No one could accuse planners of the 1921 Centennial of taking their responsibilities lightly. On-campus preparations included ordering construction of a temporary, auditorium-sized tent, with floor space to seat up to 3,000 people. A dozen smaller tents were scattered around the campus to serve as gathering places for classes that did not establish reunion headquarters elsewhere. (Some 22 classes did, at hotels, houses and inns across the Connecticut River Valley.)
Located at the south end of the Main Quadrangle—where the War Memorial sits today—the huge, open-air tent was the setting for daytime ceremonial events on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. At night, the tent was the Centennial’s social center, hosting an assortment of “smokers” with activities that ranged from a stereopticon slide show illustrating the history of Amherst athletics to the class of 1912 snake-dancing to the music of its own improvised jazz band.
College buildings were swathed in purple and white bunting, and at night Japanese lanterns lit the entire campus. With limited dormitory space—Amherst had only three residence halls at the time—and local lodging taken well in advance, latecomers occupied housing made available in a tent city hastily assembled on Hitchcock Field, which on Tuesday night did double duty as the setting for late-night dancing.
Inevitably, words about Amherst came in torrents. None perhaps were more remarkable than those spoken at mid-morning on Wednesday, June 22, after a long line of trustees, distinguished guests, faculty and alumni made its way across campus from the Biology-Geology Building (now Webster Hall) to closing ceremonies in College Hall.
There Alexander Meiklejohn delivered a long address on “Amherst’s Ideals for Its Second Century,” in which he declared that Amherst had shed its skin as a New England institution and then projected its new national standing into a future where the College had come to represent more fully the country it served by welcoming a greater number of students from the nation’s ethnically and religiously diverse population.
“We must welcome boys of other stocks,” Meiklejohn declared, and “if they do not come, we must go out and bring them in.” He spoke for over an hour, the Amherst Graduates’ Quarterly reported, “holding the attention of the entire audience, and frequently interrupted by applause.” It remains one of the most impressive speeches ever given at Amherst.
The Centennial Luncheon under the tent on the Main Quadrangle.
The Centennial is remembered today, if at all, as the occasion for the $3 million Centennial Gift Campaign, Amherst’s first general appeal to the entire body of its alumni for financial support. But those who returned to campus for the celebration doubtless came away with other memories.5
As Bruce Barton had forecast, the Centennial celebration turned out to be the largest single gathering of alumni in Amherst’s history. In various ways, it also served as an occasion when a sweeping transformation in the College’s identity could be felt and seen.
The transformation was marked, in part, by the presence of a great many of those alumni who had earned a place in the 1921 edition of Who’s Who in America. (By my count, at least two-thirds of these alumni returned.) The easiest to spot was Calvin Coolidge (class of 1895). Election to the office of U.S. vice president in November 1920, had vaulted him high in the ranks of Amherst “notables” and quickly earned him a place on the Board of Trustees.
Other luminaries—among them John Bates Clark (class of 1872, professor of political economy at Columbia and one of the founders of the American Economic Association), Alexander Noyes (class of 1883, financial editor of The New York Times), Robert Lansing (class of 1886, U.S. secretary of state 1916–20)—were featured as speakers on Monday afternoon, June 20, in College Hall, Johnson Chapel and the College Church, in a program of simultaneous lectures that amounted to a celebratory survey of contributions made by Amherst graduates “to every field of human progress” (in the words of trustee Arthur Curtiss James).
More of Amherst’s “who’s who in America” could be found rubbing shoulders at various informal gatherings—including class reunion dinners and late-night “smokers” in the big auditorium tent—and among representatives from returning classes who, on Tuesday afternoon, June 21, mustered by class identification banners that stretched the length of the Town Commons for the Grand Parade of the Alumni.
A contingent of Protestant ministers showed Amherst still served its founding purpose of continuing, in Noah Webster’s words, “the efforts of the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire”—by providing leadership for a then still vibrant Protestant missionary movement. Most prominent among them was trustee Cornelius H. Patton (class of 1884), head of the Boston-based American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (Congregational).
But by 1921 the vast majority of Amherst notables had “illuminated the earth” in other ways. Together with a past secretary of state and the current U.S. vice-president and speaker of the house (Frederick H. Gillette, class of 1874), they included some of the era’s most powerful bankers and businessmen: Arthur Vining Davis (class of 1888, president of the American Aluminum Corp.), Mortimer J. Schiff (class of 1896, partner at Kuhn, Loeb & Co.) and Charles E. Mitchell (class of 1899, president of National City Bank.). Also on hand were prominent figures in science and medicine: Gilbert Grosvenor (class of 1897, president of the National Geographic Society and editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine); James Furman Kemp (class of 1884, Professor of Geology at Columbia University and president of the Geological Society of America); and Walter Palmer (class of 1905, chief of Presbyterian Hospital in New York and professor at Columbia University’s School of Medicine).
Also in attendance were prominent figures in higher education: Frank Goodnow (class of 1879, president of Johns Hopkins University); J. Franklin Jameson (class of 1879, professor of history at Johns Hopkins and first president of the American History Association); Rush Rees (class of 1883, president of the University of Rochester); Williston Walker (class of 1883, provost at Yale University); and Percy Boynton (class of 1897, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Chicago).
Luminaries from older classes also included architect William Mead (class of 1867, founding partner in McKim, Mead & White), Talcott Williams (class of 1871, first dean of the Columbia School of Journalism) and honorary degree recipient Naibu Kanda (class of 1871, member of the Japanese House of Peers, and one of Japan’s representatives at the 1921–22 Washington arms conference).
The list could go on. Amherst had never gathered on campus a larger comparable group of its most distinguished graduates.
Changes in Amherst’s physical appearance provided more indelible evidence of its transformation. Since the mid-1890s, the spatial grid of the main campus had doubled in size, thanks mostly to the purchase in 1913 of a 40-acre lot landscaped as an athletic field and named in memory of Edward “Old Doc” Hitchcock Jr. (class of 1849), then famous as creator of a required program in physical exercise that became a model for other college and universities.
Viscount Holmesdale (left) and then Vice President Calvin Coolidge (right)
On the main campus, trustees also had added six custom-built structures to two chapels and 12 buildings that, in years past, had identified Amherst as an outpost of New England Protestantism. And they had entrusted design of four buildings—including the recently opened Converse Memorial Library (1917)—to the New York-based firm of McKim, Mead & White, then well-known as the masters and chief propagators of École des Beaux-Arts classicism in the United States.
Change in Amherst’s architectural identity was also visible in an ongoing face-lift of its fraternity houses. Since 1913, seven of its then 12 “lodges” had been torn down and rebuilt, with a mix of neoclassical and neo-Georgian designs provided mostly by the Beaux-Arts-trained Allen Cox of the Boston firm of Putnam and Cox.
If you were among Amherst graduates who had not set foot on campus in 20 years, it would have been patently obvious that “the mecca of her alumni” had entered an era of affluence.
And, finally, planning for the Centennial was very much the product of an Amherst for whom New York was the financial center of gravity.
It was trustee Dwight Morrow who hatched the idea of using the 100th commencement as the occasion for Amherst’s first national campaign. In fall 1919, in hosting meetings of a select group of New York-based trustees and alumni in his office at J.P. Morgan and at the University Club, he also had spearheaded six months of organizational efforts that—using the lure of a $300,000 challenge grant from the General Education Board—fashioned a plan that persuaded the Alumni Council to implement a national drive.
General headquarters for the campaign was at 174 Fulton Street, where a volunteer staff of alumni produced and distributed campaign materials to 21 district fundraising chairmen across the country. Between Nov. 29 and Dec. 7, 174 Fulton Street also served as the telephone command center for official solicitation that raised almost 95 percent of the targeted $3 million in gifts and pledges.
With Bruce Barton operating as its chief publicist, the Centennial was a New York-based undertaking in second way. Under his direction, it ushered Amherst into the age of institutional advertising.
This side of the Centennial began to reveal itself on Nov. 27, 1920, with Barton’s publicity for 26 “Lord Jeff Dinners” across the country that kicked off official solicitation of the Centennial gift.
In a bulletin pitching New York’s “Lord Jeff Diner” to local alumni, it was Barton who declared that Nov. 27 would mark the birthday of “Lord Jeff.” Not the historical figure (born Jan. 29, 1717), as things turned out, but the College’s unofficial then-mascot Lord Jeff whom Barton deployed partly to sell the campaign to alumni across the country, partly to provide the College with a new national name brand.
Barton also alerted several hundred alumni planning to attend the New York dinner to expect that “the shade of Lord Amherst” would appear “to look over things and receive the homage of old grads.” And so he did, in an impersonation provided by Maurice L. Farrell (class of 1901). Lit by a spotlight, dressed in the uniform of a British major and doubtless using text that Barton provided, Farrell’s faux lord urged alumni to remember that he was always “with you in spirit, fondly proud of you and deeply sensible of the great distinction you have brought to his name by your influence and your achievements.”
The five-day Centennial celebration provided a much bigger stage for Lord Jeff. Here Barton cast its guest of honor—24-year-old John Jeffery Amherst (1896–1993), then Viscount Holmesdale and later fifth Earl Amherst—as the central figure in a publicity strategy he later used with large corporate clients like U.S. Steel, General Electric and General Motors: Personalize an institution in ways that both promote internal loyalty and enhance public visibility and prestige.
Placed center-stage at all the celebration’s major gatherings—including the Grand Parade of the Alumni, where he marched with the 25th reunion class of 1896 in leading some 2,000 alumni from the Town Commons across the campus to Pratt Field for a season-ending baseball game against Wesleyan—and flipping the switch for renditions of “Lord Jeffery Amherst” whenever he appeared, young Viscount Holmesdale not only eclipsed Calvin Coolidge as cause for celebration—he was “Lord Jeff” come to life.
The habit of labeling Amherst a “little New England college” persisted. But with the Centennial attracting more attention from its alumni and the nation at large than any other event in its history, the five-day celebration stamped a new brand name on Amherst students and graduates: Lord Jeffs.
Left: The vice president and his party; Right: “Lord Jeff” at the baseball game (photos from the 1921 Amherst Graduates' Quarterly)
Why reconnect with Amherst as it was a hundred years ago? The answer resists table-clearing generalizations
Markers of academic quality were different in 1921. Amherst’s high national standing had nothing to do with SAT scores or the difficulty of gaining admission. It was among a small group of colleges and universities with their own selective admission standards and took justifiable pride in the number of well-prepared students it admitted. But like other schools atop the prestige pyramid, Amherst could not fill its ranks with fully qualified students. So annual attrition rates were remarkably high. Of 124 students who enrolled in the class of 1921, less than two-thirds made it through to receive diplomas.
Also, while demographic patterns had eroded Amherst’s identity as a New England institution, enrollment could hardly be described as national in geographic scope. Compared with other elite institutions, Amherst did stand out in drawing less than 20 percent of its student body from within a 50-mile radius, and only slightly more than 40 percent from within 100 miles. (Only Williams had broader geographical reach.) But if one wanted to say that the Amherst of 1921 somehow prized the diversity of its students, what it prized was a mix from states east of the Mississippi and north of the Ohio.
Strikingly different too was the extent to which the Amherst of 1921 presupposed it should rely on alumni to do work that today is handled by a sizeable internal bureaucracy. The Centennial Gift Campaign is an obvious case in point by now. But Amherst’s first capital drive was one of a great many services provided by the Alumni Council (founded in 1914) and supported by way of eight standing committees working in coordination with 28 urban and regional alumni associations.
In short, alumni functioned—under the ever-active prodding of the Alumni Council’s first secretary, Frederick S. Allis (class of 1893)—as an administrative arm of the College in 1921. They publicized Amherst’s existence, recruited its students, and organized and paid for annual commencement exercises. They owned and operated its fraternities. And by way of the Alumni Fund Committee (established in 1906), alumni volunteers directed annual solicitation of gifts from the entire body of alumni that provided substantial revenue for annual operating budgets.6
It also bears saying explicitly that the Amherst of 1921 was a de facto Protestant institution, and that its graduates pursued careers in a country whose leadership was (and through the 1950s would remain) overwhelmingly Protestant.
True, under Alexander Meiklejohn’s watch, Amherst had partly opened its door for German American Jews (during years when discriminatory quotas for Jews existed at other elite institutions) and African Americans. Meiklejohn also spoke out against Jewish quotas in his 1917 Harvard Phi Betta Kappa Address. But he never tampered with long-standing requirements that included weekday-morning chapel exercises and Sunday service in the College Church for students not excused to attend services with local dominations of their choosing. Meiklejohn also proudly affirmed that Amherst would retain its identity as a “classical” college, admitting only students who had studied Latin or Greek.
As far as I know, among the small handful of German American Jews who graduated from Amherst before 1921, only Mortimer Schiff (class of 1895) and Eustace Seligman (class of 1910) returned for the Centennial. The only African Americans mentioned as attendees were a small handful of unnamed “Negro students” who stayed on campus during the Centennial and unnamed musicians in jazz bands imported from New York and Springfield, Mass., to play at class reunion parties.
All that said, there is little reason to reconnect with the Amherst of 1921 if the only takeaway is a catalog of how much has changed.
One living connection remains in plain sight: Amherst’s still-spectacular hilltop placement on the east side of the Connecticut River Valley, as well as some two dozen buildings that line its quadrangles and the Town Commons, which, for its alumni, endure as extraordinarily powerful symbols of continuity.
As a special piece of the planet, Amherst looks much as it did 100 years ago.
A 1921 aerial photo of the campus.
But there is more than a symbolic connection. If Amherst’s campus in 2021 had largely taken shape by 1921, so too had a second foundation of its repeated claim to special status: exceptional material resources that make it possible and credible to adopt lofty educational aims, such as those that Meiklejohn proclaimed in his 1912 Inaugural Address and were reprinted in the annual catalog through the 1920s. Amherst was “first of all, a place of the mind,” he said, an institution defined by “great teachers” who were among the “leading minds of their time” and gave students “an intellectual grasp of the human experience.”
No one reading Stanley King’s invaluable histories of Amherst’s buildings, campus and endowment, I think, can fail to be impressed by the fact that in no earlier period in its history had Amherst enjoyed the influx of material resources—both capital gifts and endowment donations—that it enjoyed during the years marked out by the election of Daniel Willis James to the board in 1891 and the kickoff of the Centennial Gift Campaign in late November 1920.7
The endowment more than tripled in value during this period. In addition to six new buildings and a spatial grid that doubled in size, houses that Amherst owned in town and rented at discount to faculty and administrators—so-called “college residences”—also increased, from five to 17.
It’s also worth noting that, while before the Centennial Gift Campaign alumni as a group were not considered possible sources of capital gifts and endowment donations, a great many alumni on their own initiative provided gifts that covered most of the cost of the College’s ongoing fraternity rebuilding boom—which by 1921 totaled $401,000 (the equivalent of $5.4 million today).8
At the kickoff of the Centennial campaign, then, in a landscape of some 400American colleges in all stages of development, Amherst already stood high in the ranks of the nation’s wealthiest institutions. When the board closed the Centennial Gift account in 1924, with an endowment increased to $6.7 million (or $101 million today), it was the nation’s wealthiest college. Measured per student—$205,591—Amherst’s endowment also rivaled those of the nation’s richest universities: Harvard, Columbia and Chicago.
But, to give credit where credit is due, a bit more must be said about Amherst’s financial ascent. When the material resources funneled into the College during the period from 1891 and 1920 are viewed as whole, there’s no question that credit has to be extended almost entirely to five trustees: Daniel Willis James, his son Arthur Curtiss James, Charles M. Pratt, George A. Plimpton and Dwight Morrow. Together, they were responsible for well over half of all capital gifts and endowment donations during these years.
Amherst did have a small group of generous benefactors who were neither trustees nor alumni during this period: Andrew Carnegie (by way the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching), John D. Rockefeller (by way of the General Education Board), Margaret Olivia Sage and Edmund Converse. But what these figures knew of Amherst came largely by way of personal or professional relationships with George Plimpton and Dwight Morrow.9
The story was much the same for the Centennial Gift Campaign. As a first effort to organize Amherst’s nationally dispersed alumni as a source of financial support, the campaign was a remarkable achievement. It was also something of a personal triumph for Dwight Morrow. But it didn’t establish itself as an organizational model Amherst would use again. And, ultimately, the campaign’s success also depended on roughly the same small circle of trustees and their wealthy connections in New York City.
The numbers merit a close look. When the board closed the Centennial Gift account in May 19, 1926, receipts totaled $2,930,274.
Grants from the General Education Board ($300,000) and the Carnegie Foundation ($75,000)—for which George Plimpton had written and submitted applications—represented 12 percent of the total.
Of some 4,000 gifts and collected pledges that covered the balance, these were the seven largest gifts: Arthur Curtiss James ($250,000), George D. Pratt ($135,000), Dwight W. Morrow ($100,000), Harold L. Pratt (class of 1895, $80,000), Charles M. Pratt ($50,000), Frederick B. Pratt (class of 1887, $50,000) and Harold I. Pratt (class of 1900, $50,000).
Next in line came the Pratt brother-in-law Dr. Frank L. Babbott (class of 1913, $26,000) and Charles M. Pratt’s sons Richardson Pratt (class of 1915, $20,000), and Theodore Pratt (class of 1909, $15,000).
These 10 gifts—all from familiar names—covered more that 30 percent of the balance. Combined with grants from the General Education Board and the Carnegie Foundation, the 10 gifts covered roughly 40 percent of the total.
What Amherst’s greatest benefactors would make of Amherst in 2021, who can say? None left statements of what they hoped Amherst would become. But, by way of conclusion, two things can be said as to why they command interest and respect.
The first is that the archival record shows there was even much more to their largesse than Stanley King managed to document. From 1891 through 1921, they provided not only the lion’s share of capital gifts and endowment donations. They also directly supported a broad range of purposes whose total number and value we may never know.
It was Dwight Morrow, for example, who covered expenses of two high-profile programs that Alexander Meiklejohn launched after World War I: visiting faculty appointments that brought distinguished British intellectuals to campus, and a new “labor college” Amherst co-sponsored with trade unions in Holyoke and Springfield. As chair of the board’s executive committee in the early 1920s, Morrow also paid out of pocket for both a long-overdue modernization of the College’s antiquated financial operation and the development of its first master plan.
The other point is that you don’t need to romanticize Amherst’s past or ignore the political and economic context in which in first began to flourish financially10 to recognize that, in the absence of Daniel Willis James and Arthur Curtiss James, the brothers Charles and George Pratt, George Plimpton, and Dwight Morrow, Amherst would have been considerably less visible and less engaged in the world as it celebrated its Centennial.
Or, more precisely, during the first decades of the 20th century, those six men (all trustees, and all but one an Amherst alumnus) were not just highly prominent symbols of Amherst’s transformation into a national institution. In providing most of the material bedrock, they also were its primary agents. And as such, they remain as important figures in the College’s history as one can imagine.
Would Amherst’s transformation have happened without them? Perhaps. Nothing in history is immune to change. What can’t be taken for granted, however, was their coming together and choosing to support Amherst when they did and as they did. Nothing about that was preordained.
Teichgraeber is a professor of history at Tulane University, where he teaches and writes American cultural and intellectual history, specializing in the history of the American university system, the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, and Emerson and Thoreau. He is the author of three books and numerous essays and reviews.