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Story Courtesy of Jeff Rankin, Monmouth College Historian Author and Literacy Critic.
Consider the lowly peanut.
It’s fed to squirrels and elephants. It’s long been a staple of cheap ballpark
fare and it’s also been used to describe a gallery of inexpensive vaudeville
seats containing rowdy hecklers. Yet for nearly 60 years, it served as the
centerpiece of Monmouth College’s most elegant social event of the year—Peanut
The origins of the strange
but wildly popular tradition can be traced to the year 1868, thanks to the
reminiscences of Russell Graham, an early professor in the social sciences who
also served as the college’s vice president and treasurer. Graham, who was a
Monmouth sophomore at the time of Peanut Night’s inception, wrote a vivid
account of its history for a 1911 edition of the Monmouth College student
By that year, the tradition
had reached a pinnacle of sophistication, with two elegant dinners held on the
evening of November 9—one in the banquet hall of the Colonial Hotel on East
Broadway and the other in the magnificent new college building, Wallace Hall.
The Monmouth Republican-Atlas
described the hotel event, attended by 130 college men and women in formal
“The early part of the
evening was spent in a reception and music …The spacious parlors and second
story porch were well decorated in Japanese lanterns and other similar effects.
Features of the musical were selections by William Lytle and Miss Hazel Pearce
on the piano and readings by Miss Jean Robinson.
“It was nearly 9 o’clock when
the guests repaired to the banquet room, the entire hotel dining room being
turned over for this function. Its interior was a veritable bower of beauty,
the same general Japanese effect being used. The society colors of old gold and
red were used profusely as well as large clusters of chrysanthemums.”
On the menu were Tomato
Cream, Baked White Fish, Roast Young Turkey and, naturally, Salted Peanuts! The
dinner on campus featured a similarly elegant spread, including peanuts.
What was the purpose of the
event and why did it involve peanuts? The first thing to understand is that
Peanut Night had its birth with the college’s literary societies. In the days
before Greek fraternal organizations, all campus social life and most
cocurricular activities revolved around the two men’s societies, Philo and
Eccritean, and the two women’s societies, ABL and Aletheorian—all four of which
were well established by 1862. They gained even more importance after the
College Senate in 1874 voted to ban Greek fraternities from campus.
Not only did the literary
societies serve a social function, but in the years before intercollegiate
athletics, the debate competitions they organized also served as the primary
student spectator activity and source of school spirit. It was the annual men’s
debate between Philo and Eccritean that gave birth to Peanut Night.
The purpose of Peanut Night
was to recognize and celebrate the contestants picked for the prestigious
Philo-Eccritean Contest, held the following spring just prior to commencement.
Contests were held in the areas of Debate, Oration, Essay and Declamation.
According to Professor
Graham, in 1868 the debate contestants decided to express their appreciation
for being selected by giving their fellow members a treat. After the selection
program was finished, the contestants entered their respective society halls
carrying sacks of peanuts. A recess was voted and everyone snacked on the
legumes until the stock was exhausted.
Graham said that in ensuing
years, apples and oranges were sometimes added to the fare, but peanuts
remained the essential. Eventually, to save the formal society halls from being
littered with peanut shells, the activity was moved to the recitation halls,
where “not only were peanuts consumed in large quantities but great peanut
battles were fought. After the celebration was over, the hat was passed around
and a dollar or two raised to pay the janitor for cleaning up the scene of the
By the 1880s, Peanut Night
had expanded into the streets of Monmouth. After the feast, processions were
formed and the societies competed so see which could draw the bigger crowd and
make the louder noise. Soon, another custom emerged, in which each society
visited the homes of professors, whereupon they announced the team of contestants
and presented a bag of peanuts. Professors were expected to reciprocate with a
speech, “and woe to the professor who made a slip and did not show an impartial
mind in paying his respects to the different societies,” Graham said. “A
leaning toward one or the other, or a seeming to do so, meant that before
morning things about the college would be painted red, in his honor.”
In 1893, one of the societies
invited female students to accompany them on their rounds (or perhaps the girls
invited themselves), following which they all repaired to Pollock’s restaurant
on East Broadway and had their first banquet at the cost of 25 cents apiece.
Not to be outdone, the other society decorated a large float, on which they
placed their contestants and pulled it by hand through the streets.
The first formal banquet with
toast programs was held in 1896, at a cost of 50 cents a plate. Eventually the
custom of visiting professors in their homes was dropped, but committees from
Philo and Eccritean continued to present them with sacks of peanuts decorated
in their society colors.
In 1916, the Eccriteans
staged a typically elaborate Peanut Night, but the Philos canceled theirs. As
the YMCA and YWCA staged a massive campaign to raise money for needy soldiers
in the World War I prison camps of Europe, Philo members decided to instead
channel their financial resources for the war effort.
After the fraternity ban at
Monmouth was lifted in 1922, and especially after national Greek affiliation
was reinstated in 1928, interest in the literary societies dwindled to such an
extent that the last Peanut Night was held that March, by the Philos. By that
time, Philo alumni and faculty were included on the guest list, and just before
the formal program, small bags of peanuts were distributed to the celebrants,
who staged a spirited peanut fight.
In 1929, one Eccritean member
wrote a letter to the editor of the student newspaper, defending the
organization’s decision to do away with Peanut Night:
“There has been no small
criticism undeservedly placed upon the society because of its neglect of the
social, especially in the abandonment of the Peanut Night. I, for one, an
observer, think that a step has been made in the right direction. The Eccritean
at heart is not socially inclined. He feels that his efforts can profitably be
placed in channels of greater usefulness. To this end he felt it wisest and
best to lend every effort to that high goal.”
Eccritean Society would
finally disband in 1932 and Philo in 1933.