The cry of “Yea, Rowbottom!” served as the rallying call for mass student disturbances and even full-scale riots at the University of Pennsylvania during much of the twentieth century. The term was first used in 1910, starting simply as a student’s attempt to summon Joseph Tintsman Rowbottom, a 1913 graduate of Penn’s School of Engineering, but before the year was out, “Yea Rowbottom!” had become an invitation for mass mayhem. The tradition of Rowbottoms endured until the late 1970’s, serving as a an unpredictable and sometimes unfortunate outlet for youthful energies.
Origins: 1910: "Yea Rowbottom!"
There a number of versions, sometimes contradictory, of how the name of Joseph T. Rowbottom, B.E. 1912, became associated with the notorious riots in which high-spirited college students went on a rampage of wanton destruction of public and private property around the Penn campus. However, it seems probable that young Rowbottom himself was not a drunken ringleader who went around creating trouble around campus. On the contrary, Rowbottom appears to have been a conscientious student whose name came to be associated with the riots thanks to his friends.
The tradition of Rowbottom is said to have started in 1910. In this year, student hijinks were associated with the established tradition of Sophomore Cremation, with expressions of school spirit associated with sports events, and with warm nights when students gathered in the dormitory triangle to vent their energy by wrestling, smashing crockery, or some other horseplay. For reasons which are still not very clear, starting in 1910, students at these gatherings would often call out “Yea, Rowbottom!!!” An account of the association of the Rowbottom rallying call for student riots was printed in the Philadelphia Ledger of May 30, 1910.
Arthur W. Marriott, a senior at the time of the first Rowbottoms of 1910, provided this eyewitness account in 1934, twenty-four years after the event:
I was a resident of the Dormitories when this thing started. Various friends of Rowbottom including his roommate would show up in the Triangle at any hour of the evening either late or early to call him to the window. All the winter of 1909-1910 these calls made little comment, but when the spring came and we were deep in study it got to be a nuisance. Some of the rest of us would stick our heads out and in no uncertain terms tell the caller to shut his mouth up. The men in the rooms began to enforce the argument by throwing missiles at the callers and burnt out bulbs and other articles found their way out to the sidewalk. Then as examination time came in the spring of 1910, and when a fellow had been grinding into the early morning hours, it got to be the custom of anyone who felt in the mood to go to the window and bellow out “Yea Rowbottom.” It seemed to relieve the tedium of hot weather study hours. The effect was certain and instant. Everybody would go to the window and add his bit. After a few minutes there would be a general discharge of missiles from the windows, including anything loose, and various room crockery with which the rooms were furnished. These affairs would happen about once a week all the spring of 1910 and were the first of what have proved to be and were then very annoying to the authorities. I thought this exact description of the first Rowbottom by an eyewitness would be of interest to you.
It has been said that Joseph T. Rowbottom’s friends called out his name in order to mock him for being a bookworm and to disturb him from his studies. Other sources state that one of Rowbottom’s friends called out his name simply to check if he was in his room. It has also been claimed that Rowbottom had a roommate who, when returning to the dorm drunk, would call out loudly for Rowbottom. This roommate theory, however, has been refuted by his grandson, Joseph T. Rowbottom III, D.D.S. 1970, who states that his grandfather never had a roommate at all.
An alternate explanation is related by Holly Rowbottom, a granddaughter of “Pop Row,” as Joseph T. Rowbottom was known by his family. In 1973, Holly Rowbottom wrote a letter to the Pennsylvania Gazette detailing what her grandfather told her about his college years and his connection with the Rowbottom disturbances. This letter reads in part:
The true story, as passed on to me by my father, is this: There was this classmate of my grandfather who lived in a room across the quadrangle. For some reason or other, this fellow never got his assignments straight. And, with a light usually on in Rowbottom’s room to all hours, he knew where he could get his information without fail. He would throw up his window and yell across the quad those now-famous words: “Yea Rowbottom!” All this taking place during the wee hours, many of the students living in surrounding rooms found themselves jarred into wakefulness night after night.
In 1910, the University’s football team was quite successful. One night a banquet was held for the team and, as might be expected, the boys enjoyed a few beers. Arriving back at the quad after the banquet, some of the boys – having endured the “Yea Rowbottom” bit for the better part of the school year for- decided they were going to call for Rowbottom. This they did ad nauseam, succeeding thereby in waking up just about everybody in the halls.
Now, in those days, each room was equipped with an earthenware wash bowl and pitcher. Responding to the din below, the irate students sought to quell it with a hail of wash bowls, pitchers, garbage cans and anything else handy. And this, dear friend, was the first Rowbottom ever held.
This explanation is supported by the 1912 yearbook which clearly states that Friday night mass meeting of football season had a big hand in popularizing the Rowbottom call.
The tradition took an ugly turn very quickly, much to the dismay of Rowbottom himself. In a few short years the Rowbottom tradition escalated from isolated crockery smashes in the Quad to destructive mayhem in the neighborhood around the Penn campus. Joseph T. Rowbottom’s reaction to one of these early rampages is documented by Holly Rowbottom in her letter to the Pennsylvania Gazette:
Pop Row [Joseph T. Rowbottom] returned to Penn in 1917 for his fifth reunion. He was a member of Delta Tau Delta Fraternity, and it so happened that the Delts had pledged the freshman president that year. Having met Mr. Rowbottom at the Delt House, said freshman disappeared and returned a little later with a sizable chunk of the freshman class for, I suppose, some sort of mock worship. A serious-minded man, Pop was so put off by all this that he refused to meet the mob. As a result, there ensued a riot which brought damage even to nearby trolleys, and many pieces of fire apparatus were called to the scene. Because of this, Pop Row didn’t return to the campus until his son graduated from dental school in 1943.
Holly Rowbottom’s version is reinforced by a similar account given by Joseph T. Rowbottom, III, in an extensive interview conducted on June 1, 1988. This interview was part of the Memories Project conducted by Penn’s Audio Visual Center and is available both as a paper transcript and on video tape.
So it was that the tradition of “Rowbottom” was launched at Penn, despite the inclinations of Rowbottom himself.