4 Forgotten and Insane Penn Traditions (Make a Comeback?)

It’s Penn Regular Decision Day! What better way to celebrate the Class of 2019 than by looking into Penn’s most absurd and dangerous traditions. I’m not talking about the traditions they tell you during a tour; I’m talking about the stuff you have to really search for. (All conveniently placed on this link on the Penn Archives website.) Most of these traditions come from a time when Penn consisted of rich, white males, so there were basically no repercussions for anything people did…until people died and the police got involved. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and see how much we’re disappointing the classes of yesteryear.

1. The Bowl Fight (1865?-1916)

I get it, you’re excited to chow down on fried Oreos and take a drunken glitter selfie with Kesha. But the Bowl Fight was the original Pennsylvania tribute to debauchery. In the past, there used to be a greater rivalry between freshman and sophomore classes. These classes practically used the Quad and Franklin Field as war grounds to prove their superiority to the nonexistent women at Penn.

The Bowl Fight started in 1865, although the rules were formalized in 1867. The rules were simple: The sophomore class had a bowl. The freshman class had a person, preferably small. The sophomore class had a few minutes to stuff the freshman into the bowl without the bowl breaking.

And these were nice bowls, too. And trust us, we know a lot about bowls. -- The editors
And these were nice bowls, too. And trust us, we know a lot about bowls. — The editors

The rules changed over time, but that was the gist of it. The bowls were actually pretty intricate and the competition itself actually inspired some badass poetry:



Should it come back?

Absolutely not. The tradition ended in 1916 after freshman William Lifson (’19) was killed. I do not think people would take kindly to finding a small freshman to stuff into a bowl. However, I am surprised that the tradition lasted over 50 years without an injury or people collectively deciding “Wow, this is stupid and dangerous.” Here is a table that documents the wins, losses, and ties.


There is video of the last Bowl Fight. It looks like your average mosh pit.

Bonus gifsound.

2. Push Ball Fight (1908-1913)

Penn students do not go to sporting events. It is not something that happens. However, Penn students in the past not only supported their sports teams (that would explain why Franklin Field is so big), but they also invented their own sports. And it wouldn’t be a good sport without giant red balls.


Yeah, he's lifting that ball with his mind. And you can't even go to the gym when it's nice out.
Yeah, he’s lifting that ball with his mind. And you won’t even bother to go to the gym when it’s nice out.


And that’s the best I can do. The game is vague and generally described as boring for everyone who wasn’t touching the big red balls. But the fact that this event is described as a “fight” rather than a game makes me think that this was mainly an excuse to fight on Franklin Field, which, as we saw above, definitely happened.

The balls, which came all the way from Penn State, were thrown overhead and then tossed into an end zone. It lasted for 5 years until a war broke out or something.

My interpretation of 1913 geopolitics.
My interpretation of 1913 geopolitics.

Should it come back?

YES! Kesha is performing at Fling. Fill up some giant dodge- or beachballs with glitter and have yourself a drunken good time.


3. Sophomore Cremation (1877-1930)

Okay, this one’s kind of awesome: The sophomores had their own Goth version of Hey Day. At the end of the year, they would meet up at the Mint and have a funeral procession that would go all the way into West Philadelphia. The students would carry the class Plate and the year’s syllabus, put them on trial and burn them. The Penn Band apparently played a funeral dirge the entire time. Over time, the syllabus and the plate were eventually replaced by textbooks and an effigy of bad professors.


Unfortunately, freshmen used this event to assault the sophomore class, which led to riots, which led to the police, which led to the event being disbanded.

"You'll never understand us, coppers."
“You’ll never understand us, coppers.”

Should it come back?

Even if it did, there is no way students are burning textbooks today. Also, burning a professor’s effigy will not end well. There would be angry editorials for months. MONTHS!


4. ROWBOTTOM! (1910-1980*)

(*The 1980 Rowbottom is questionable at best.)

Out of all the entries on this list, this is probably the one you’ve heard of. It all began with Joseph T. Rowbottom. The riots associated with the Sophomore Cremation ceremony eventually trickled into Rowbottom’s dormitory. One account says that the call of “Yea, Rowbottom!” was called to make fun of Rowbottom, a bookworm. Another account says that Rowbottom’s roommate would drunkenly yell up at his room and would cause arguing through the windows…which, as you can tell by now, let to riots. It eventually became so bad that just yelling “Yea, Rowbottom!” would stir people up enough to riot.

BRO! You got mud all over my new knickers.
BRO! You got mud all over my new knickers.

Rowbottom eventually came to replace the word “riot” and there were 50 Rowbottoms between 1910 and 1970. Anything from winning football games to celebrating spring break could set off a riot. In 1980, after a decade of rest, a group of freshmen tried to lead a panty raid with the “spirit” of a Rowbottom. Fortunately, panty raids have gone out of style.


Should it come back?

Riots suck. Police are a lot more militarized. I’m a student of color. Absolutely not, unless you want a myriad of rubber bullets to the crotch. However, text me the next time Penn Basketball wins the Ivy title. I might just be that crazy alum who yells “Yea, Rowbottom!” in an empty Palestra next to the band.


Bonus gifsound.

Leave a Reply