Jeff Rankin: When peanuts inspired parades, posh parties

Jeff Rankin
Special to the Review Atlas
Philo members and their dates enjoy the 1911 Peanut Night, held in the banquet hall of the Colonial Hotel.

Consider the lowly peanut. It’s fed to squirrels and elephants. It’s long been a staple of cheap ballpark fare and it’s also been used to describe a gallery of inexpensive vaudeville seats containing rowdy hecklers. Yet for nearly 60 years, it served as the centerpiece of Monmouth College’s most elegant social event of the year — Peanut Night.

The origins of the strange but wildly popular tradition can be traced to the year 1868, thanks to the reminiscences of Russell Graham, an early professor in the social sciences who also served as the college’s vice president and treasurer. Graham, who was a Monmouth sophomore at the time of Peanut Night’s inception, wrote a vivid account of its history for a 1911 edition of the student newspaper.

By that year, the tradition had reached a pinnacle of sophistication, with two elegant dinners held on the evening of November 9 — one in the banquet hall of the Colonial Hotel on East Broadway and the other in the magnificent new college building, Wallace Hall.

The Monmouth Republican-Atlas described the hotel event, attended by 130 college men and women in formal attire:

“The early part of the evening was spent in a reception and music … The spacious parlors and second story porch were well decorated in Japanese lanterns and other similar effects. Features of the musical were selections by William Lytle and Miss Hazel Pearce on the piano and readings by Miss Jean Robinson.

“It was nearly 9 o’clock when the guests repaired to the banquet room, the entire hotel dining room being turned over for this function. Its interior was a veritable bower of beauty, the same general Japanese effect being used. The society colors of old gold and red were used profusely as well as large clusters of chrysanthemums.”

On the menu were Tomato Cream, Baked White Fish, Roast Young Turkey and, naturally, Salted Peanuts! The dinner on campus featured a similarly elegant spread, including peanuts.

What was the purpose of the event and why did it involve peanuts? The first thing to understand is that Peanut Night had its birth with the college’s literary societies. In the days before Greek fraternal organizations, all campus social life and most cocurricular activities revolved around the two men’s societies, Philo and Eccritean, and the two women’s societies, ABL and Aletheorian — all four of which were well established by 1862. They gained even more importance after the College Senate in 1874 voted to ban Greek fraternities from campus.

Not only did the literary societies serve a social function, but in the years before intercollegiate athletics, the debate competitions they organized also served as the primary student spectator activity and source of school spirit. It was the annual men’s debate between Philo and Eccritean that gave birth to Peanut Night.

The purpose of Peanut Night was to recognize and celebrate the contestants picked for the prestigious Philo-Eccritean Contest, held the following spring just prior to commencement. Contests were held in the areas of Debate, Oration, Essay and Declamation.

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According to Professor Graham, in 1868 the debate contestants decided to express their appreciation for being selected by giving their fellow members a treat. After the selection program was finished, the contestants entered their respective society halls carrying sacks of peanuts. A recess was voted and everyone snacked on the legumes until the stock was exhausted.

Graham said that in ensuing years, apples and oranges were sometimes added to the fare, but peanuts remained the essential. Eventually, to save the formal society halls from being littered with peanut shells, the activity was moved to the recitation halls, where “not only were peanuts consumed in large quantities but great peanut battles were fought. After the celebration was over, the hat was passed around and a dollar or two raised to pay the janitor for cleaning up the scene of the good times.”

By the 1880s, Peanut Night had expanded into the streets of Monmouth. After the feast, processions were formed and the societies competed so see which could draw the bigger crowd and make the louder noise. Soon, another custom emerged, in which each society visited the homes of professors, whereupon they announced the team of contestants and presented a bag of peanuts. Professors were expected to reciprocate with a speech, “and woe to the professor who made a slip and did not show an impartial mind in paying his respects to the different societies,” Graham said. “A leaning toward one or the other, or a seeming to do so, meant that before morning things about the college would be painted red, in his honor.”

In 1893, one of the societies invited female students to accompany them on their rounds (or perhaps the girls invited themselves), following which they all repaired to Pollock’s restaurant on East Broadway and had their first banquet at the cost of 25 cents apiece. Not to be outdone, the other society decorated a large float, on which they placed their contestants and pulled it by hand through the streets.

The first formal banquet with toast programs was held in 1896, at a cost of 50 cents a plate. Eventually the custom of visiting professors in their homes was dropped, but committees from Philo and Eccritean continued to present them with sacks of peanuts decorated in their society colors.

In 1916, the Eccriteans staged a typically elaborate Peanut Night, but the Philos canceled theirs. As the YMCA and YWCA staged a massive campaign to raise money for needy soldiers in the World War I prison camps of Europe, Philo members decided to instead channel their financial resources for the war effort.

After the fraternity ban at Monmouth was lifted in 1922, and especially after national Greek affiliation was reinstated in 1928, interest in the literary societies dwindled to such an extent that the last Peanut Night was held that March, by the Philos. By that time, Philo alumni and faculty were included on the guest list, and just before the formal program, small bags of peanuts were distributed to the celebrants, who staged a spirited peanut fight.

In 1929, one Eccritean member wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper, defending the organization’s decision to do away with Peanut Night:

“There has been no small criticism undeservedly placed upon the society because of its neglect of the social, especially in the abandonment of the Peanut Night. I, for one, an observer, think that a step has been made in the right direction. The Eccritean at heart is not socially inclined. He feels that his efforts can profitably be placed in channels of greater usefulness. To this end he felt it wisest and best to lend every effort to that high goal.”

Eccritean Society would finally disband in 1932 and Philo in 1933.