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Penn History

This exhibit was created in April 2005 by Ashish Shrestha, B.A. 2008, and Mary D. McConaghy

What happened during a Rowbottom?

In its benign form Rowbottom was no more than a high-spirited crockery smash involving the heaving of basins and pitchers from the windows of the Quadrangle dormitories. However, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of students took to the streets, causing much loss of both private and public property. Trolley and automobile traffic came to a halt when students set up barricades and bonfires in the streets, jumped on passing vehicles, moved and overturned parked cars, and disabled trolleys. Students broke windows and showered police and firemen with bottles, rocks and eggs. Occasionally the call of Rowbottom was associated with raids of women’s dormitories and a campus hotel, snowball attacks of passersby, jeers during a student performance, or the burning of professors in effigy; at its worst the term was connected with arson.

When did Rowbottoms occur?

The more than fifty Rowbottoms documented for the years from 1910 to 1977 demonstrate a wide variety of characteristics. Rowbottoms are known to have occurred at Penn in every month except July and August. At least 13 of these student disturbances took place in April, the most popular month for Rowbottoms; but March, May and November, each with 7 or 8 instances, were also prime times for these student disturbances.

The most common circumstances giving rise to these events were sports events (especially football, but also basketball and crew) and the arrival of warm weather at the end of the spring term. In the minds of some, college spirit and support of athletic teams were deficient if passions did not spill over as student rampages on the streets. The disorders on the first warm spring nights, on the other hand, grew not out of celebration, but out of the natural gathering of students outdoors in search of release from the pressures of the end of term.

All sorts of other situations could also spark a Rowbottom, including disappointment in the display of Haley’s Comet in 1910, a power failure in 1928, freshmen revolts against sophomores in 1933 and 1941, V-J Day in 1945, a police raid on Smokey Joe’s tavern in 1950, and a student newspaper column questioning the virility of freshmen in 1971. The last Rowbottom on our list was inspired by the Academy Award presentations in 1977.

Where did they occur?

In the early years, Rowbottoms tended to begin in the Quad before spilling out on to the adjacent area at the intersections of 37th and Spruce Streets and Woodland Avenue. Soon the fraternities, particularly along Locust Street, were also prime breeding grounds; frat parties, drag races, snow ball fights, pledge weeks, and just hanging out could all lead to large-scale mayhem. Other student riots began as pep rallies or victory celebrations at the stadium or outside of College Hall or Houston Hall.

As the presence of women on campus increased, young men would gather in the Quad or on the College green to march on women’s dorms, on “panty raids” or in protest of the restricted hours for women in the men’s dorms or just to raise a ruckus in the women’s dorms. One of the latter Rowbottoms, occurring in 1971, involved a reversal of roles, with a small group of women raiding a men’s dorm in the Quad.

How did the police and the University respond?

After Rowbottoms quickly escalated from harmless expressions of youthful energy to full-scale rioting, both city law enforcement forces and the University administration were forced to respond. The nature of their responses and of their cooperation with each other evolved over the years.

During the early years, city police would arrive in response to complaints from neighbors and passersby. When appropriate, police were assisted by firemen and by transit personnel. In some cases these forces were able to break up the crowds quickly, but other times, as more and more students rallied to the cries of “Rowbottom,” law enforcement was overwhelmed. Scuffles broke out between students and police, and police pursued fleeing students into buildings, rounding them up with the use of nightsticks, and carting them off to the local police station in paddy wagons or squad cars. In later years, blank cartridges and fire hoses were used to break up crowds. Injuries were sustained on both sides. Students complained of police brutality, damage to fraternity houses and arrests of innocent bystanders. Police charged students with attempted theft and damage of fire fighting gear and even of police cars.

Usually only a handful or maybe twenty or thirty students were arrested, but sometimes masses of students were apprehended by police: 300 students in 1930, 110 students in 1934, 116 students in 1955 and 138 in 1956. In most cases, charges were quickly dropped, but sometimes only after students had spent the night in jail waiting to appear before a magistrate. A few students were fined. Both students and the University were held responsible for damages.

In the first decades of Rowbottoms, the University administration’s role was to show up at the police station to get charges dropped and to bail out students. But starting in the 1930’s, as Rowbottoms escalated, the University began to be more concerned about both the damage and the University’s reputation. The University administration began publicly to express regrets and to apologize for the actions of students, and then to form investigative committees after each major incident of student rioting.

After the 1940 disturbances, Provost Thomas S. Gates announced a ban on Rowbottoms, with vows that the University would take a tougher stand on breaking up student disturbances and on punishing offending students. Starting with the Rowbottom of November 20, 1941, University personnel and students were on the scene, taking down student names and even confiscating student identification cards. After this riot, no University representative appeared in court to offer bail or plead on behalf of arrested students; as a result, four students remained in jail for eight days before the University intervened. During the 1940’s and 1950’s, the University’ disciplinary committee (which included students) investigated major Rowbottoms and handed out punishments of conduct probations, suspensions and even expulsions for students and fraternities.

In both 1956 and 1957, the University administration announced the end of student riots. Rowbottoms and punishments continued anyway. By 1958, as city police became increasingly weary of diverting their resources to the clean up of Rowbottoms, the University and the city began working together to give the University more responsibility for controlling student disturbances. Campus guards and, for special events, added special event security became the first line of prevention and of defense; city police were to be called only when the University could not handle trouble on its own. From then on, although police were still called in and students still appeared before city magistrates, the University took on a larger role in both policing and disciplining students involved in Rowbottoms.