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Crowning Glory

Ancient May Day tradition once thrived at Swarthmore

Sixteen crowded trains pulled into Swarthmore station on what felt like the first real day of spring in 1926.

The excited passengers swept up the wide walk toward Parrish’s steps to ask sunbathing students for directions to the gala.

At 2 o’clock, the revelers gathered near the Rose Garden. Thirty women in white danced to violin and flute, nimbly weaving their red and white streamers around the maypole.

“For the first time in history,” the Phoenix humorously proclaimed, “the maypole was successfully wound and unwound.”

Later that day, a musical Italian carnival was held in the original wooden amphitheater. The Queen of May and her court were entertained by “men” in breeches and bright waistcoats who led picture-hatted maidens in a French dance. Peasants and flower girls all took part in the revelry before the Queen departed.

First officially celebrated at Swarthmore in 1904, May Day traces its roots to ancient Greek and Roman festivals. The College’s first festivities began in the early morning, with female freshmen delivering newly assembled baskets of campus flora to the dorm doors of senior women. Later, a procession led by the basket-carrying, capped-and-gowned seniors wound its way to a maypole—or sometimes to four, one for each class. The maypole dance was performed in good humor, perfection not required. The Queen, announced one year by “a scarlet-cloaked herald mounted on a white charger,” was then crowned in all her glory. On alternate years, the women staged an elaborate pageant of dances, many with international themes, viewed by hundreds of College members, families, friends, and neighbors.

Swarthmore’s fete also included a “step ceremony.” Senior women advanced slowly down Parrish’s steps with the juniors close behind, all singing the alma mater as the older class symbolically bequeathed its privileges to the younger.

Even as women students were protesting their lack of national suffrage, they alone voted for the May Queen, prompting mock outrage from some men. “Frustrated Male” protested in a 1939 Phoenix that “those who are most capable of judging beauty, the men, are given no opportunity to express their opinions on the delicate subject of a Queen. … In the name of 350 male students of this College … I demand that May Day be abolished.”

Male May Day spoofs were a regular occurrence in the 1920s and ’30s. A 1936 Phoenix, for example, described a “249-pound Queen of the May in flowing robes and a few burlap sacks... who smoked his pipe, complacently awaiting the crowning.”

Swarthmore’s May Day celebration was regarded as not only a lark but also a serious athletic event, sponsored by the Women’s Physical Education Department. Participating students received P.E. credit, fulfilling the College founders’ belief that care of the body and the mind were equally important. The 1925 Halcyon lists May Day as an activity on par with baseball, hockey, basketball, swimming, and tennis.

Publicity was extensive. The Phoenix reported in 1927 that that year’s May Queen photo appeared in more than 100 North American newspapers. The 1933 Halcyon boasted that “Swarthmore once more reaches the front pages of the nation’s newspapers.” In 1971, the College still prepared a news release of the event.

Notably, at the height of World War II, 1944’s May Day celebration featured a folk festival with a powerful peaceful Quaker sentiment: Folk dancing from 25 countries was “an expression of the underlying similarities among the peoples of the world,” the Phoenix reported.

Postwar queens have stated that though the honor didn’t have life-altering significance, it was nonetheless a very pleasant experience. The fact that the war was over, for example, had much more of an impact on Cornelia “Kinnie” Clarke Schmidt ’46 than the celebration itself, which was “just a fleeting weekend of fun.”

In the 1960s, the festivities continued despite the decade’s social and political turbulence. Mimi Feingold Real ’63 was an activist who had spent over a month in a Mississippi jail (see

She regarded her election, sponsored by the Swarthmore Political Action Committee, as a kind of coup that was “great fun.”

Says Judith Lorick ’69, Swarthmore’s first African American May Queen: “It didn’t even strike me what an amazing thing it was that a woman of color was May Queen that year.”

“On second thought,” she added, “maybe it was a statement.”

Kathy Felmey ’71 was Swarthmore’s last official May Queen. She gladly shared her throne with the duly elected, quite-surprised first (and last) May King, Alex “Tony” Cilento ’71. The Phoenix weighed in: “Another great step towards the equality of the sexes was taken as Tony Cilento was elected May Queen. Through some bureaucratic mechanism, Tony was deprived of his crown and had to settle for May King. His supporters claimed a moral victory, nonetheless.”

Even without the coronation ceremonies, the May Day tradition continued.

The Lang Music Building was the site of the Queen-less maypole dance at both its groundbreaking and dedication in the early ’70s. Dana Mackenzie ’79 described his fond memories of coed Morris dancing, including the maypole dance on Sharples patio, a tradition that continued into the 1980s.

The Swarthmore Folk Dancing Club still includes a maypole dance teaching workshop in early May every year.

Reflecting the times, this is very informal, set up outdoors in varying campus locations. Any passersby may join in. And, to keep things practical, the regular club members still get P.E. credit.