A History of Fine Dining: Sharples Through the Years

In 1964, a college press release spoke of “a place of noble proportions” that had sprung up at Swarthmore. The alumni bulletin called it “a humane setting for the fine art of eating.” This, of course, was Sharples.

When it opened, everyone agreed that Sharples was a huge improvement. The old dining rooms in Parrish that Sharples replaced were originally designed for a student body of 400; by that time, the student body numbered over 1,000. President Courtney Smith described dining in the old hall as “a struggle for survival,” mentioning that “students often felt ashamed or afraid to bring their parents into the dining room.” Sharples remedied this, designed to accommodate an eventual enrollment of 1200 students, holding 600 at any one time.

Several alternate locations were considered; we could be breaking our daily bread behind the amphitheater, west of Wharton overlooking the Crum, or where the Rose Garden stands now. While some worried that the current site would distract from the open greenery of the front campus, it was deemed the best central spot that wouldn’t crowd traffic. Architecturally, Sharples won several awards from the National Academy of Design and the American Institute of Architects, and was featured on the cover of “American School & University Plant Planning and Purchasing.”

Our dining hall’s namesake is the man who funded it, Philadelphia industrialist and oil-man Philip T. Sharples. When you think about it, it’s a pretty awful move to attach your name to a dining hall. It’s not uncommon to hear someone say, “Sharples sucks today,” “Sharples is stealing our money,” or “Isn’t there anything better than Sharples on a Saturday night?” Yeah, if you ever become a multimillionaire philanthropist, try to make your name synonymous with civic and social responsibility, rather than Puppy Club Bar.

Here’s the menu from 1964, as given by a college press release:

“At every lunch and dinner there is a choice among five different salads and four desserts, and at three meals a day there is a choice between two entrees. Saturday night’s menu regularly includes steak, charcoal broiled on portable grills outside the dining hall. The second Saturday night entrée may be roast Long Island duckling. Beverages include whole and skim milk, iced and hot tea, coffee, and three kinds of fruit punch (plus hot chocolate at breakfast.”

Moving dining services down the hill also served to decentralize the campus away from Parrish. At Sharples’ official unveiling, President Courtney Smith remarked, “No longer will we hear of the Parrish girl who never saw the light of day,” apparently in reference to students who studied, slept, and ate within the walls of Parrish. The modern equivalent, of course, lives in Hicks, emerging only to buy chicken tenders from Tarble.

Back in my tour-guiding days, I always told my tours that we have one central dining hall because it’s a Quaker tradition for everyone to eat together under one roof. It’s a pretty persistent legend on campus. Perhaps some sort of Quaker sensibilities permeated early architectural plans for Sharples – but I couldn’t find a single press release or building plan making reference to Quaker traditions of communal eating. In fact, they invoke the opposite logic; according to one promotional brochure, one of the best parts of Sharples are its divisions, as it is “not a dining ‘hall’ but six deliberately different dining rooms.”

Knowing that Chris Green ’09 had some strong opinions about Sharples, I asked him for some current criticism of dining services to contrast with the historical perspective. One of his primary bugbears, he said, is that “the one dining hall for all concept is constricting our ability to think creatively about solutions to the dining service problems at Swarthmore.” Claiming that Sharples is overcrowded and that students have already effectively abandoned the Quaker model, Green argues for a more decentralized, free-market dining system, but says that the administration’s insistence on Quaker ideology holds back such ideas. With so little evidence that the school cared about eating together under one roof when building Sharples, I think it’s time to discard this particular myth so we can have more factual discussions about dining services.

Looking at old pictures of Sharples, I can’t help but conclude that very little has changed from then to now. The upstairs lounges were carpeted, with high-backed chairs, lamps, and a piano, much like Parrish Parlors today; in 1964, these lounges were kept open until 9:00 for club meetings. An oriental rug and some upholstered furniture were arrayed in front of the downstairs fireplace where the condiment bar now stands. Still, little things aside, Sharples seems pretty much the same as it was 45 years ago.

And one thing has undoubtedly remained constant: students making fun of Sharples. Back in the 1890s, large brass bells proclaimed the beginning of dinner, compelling a Halcyon editor to write an Edgar Allan Poe parody that began:

“Hear the ringing of the bells –
Dinner bells!
What a lack of nourishment their melody foretells!”

Strangely enough, this was not the only parody of canonical poetry inspired by campus dining services. No, another Halcyon from this era included Chaucerian stanzas about hatchets for cutting steak. There’s also a pretty trite Shakespearean monologue about signing in tardy to meals: “To sign, or not to sign.”

A Halcyon from 1899 included a potential dinner menu, including: “soups, fish, roasts, game (dominoes, croquet, tennis, lame duck, goosey gander), tongue, bread (well, stale, ill), entrees (dark, cold, rain water), vegetables (hard corn, acorn, turn-up nose, dead beet), pastry (mucilage, glue, satin gloss cream), fruits and nuts (doughnuts, mock oranges, horse chestnuts, green persimmons), and beverages (Adam’s ale, hot water, Crum Creek).” Back in the day, the Halcyon was apparently less of a yearbook and more of a Spike Magazine.

Students also mocked Sharples as a social space. In 1993, when the equivalent of the Orientation Play appears to have been the “RA Follies,” the show ended “with a skit extolling the virtues of being yourself…Quinn Bauriedel ’94 faced the daunting problem of where to sit in Sharples. He tried to bond with the intellectuals, the geeks, the introverts, the granolas, the party jocks, and the jocks, but to no avail. Unable to fit in, Bauriedel stopped trying and became a crusader ‘to make this a dancing campus.’” The future Swarthmore professor received a standing ovation.

Peruse the opinion columns of the Phoenix nowadays and it isn’t hard to see that Sharples remains the butt of cheap jokes today as it was then. I find this fascinating; all my history classes here promote the idea that virtually everything (nationalism, race, manhood, etc.) is historically contingent. It’s nice to see, then, that criticism of Sharples is a timeless part of the Swarthmore student experience. Apparently the only sure things in life are death, taxes, and ragging on the dining hall.


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