1913 Purdue Tank Scrap padlock and chain. From MSP 151, Purdue Customs and Traditions collection. Photo taken by Michael Kinasiewicz.

Shackled to Tradition, by Michael Kinasiewicz

Blog Entry One     
To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

Blog Entry One, March 11th 2016
Examining a Mindset of Violence and Masculinity

After much research and consideration, I have decided to nominate the tank scrap chain and padlock for our class’ semester project. Upon being introduced to a vast array of interesting items, events, and traditions during the first few weeks of class, I was unsure about what I could study that would procure interesting and diverse material. However, when a box of memorabilia was brought in from the archives, I was instantly drawn to the chain and padlock. Our class had discussed the tradition of the Purdue ‘tank scrap’ extensively, but I didn’t consider the event to be a topic of much interest until I had tangible evidence of the then-commonplace violence that permeated the society. For those who don’t know, the tank scrap was a Purdue University tradition spanning from 1894 to 1913. During this annual event, the freshman and sophomore classes would literally brawl against one another until one class surrendered. The winning class would not only earn the right to write their class number on the local West Lafayette water tank, but also shackle up members of the opposing class in a victory march downtown. The chain that I found during my research was one of the chains used to secure members of the losing class together during the victory march. Seeing and handling the chain and lock in full form brought a new level of realism to not only the pain and suffering that students willingly accepted, but also the tragic death of Francis Obenchain, a student who was killed in the final battle of 1913. I realized the many different directions that I could explore while researching the tank scrap and the society that surrounded and supported it, which ultimately led to my decision to further study the object.


Without the context surrounding the chain, it seems rather pedestrian. Just over one foot long, a length of intertwined metal circlets yellowed by time leads to a closed padlock that appears to be made of brass. The padlock, less than half a centimeter thick and about two centimeters long in both length and width, is etched with an inscription marking it as a remnant of the final tank scrap of 1913, which the sophomores won. The obvious missing element of the total item is the key to the padlock, however there is no way to know if the key would even serve its purpose (given the aged condition of the lock). The object itself can be found in the Purdue University Customs and Traditions collection.

Initial Thoughts & Further Research

When I first selected the padlock and chain, I began considering areas of interest apart from the tank scrap that would be both interesting as well as relevant to the Purdue class of 1903-1904 in terms of lifestyle and culture. Although I’m not exactly sure of where all of these different ideas will lead, I feel that I can weave them together coherently. Since I’m the only student covering the tank scrap tradition, I’ll obviously start my piece with a thorough explanation of the conception of the brawl complemented by first person accounts from journals and scrapbooks. Using both Exponent articles as well as personal pieces, I hope to develop an idea of how the tank scrap was heralded by public opinion as well as the actual preconceptions held by students and faculty (provided I find any usable material) on campus. After the introductory segment, I’ll explain how the chain and lock ties back into the history of Purdue by describing the loser’s march to downtown West Lafayette. As aforementioned, I feel that I could go in depth on the subject of value of human life and the overwhelming relevance of masculinity during the turn of the 20th century. From there, I could proceed to describe how the tank scrap became more and more questionable as the tradition continued, and how the progression led to new rules and regulations meant to civilize the conflict. One of the key elements of the tank scrap, at least in my opinion, is the death of Francis Obenchain, a young man whose life was taken during the last tank scrap of 1913. I could tie his death back to the lock, which has an engraved reference to the final tank scrap (which would have been after the death of Obenchain). Some of the other ideas that I’ve delved into include the medical treatment available to students at the time, and also the administrative steps taken to ensure that the tank scrap wouldn’t cause any fatalities. All in all, I think that the fact that the chain and lock tie into a rich segment of Purdue’s diverse history makes the item arguably one of the most viable pieces to be included in the final collection. Assuming that there is an entire web of interconnected archival files that could lead to new research opportunities, I see a great amount of potential in the chain and padlock.

As much as I hate to say it, I feel a certain morbid curiosity with the history of the tank scrap. Something about the sense of primitiveness surrounding the tradition catches my attention; it seems hard to believe that an event of such violence and inhumanity could take place in a modern context. I feel confident that studying the history of the chain and lock will produce a good amount of material for me to mold into an interesting segment of our final product.


To view a working bibliography for this project, click here.

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