Purdue University Pennants, circa 1903. From MSA 293, The Charles A. Wilmore papers.

Purdue’s Got Spirit…How ‘Bout You, By Kynnedy Kelly

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

Blog Entry One, March 4th 2016
Purdue Pennants Represent More than Just the University


The objects I will be focusing on for our semester project are two pennants. The pennants are triangles that measure about six inches in length and three inches in width on the longest side. I believe they are made out of felt with several different colored fibers matted together. The first one is a navy triangle with a dark gold P sewn on it. The stem of the P is slightly curved inward and has gold stitching on the front of the pennant and navy on the back. The pennant has a navy border on the long side opposite the point of the triangle. Detached accessories include two small, square patches on the pennant, and a navy ribbon made out of what appears to be satin. The second pennant is the opposite of the first one, with a dark gold triangle and a navy P sewn on it. The stem of the P is straight and has navy stitching on both sides. The pennant also has a navy ribbon held in place by a silver pin. Today Purdue pennants are synthetic, mass-produced, and a multitude are sold at a time. These pennants, by comparison, appear much more homemade, though they could have been manufactured. The pennants can be found in the Carlton A. Wilmore papers collection. They are accompanied by three other folders in the box containing a scrapbook, glass framed photo, and numerous photos of Wilmore’s classmates.

Personal Connection

I chose the pennants because of the instant connection I made with them. When I first glanced at the objects, my reaction was a sense of security. I felt a bond to the pennants because it reminded me of home. In my room, I have a Colts pennant that has been positioned on my desk for years. My room is where I retreat to find solace and comfort, so seeing that aspect of my room in one of the collections interested me. As I studied the pennants more thoroughly, I thought about their role and significance. They usually are associated with athletic teams and are used to show spirit. As a high school student, I was a competitive and sideline cheerleader with a passion for school spirit and cheering on my school’s football and basketball teams. Furthermore, I have always been interested in Purdue athletics as a legacy Boilermaker. This thought of school spirit and Purdue athletics led to the initial idea of learning more about Purdue’s school spirit and traditions during the years 1903-1904. According to historian Ryan Anderson, athletics were thriving during this time, much to the dismay of Winthrop E. Stone, Purdue’s president (Anderson 103). Therefore, the pennants are a tangible expression of the popularity of athletics among students, making them significant contributions to the final project.

Initial Thoughts

There are multiple research routes I can take with the pennants due to their possible connections with events that occurred during the 1903-1904 period. The direction I am leaning toward following in my research and analysis is school spirit, tradition, and tragedy at Purdue. I would like to use the pennants as a means of exploring the lasting effects of spirit from the 1903-1904 school year on our campus today. I would like to specifically focus on one element, a tragedy the campus as a whole suffered, a train wreck in which more than a dozen students died, most of them members of the football team. I hope to see how spirit and tradition evolved as a result of this accident.

Next Steps & Questions

As I further my research, there are some specific questions I am hoping to get answered. My mother is a Purdue alumni and my sister is currently a junior at Purdue. When I asked them if they knew about the train wreck that occurred in 1903, they were completely unaware of this tragedy. If it were not for this class, I would still be in the dark as well. Because of the wreck’s impact, I wonder if new traditions emerged to commemorate those who were lost. Some of these traditions may exist today, but the origin of these traditions is unknown. If I find there are no traditions, my next question will be what traditions or customs were in place that made it easier for students to heal from the event and continue on with their lives while still remembering the ones lost. Another question I want to pose is how Purdue athletics changed as a whole. Today football is such a pinnacle of Purdue athletics. What was the view of sports in general in 1903-1904? I would like to investigate if school spirit and love for athletics has grown or diminished since the train wreck and in what ways.

Blog Entry Two, April 25th 2016
The Stories Left Untold: The Negative Aspects of Spirit and Tradition at Purdue

A New Perspective

Friday had finally arrived. I anxiously wiggled on my cheerleading uniform, pulled my ponytail up to its peak, topping it off with a flamboyant bow, and tripled checked my makeup.

Kelly blog 2

Purdue cheerleaders show off their skills at a Varsity basketball game in the 1900s. From Purdue University Libraries, Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University Athletics Collection.

Moments later my team and I were facing the stands as I looked in awe at all the features that made football nights so memorable—the seniors stood at the front of the bleachers spilling over the rails while the freshman scurried to the top desperately trying to catch a glimpse of the game, our mascot, the leprechaun, frolicked around the sidelines energizing the student section, and the band played popular sideline music, swinging their horns back and forth in unison. It was a perfect scene. I knew another invigorating night of high school football was upon us.

Before stumbling upon the two pennants in the Carlton A. Wilmore papers collection and embarking on my research for the semester project, this is how I viewed school spirit and tradition. Whether it was a Friday night football game or another school related event, times like those reminded me of how spirit and tradition had the capability of bringing a sense of unity to a school. However, I now realize my viewpoint on these two elements in high school was slightly distorted. Although numerous positive instances, such as solidarity, have emerged as a result of school customs, they have also led to negative cases, including exclusion and segregation. This is what my research with the pennants thus far has guided me to discover.

School Customs

With the goal of uncovering concrete examples of spirit and tradition on campus during 1903-1904, I initially delved into the Exponents. As a result of this tactic, I came across some small customs that were practiced at that time. In the March 3, 1904 issue of the Exponent, class pipes were discussed as being an accessory that set the seniors apart from the freshman. Despite the seniors’ efforts to use the pipes as an outward symbol of seniority, by the time a pipe was selected, it was well into the middle of the school year. By then the value of the seniors from the freshmen’s standpoints had lessened, making the pipes less impressive. This article is significant because it exemplifies how the class pipe tradition determined who was superior and inferior, concerning upper and lowerclassmen. The pipes served as class indicators, creating a division instead of a union between classes.

Susie. The 1903 Purdue Football team. Image from the 1904 Debris Student Yearbook.

1903 Purdue Varsity football players pose for a team picture. Image from the 1904 Debris.

In regards to spirit, class and athletic colors were an important matter. According to the March 3, 1904 issue of the Exponent, class athletes had deviated from acceptable class colors, creating tension between them and athletic teams. In the instance described in the article, classes had been called out for wearing black jerseys with old gold numerals. With black and gold being Varsity colors, athletes believed it devalued the classifying characteristic of a Varsity team. They reasoned that the absence of diverse colors makes class athletes and Varsity athletes, or “P” men, indistinguishable. I found this occurrence to be a key find because it demonstrates an instance where “P” men were held at a higher standard than everyone else. Colors are supposed to represent spirit and the shared support for a school; however, the distinction between colors set the class athletes and Varsity athletes apart.

The Color Line

My initial research has led me to occurrences involving a group of students who were on the not-so-glamourous side of school spirit and tradition. African American students were labeled as outcasts, unable to enjoy the luxuries of college life that many other privileged students took for granted. Although Purdue established traditions designed to unite the student body, black students at the time were shunned from such integral parts of student life. One instance, that may be offensive and upsetting to many today, reveals the bare, destructive side of school spirit. Regarding athletics, as told by the October 7, 1903 issue and the two subsequent issues of the Exponent, an African American Beloit College football player, felt the brunt of cruel comments while playing Purdue’s Varsity football team. Purdue students shouted degrading statements to the young man, such as, in the words of the Exponent, “kill the nigger”, reflecting their belief that football was a white man’s game and “Negroes”, who were not considered equals, did not belong on the field (“Was it Gentlemanly?”, 1903. NB: Aware of the controversy surrounding this incendiary term, I found it necessary to not mask what was blatantly written in the Exponent. It is with the utmost intentions that I include this term in my blog so the harsh names that were directed toward African American students are revealed for what they were). Although the African American male in this situation was on the opposing team, the attitude Purdue students had toward him equated to the view they had toward their black peers. One student expressed the animosity he had for blacks, openly stating that he did not endorse the social equality of the negro. This belief demonstrates how African Americans were scarcely thought of as actual students on campus. Therefore, the idea of spirit serving as a mechanism to bring students together did not pertain to them. With prejudiced mentalities on campus, true school spirit in the early 1900s that integrated all races and students from different backgrounds was unattainable.

Next Steps

As I approach the final weeks of my research, I will finish my search for negative instances of school spirit and tradition by focusing on women and international students. At the moment, there are not any clear incidents of women being treated unequally, so that may result in a dead end. Conversely, I do have an idea of where to begin discovering the role of international students. Once those aspects of my research are complete, I will focus on the positive consequences of school spirit and tradition and how they incorporated themselves into student life. Although I have come across several examples of traditions that were prevalent in 1903-1904, it has proven to be quite difficult to find traditions that are still around today that emerged exclusively during the 1903-1904 period. In my attempt to portray why school spirit and tradition are timeless, I feel this is a critical element of my research, encouraging me to continue digging for some answers. My goal by the end of this project is to depict the role of school spirit and tradition from all angles and leave readers with a greater understanding of why spirit and tradition are two vital attributes not only to Purdue, but any college campus.

Blog Entry Three, May 7th 2016

Not All Good Things Must Come to an End: The Positive Aspects of Spirit and Tradition at Purdue

A Light at the End of the Tunnel

While eating dinner with my good friend from high school, I decided to test my interview skills and ask him some general questions about Purdue football. He transferred to Purdue from Southern Illinois University and upon becoming a Boilermaker, soon joined the football team. His face immediately lit up as he began unleashing all the exciting details about the team and the upcoming season.

kelly 3

The 2015 Purdue football team preparing for a big game alongside the Boilermaker Special. Available online at http://www.purdue-football.com.

In an attempt to dig a little deeper, I asked him a more serious question, inquiring if being African American affected how he was treated on the field as far as being excluded by his teammates or being racially insulted. With a startled response, he quickly retorted, “Oh no! I never feel excluded and no one has ever called me names.” He then chuckled, jokingly adding, “If anything, the white players feel excluded because the majority of the team is black.” I couldn’t help but smile internally and externally after hearing my friend’s reply. I thought to myself, wow, the football team has surely come a long way.

In my previous blog, I revealed the surprisingly harsh side of school spirit and tradition. One particular instance being the prejudice attitudes Purdue students projected onto an African American football player on the opposing team as well as African American students who attended Purdue. However, his outlook of feeling accepted and welcomed on the football team, demonstrated that times have indeed changed for the better. Spirit and tradition at football games have evolved in a way in which minorities are no longer seen as inferior, and players of any race can band together to represent the Purdue Boilermakers proudly.

Search for Hope

Concerning my research progress, with my friend’s positive experience giving me fuel, I lunged right back into some issues of the Exponent and other secondary sources in the hopes of finding more uplifting manifestations of spirit and tradition. One tradition I discovered was the Tank Scrap. At first glance, it seemed to be yet another negative form of tradition. For a moment, I found my research results to be nothing but discouraging. But as I continued learning about this tradition and reading the students’ responses to it, my initial reaction was misguided. The Tank Scrap turned out to be a tradition worth mentioning for a positive reason. Finally, I thought.

The Tank Scrap

One well-known tradition in the turn of the 20th century was the Tank Scrap, which involved a physical rivalry between the freshman and sophomore classes. Considered “a unique possession of which we may be justly proud,” the tank stood tall on North Salisbury Street in West Lafayette since 1894.[1] The tank was a unique element of Purdue, distinguishing it from all other colleges. As the sun began to set and nightfall approached, the freshmen and sophomore classes, under the supervision of the upperclassmen, began preparing for battle.

kelly 3

Photograph of the tank painted with the winning class’ graduating year. From the 1902 Debris.

The freshmen arrived first, firing up for the big event, yelling class chants and drawing in attention from surrounding areas. When the sophomores arrived hours later, the scraps officially commenced with both classes putting forth a strong fight with no reservations. Once the brawl was over and the poor physical condition of one side admitted defeat, the winner was declared and the subsequent rituals took place. The victorious class was granted the right to paint its class year of graduation on the tank while the defeated class was forced to trudge through West Lafayette in shame.[2]

Despite the Tank Scrap’s violent nature and encouragement of class rivalry, students were openly proud of this tradition. As written by Mrs. Daisy H. Foster from the class of 1903 in the Exponent, “…we may be proud of the perfection of the contests and of the friendly spirit of rivalry exhibited so far removed from all malice or hatred and may we never lose our envious position of having a class contest strictly original and unique.”[3] Foster’s apparent approval and fondness of the Tank Scrap depicts the positive effect the scraps had on students. Although there was a winning class and a losing class, essentially dividing the two classes, the principal purpose of the contest overshadowed that trivial aspect. The scraps granted the freshmen and sophomores the opportunity to continue a tradition numerous students before them participated in and exhibit their class spirit by earning the prize of getting their class year displayed across the tank.

Final Steps

As I approach the end of my research and begin analyzing my findings to unfold a strong argument, I am hoping to capture and bring to light all facets of the manifestation of school spirit and tradition at Purdue. I feel it is important to be educated about the good as well as the bad in order to obtain a full understanding of student life during the early 1900s. Although there were certainly promising traditions and school spirit that brought about unity, it is critical to not conceal the parts that are difficult to swallow. With these considerations in mind, I have developed the following argument for my final project: At first glance, school spirit and traditions were viewed as mechanisms that unified students in higher education. They were seen as possessing the ability to bring a sense of unity and comfort to a school especially after times of grief. But a closer look at instances where students were the target of racial slurs at football games, upperclassmen superiority was exhibited, and varsity and non-varsity athletes were clearly unequal, proves that this was not always the case. Some students were accepted while others were ostracized as a result of school spirit and tradition.


[1] Foster, Daisy H. “The Tank.” The Purdue Exponent, Volume XV, Number 1 (West Lafayette, IN) 16 September 1903: 5-6. exponent.lib.purdue.edu.

[2] Refer to Michael Kinasiewicz’s blog posts for a full description of the Tank Scrap.

[3] Foster, Daisy H. “The Tank.” The Purdue Exponent, Volume XV, Number 1 (West Lafayette, IN) 16 September 1903: 5-6. exponent.lib.purdue.edu.


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

About the Authors

To find out more about all of the student researchers, click here!