The Phoenix through the Ages

Our oldest campus newspaper was first published in 1881, rising from the ashes of the Great Fire of Parrish. In its earliest form, the Phoenix was more of a literary journal than a newspaper as we think of them today. While the first few pages of each monthly issue were a stream of opinions and suggestions about college life, large sections were devoted to student literary masterworks, often with morals about proper collegiate behavior and citizenship. I can’t read them without cracking up; today, you don’t exactly pick up a Phoenix and expect a biography of Amerigo Vespucci, or a poem such as this:

“Oh! Swarthmore in spring-time, with heavens above
As cloudless and bright as the blessings of love;
The shade of thy branches, inviting and sweet
Where students for lounging so willingly meet;
How sadly we think of the day that will come
When parting from thee will seem parting from home,
But Swarthmore in spring-time, wherever we be,
How gladly we’ll think of our pleasures with thee.”

That’s one stanza of four, all similarly saccharine. Early editions had a very particular, self-righteous and self-referential writing style. Almost all articles were written with the royal we, as in: “We take this occasion to present to our readers a brief review of the financial condition of Swarthmore, and the important steps recently taken to improve it.”

The 1890 edition holds perhaps the most influential Phoenix editorial of all time. The editor wondered why on earth the buildings on campus were referred to “by such ill-sounding, unmeaning titles as the ‘main college building,’ the ‘scientific building,’ the ‘meeting house’…How much more pleasant would it be to speak of the great main building as ‘Parrish Hall.’ ”

The editorial also argued for Willets science building (later named Trotter) and the Wharton meeting house (still unnamed), because “honor would be given where it has long been due, and a matter of practical convenience reached.” Although “Parrish Hall” was the only one that stuck, the suggestion of actually having names for buildings was generally agreed to be a good one, and the next month’s edition proclaimed, “Henceforth, ‘Parrish Hall’ will be a regular term of college usage so far as the Phoenix is concerned.”

In 1914, the paper switched from the linear journal format to a more newspaper style with a five-column layout. It’s striking to see what was considered news back in the day when compared with our current Phoenix. Committee appointments, Greek pledges, and cast lists were regularly published, as were general announcements like award deadlines, upcoming lectures, and notices from the library. The paper seems to have held a role similar to today’s Reserved Student’s Digest.

In January 1948, the Phoenix went out on a limb and printed a staff editorial commenting on the recently published Kinsey Report. It’s one of the more hilarious editorials I’ve ever read. Try to follow the circuitous logic of this clip:

“The Kinsey Report shows also that the amount of sexual activity on the part of the college male is far in excess of that recognized by the institution of the college, the total sexual outlet for the typical single white male of the top educational category between the ages of 16 and 25 being approximately two orgasms per week…

“With such a conflict of sexual practice and sexual mores, the evident conclusion is that either one or the other should be revised; and this being the Phoenix, we would be expected to call for a revision in the institutional mores…but…We fear that such a proposal, especially if vigorously advocated in specific terms—including the approval of heterosexual activity, would result in a more vigorous enforcement of restrictive policies, in reaction to the exposure of sexual realities. With these considerations in mind, we have decided that the best policy for the Phoenix is to remain silent for the most part…”

It seems tame by our standards, but the administration flipped out. For the first and only time in the newspaper’s history, the administration suspended publication of the Phoenix outright. President John Nason, who I otherwise consider one of our most awesome presidents for his leadership during WWII [link to http://daily.swarthmore.edu/2010/2/19/swarthmore-at-war-part-1/ ], argued that “the editorial culminates several semesters of irresponsibility by the Phoenix staff.”

There was quite an outcry from alums and parents, horrified to find that their children had been exposed to such a salacious article. Exactly what was offensive was never mentioned; perhaps this was the first time the word “orgasm” was published in the Phoenix.

February 1952 brought on another uproar, when the Phoenix published a fake story claiming that Adlai Stevenson would be next president of Swarthmore. The headline screamed, “ADLAI PREXY!!” The best part was that other media sources picked it up; reporters from the Philadelphia Inquirer came to campus, and the story was carried by sources such as the AP and Hearst’s International News Service. After the inevitable post-prank fallout, a Phoenix editorial lamented, “misleading hyperbole utilized by the press has once again given both the college and the Phoenix a doubtful reputation.”

That was also the year in which the Phoenix became free to students – decided at a student council meeting in Lodge 4 that featured Mike Dukakis ‘55. Costs appear to have been covered by ads, including in-your-face, half-page cigarette ad in every issue.

1955 featured a retrospective 75th anniversary edition, which noted several mottoes the paper had picked up over the years that were scrawled on the walls of the “Finx” offices in Parrish basement:
• “All the news that fits, we print”
• “The Phoenix is a sexy tabloid” – an apparent quote by John Nason
• and, under a hammer and sickle, “The above does not necessarily represent the editorial views of the Phoenix.”

A pompous staff editorial in the same issue worried that the Phoenix would not “survive the current scourge of feminity [sic]” or “recover its poise in the eyes of the engineering department,” and pondered the paper’s future in typically flowery prose:
“Will it perish? or will it proliferate? in what form will it survive? and into what will it develop? All this is difficult to answer, only one thing is clear: the Phoenix cannot afford to stand still. If it must continue to exist in a journalistic jungle of mediocrity, it must run for its life, in any direction, in the final hope of some day emerging into the open air.”

The 70s and 80s saw an increase in arts coverage and student opinion columns. Movie and theatrical reviews proliferated, and the days when sports took up a full third of the paper were long gone. In the last half-century, the Phoenix has trended toward creating a forum to discuss issues such as student drinking or condoms on campus. Turning from the early years of a monolithic stream of news and opinions of the editorial staff, editors have increasingly tried to represent ongoing campus debates within the paper.

Ultimately, the most impressive aspect of the Phoenix is its longevity. Literary magazines and student journals come and go; my personal favorite is the creative writing journal from the 50s called the Dodo, because students always assumed that someday it would go extinct. (They were right). The Phoenix, though, is a different kind of bird. I occasionally wonder how accurately a newspaper can represent student life, but the Phoenix remains our most consistent record of the college. Past editions are kept on the second floor of McCabe. Browse through them if you need a study break – or a laugh.


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