Student Dissidence in The 1850s.

The social and political turmoil of the 1850s did not leave Dartmouth unaffected. Between the admission of Edward Mitchell and the beginning of the Civil War, at least 12 African-American students were enrolled in the college and the medical school. At the same time, the debate about the subject of slavery became very acute, as these changes took place under the administration of a president who openly and vehemently supported slavery. Most of the students and faculty objected slavery (and the southern lobby that promoted it), but the Dartmouth student body also included students from the south, especially Kentucky. Some of these students were keen supporters of slavery and came to Dartmouth precisely because the president, Nathan Lord, was one of the greatest supporters of slavery – and what he called “its divine origins” – north of the Mason-Dixon line.

New student publications appeared throughout the 1850s. The Dartmouth Phoenix, which later became the Aegis (and is still published every year), was first printed in 1855. The Phoenix tends to discuss different issues than those mentioned in The Dartmouth. Its content generally included topics such as graduations, lists of secret societies’ members (back then almost all fraternities were considered “secret societies”), and transcriptions of speeches given in Dartmouth by famous people. Issue no.3 of the Phoenix presented an advocacy for president Lord and his pro-slavery views, which probably did not represent the opinions of most students.

Another publication that appeared in the 1850s was The Waif. Unlike the Phoenix, The Waif was a satirical newspaper. Two volumes appeared in April, 1853, and July, 1854, respectively. The Waif published limericks and rhymes, as well as satirical stories discussing the faculty. Another satirical publication that appeared around the same time was The Dartmouth OEstrus. The OEstrus was somewhat similar to it predecessor, but it differed from them in several important ways. First, most of Dartmouth’s satirical publications were usually the work of no more than three people. In contrast, the OEstrus staff probably involved a team of about a dozen, including editors and contributors. Second, the writing and language used in The OEstrus were, generally, wittier and more lever than that used in other publications (excluding, perhaps, The Waif, which might have been written by the same students). Third, The OEstrus featured engravings and sketches that represented a relatively high level of artwork compared with its predecessors. Fourth, the opinions presented in the OEstrus were quite progressive for their time and place. These included ridiculing issues such as slavery, north-south relations, religion, evolution, and sex, among others. Similarly to other student publications, the targets of mockery were members of the faculty, especially president Nathan Lord.

The student body of the 1850s was also quite similar to its 1820s counterpart in terms of age and financial disposition. The fact that many students had to work during school to fund their education made them very unreceptive to certain faculty decrees and decisions. This issue additionally contributed to an already volatile divide between northerners and southerners, because the latter were more likely to hail from wealthier families and usually did not have to work while in school.

In many ways, The OEstrus appears to be more in line with humor magazines such Punch or The Harvard Lampoon than with the preceding Dartmouth newspapers. The OEstrus’ founders might have used Punch as a model on which to design their newspaper. Punch was first published in 1841, and like The OEstrus featured jocular criticism and satirical sketches. The OEstrus also predates The Harvard Lampoon by 22 years. All the points presented above make The OEstrus a very unique and interesting document of pre-Civil War student humor. For these reason, I decided to transcribe all four volumes of The OEstrus and upload them to this webpage. I also provided as detailed a contextualization as possible of the text using footnotes, so that the reader may acquire some familiarity with the people involved or mentioned in the paper. In order to preserve the paper’s Zeitgeist, I decided to transcribe the text literally, including all the spelling errors that appeared in the original text (most prevalent was the use of “u” when the printers ran out of the letter “n”).

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