the early 1980s]” with a concert, barbeque and service of alcohol, Marchell said.