Pitt in the making: Modern Pitt’s first year, 1927, was full of news


Pitt students trying out for silent movie stardom. Pitt football fans crashing a burlesque theater. Pitt women taking “a jury of their peers” quite literally.

If modern Pitt was born in 1926, when ground was broken for the Cathedral of Learning and a medical center, the campus was still a different world nearly 100 years ago. Pitt had a little more than 10,000 students, 93 percent of them from Pennsylvania (and 67 percent from Allegheny County), although there were also enrollees from 44 states and 15 foreign countries.

And yet, young people were clearly enjoying the latest media: Chancellor John G. Bowman opened the first full year of modern Pitt, 1927, by addressing the campus from the University’s own KDKA radio studio. And reps from First National Pictures came to campus as part of a nationwide search for college men “who dream of filling the shoes of Adolphe Menjou” in the silent pictures. Alas for these flicker hopefuls, the winners (announced weeks later in the paper) had names even less famous than “Menjou” today — and the first talkie debuted later that year.

Using KDKA’s studio here, but without the benefit of the Internet, Pitt somehow broadcast classes around the globe. From Surabaya, Java (part of Indonesia), to Pietermaritzburg, Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), South Africa, “there are men and women listening to lectures delivered at Pitt,” the Post-Gazette reported. “Throughout this country, Canada, South America, Europe, even in Russia,” the University broadcast such offerings as “The Meaning of History” and “Man Overcomes the Appalachian Barriers.”

Self-governing womens court

Pitt women had a Women’s Self Government Association, which disciplined their fellow females through a “senior court” system, run by selected co-eds (as they were known) in their caps and gowns. Its chief justice, Margaret Moore, a School of Education student, and four other judges handed down verdicts “backed up by the university authorities, even to the point of expulsion from school,” the Pittsburgh Press said.

It noted one case where a young woman, her offense never named, was “warned several times that her conduct should be amended. She did not heed the warnings. The girl was brought to trial. She called witnesses in her defense, as permitted by the rules of the court. There was much weeping on the part of the accused, but to no avail. Women are not easily influenced by tears shed by another woman. The board recommended that this girl be dismissed from school, and the sentence was carried out by the university authorities.”

Sometimes, allowed Chief Justice Moore, her fellow students just needed a good talking to: “There have been instances where girls have gone to dances outside of Pitt, improperly dressed, and have boasted that they were Pitt girls. Incidents like that reflect on the girls of Pitt. It is generally not necessary to bring such a girl to trial. The first step is to have Miss Thyrsa Amos, dean of women, talk to her and give her some advice.”

But in other instances, it was time for the judiciary to step in: “The senior court has enforced a rule that girls shall not sit on the steps at Pitt, as they used to do,” Moore said, not specifying exactly which steps might lead to a life of crime, or why. “The way the steps are situated, it wasn't just the best thing.

“The court doesn't have to worry about the girls smoking,” Moore added. “Smoking is not a question at Pitt. Some of the girls may smoke away from school, but there has never been any smoking on the campus. We are proud of that because there has been no ruling against it.”

Lacking subpoena power — although the court did have a bailiff delivering each summons to offenders — there is sometimes difficulty getting women to the witness stand, Moore admitted. “In that case, we made the sentence heavier,” she said.

Flowery commencement

Can you answer a question Pitt used to channel freshmen into advanced or beginner classes that year? — “The shrub was like a sheeted spectre.’ Now what is that hyperbole, metaphor, personification, simile or trochee?”

Choosing the right figure of speech might have been easier if Pitt had tested its freshmen with an excerpt from that year’s commencement speech, given by Albert Manbridge of London, a member of the Royal Commission on the University of Oxford and Cambridge. He was seemingly swept away, not only by the very thought of the Cathedral of Learning, but by the presence of two more rivers than your average town.

“As I thought upon Pittsburgh and learning (before arriving), I imagined the lifting up of the instrument of its purpose to the heavens in the mighty and beautiful Cathedral. I was rejoiced at the idea of worship — the noblest and loftiest expression of the spirit of men. And then I saw it as a mighty gathering place of the waters of learning. It was fed by all the waters of all the world and it sent out water carriers to enrich the life of all men.”

Scientific leaps

But education at Pitt 100 years ago meant not only recognizing hyperbole but also conducting modern science. One psychology professor had his class give 2,000 prisoners in Western Penitentiary (the stone-walled jail now sitting empty on the North Side) some sort of intelligence test and found that embezzlers were the smartest of all the inmates, “with robbers second and forgers third.”

The head of Pitt’s Department of Zoology that fall escaped British Guiana (now just Guyana, but still in South America) with 1,000 insect species for study — mainly beetles. “‘Black water fever and malaria drove my Indian paddlers and guides to desert me,’” he told the Post-Gazette, “‘and although I made tempting offers of cheap jewelry and colored cloth to them, they left me and it was eight days before I could move, during which time I didn't feel so good myself and nearly ran out of provisions.’” He did manage to bring back “a fine collection of poisoned darts and blowguns” from three different native peoples, somehow unused.

Always some chaos

On another news day filled with bootleggers’ trials, trolley car problems, the celebration of a department store mogul’s birthday and a massive heist reported on an Ohio river steamer, came what was doubtless one of the highlights of the academic year.

Pitt students, including the band, parading downtown before the football game against Carnegie Tech, flooded into a burlesque theater to try to see the show for free. Police squadrons arrived, two students got black eyes, and the rest were kicked out and punished — by being asked for tickets or made to pay before being allowed back in again.

“All except the band,” the article noted. They were apparently not to be trusted.

Which proves that some things never change. In fact, on the very first day of 1927, another Pitt psychology professor was already lamenting to the papers that “psychologists have no agreement among themselves about the fundamental laws that govern learning or the formation of human thought and habits,” he told the Press.

“They disagree as to what those laws are, what the problems are which they intend to solve, what their importance in the science is, and whether the laws governing the thought processes are the same as, or different from, those governing the formation of habits or conduct. Having discarded the old laws, each modern psychologist, who undertakes to write a textbook, formulates his own laws, and for this reason, there is chaos.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at martyl@pitt.edu or 412-758-4859.


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