Beanie for the Baby Freshmen
From Block I to rubbing Lincoln’s nose before an exam, the University of Illinois has many traditions, but few were as passionately followed as the freshmen beanies. From 1906 to 1934, freshmen at the University of Illinois were required to wear green beanies called “spots” to identify themselves as freshmen. The spots are very similar to today’s baseball hats but without the bill. Many other universities also had this tradition, and each had their own unique spot (Jordan). The University of Illinois’s spot was a dark green in 1931 as opposed to some more intricately designed ones which included the school’s initials or were multicolored (University of Illinois 1931 Freshman Spot). However, all these spots share the same thesis, identification. As simple as the design was, it had one unique feature: the cap’s button color, which identified what individual college the wearer was a part of. These features resulted in the easy identification of freshmen, but also made it easy for them to be singled out and hazed.
The obvious purpose of the spot was to identify a student as a freshman, which it does very well. The spot made it easy to tell who’s the new guy and who’s not. This purpose was kept in mind during the design of the spot as well. The spot’s shape immediately reminds me of a classic “propeller hat.” This would make the viewer perceive the freshmen as even younger than they actually are, as it makes the freshmen look like they are wearing a childish hat. This is one of the spot’s warrants. The design identifies the freshman as childish and because of the association between the spot and a propellor hat, freshmen would be judged as more childish and less experienced.
Similarly, the color green also has a deeper meaning. Green is often associated with life, growth, and energy, all of which describe freshmen. Freshmen bring in new life and energy to the campus as they haven’t been worn out by their classes yet and are eager to explore their new environment. More so, green shows that they have room to grow. Since it is probably their first time away from home, they are learning to be independent and to make adult choices. It also shows that they are here to learn and expand their mind as they begin to journey down the path that is their major. In a different view, the color green can symbolize a “greenhorn”. A greenhorn is someone who lacks experience or is a new-comer, freshmen are both. Some might say the beanie is green “just cause” or it was designed to look nice, which it did. Only, the colors that the designer chose were picked for a specific reason. If you look at beanies from many other schools, you see that most are made up of the school’s colors or have the schools’ initializes. This is to promote school spirit and to show the freshmen that they are a part of the school and community. All of the spot’s warrants just listed support its effort to identify freshmen, just in varying ways. The shape characterizes them as children and the color symbolizes their new energy and also their lack of experience. The cap’s button also helps to further support the claim that spots identify freshmen. Each button color corresponded to a specific college within the university. This made it possible for one to not only see who was a freshman but also what they were studying. Just by the design of these beanies, you could tell a lot about the wearer. The design wasn’t random, each aspect – from the shape, color, and features – was carefully chosen with a specific purpose in mind.
There is another reason that freshmen were required to wear these spots: to segregate and haze them. It is well known that hazing was common in fraternities and sororities, so it makes sense that it carried over into the university. Wearing a spot isn’t degrading or shameful by itself, but wearing a spot while at a university is similar to wearing a dunce cap. The spot is supposed to make that person feel singled out and different from his or her classmates, warranting ridicule from them as well. The spot does this very well, as by the end of the year all the freshmen are excited to burn their caps in a huge bonfire. By how much effort is spent on this event, you can see that it wasn’t just for show but was similar to a rite of passage into the university. There was even a cap burning committee that met each year to organize the event, and starting in the 1920’s, they even add a concert (Jordan). Some people might argue that this event was just ceremonial, showing the graduation of freshman year, but that wouldn’t explain the high level of emotion that this event creates. “During this era, destruction of local property accompanied the freshman cap burning” (Jordan). Why would someone be so energetic over burning something that they cared little for? The only reason burning their caps would make freshmen that excited would be that they have now passed some test or trial which they had to endure for a year. Just by the elevated emotions, you can tell that these spots carried a much deeper meaning than just identifying freshmen, they symbolized the exclusion from a group, the upperclassman.
In the end, the beanie was made to identify freshmen and to single them out. Despite this, the spot was one of the most passionately followed traditions at the University of Illinois. However, the tradition of the freshman cap ended in 1934 after a fight during the burning ceremony. But even by this you can tell that the spot served its purpose well, as it created so much emotion in the freshmen class, there must have been a deeper meaning.
Jordan, Angela. “Ohio State University Libraries Exhibitions.” Beanies of the Big 10. Web. 03 Dec. 2015.
University of Illinois 1931 Freshman Spot, Donated by Jon Edwards and Ruth Edwards Roy, Champaign Illinois.