It began with a trumpet. After months of freezing temperatures and snowy skies, University of Michigan students welcomed the first day of spring – March 20, 1952 – basking in sunshine and the comparative warmth of 57 degrees. It was a day to shed jackets, open windows, and stroll outside.
Following dinner that evening, sophomore Art Benford returned to his dorm room, picked up his trumpet, and played a few notes of Glen Miller’s “Serenade in Blue.” It was a chance to relax a bit before starting on the next homework assignment. But Benford soon found himself accompanied by a trombone player in the men’s dorm across the street. Two tubas joined the concert. A stereo speaker blared from a window. Someone owned a portable fog horn. Calls of “Knock it off!” were soon followed by residents exiting both dorms.
Notified of a disturbance, the Ann Arbor Police arrived to find 600 men gathered on Madison Street shouting at each other. But the appearance of the officers turned the students attention away from themselves and toward the police, who, not wanting to provoke anything further, wisely retreated to their car. “Perhaps the breaking of that one taboo – the defiance of the police, unanswered, ” wrote Michigan alumnus James Tobin, “put the crowd in the mood to break more.” Pent up for months after a long winter, the students needed to find an outlet for their energy, but what happened was completely unexpected.
The still-growing mob set off across campus to the women’s residence halls, and, against all University regulations, entered the buildings, went up the stairs, walked through the hallways, then moved on to the next dorm. Coeds were shocked; some filled waste baskets with water and poured them on the intruders from upstairs windows. At Alice Lloyd Hall, the largest of the women’s dorms, the men went one step further, entered bedrooms, and according to The Detroit News, snatched “items of lingerie as souvenirs.”
The crowd returned home two hours later, but it was now the coeds’ turn. A mass of women students marched on the male-dominated Michigan Student Union. Until that evening, it had been a longtime university tradition that no “unaccompanied woman” was allowed to enter the front portal of the Michigan Union, but the defiant girls surged into the entrance, through the building, and on to the men’s dorms next door. “Pandemonium broke loose,” reported The Michigan Daily. Not until Dean of Women Deborah Bacon arrived was order restored.
Though the student newspaper called it a “mass riot,” Dean of Students Erich Walter believed it was simply a “form of spring madness” and passed on any disciplinary measures. But the event received national press, and with it, imitators on other campuses. On April 8th, Penn State experienced a similar episode, as men marched on women’s dorms demanding “underthings” and the girls were happy to oblige. In the last two weeks of May, a pandemic of “campus riots” broke out at more than 50 colleges across the U.S. and Canada, and the panty raid fad was born.
Above: A panty raid at the University of Southern California.
College administrators hadn’t seen anything quite like it and were utterly unprepared. At the University of South Carolina, a late night panty raid was accompanied by a lone bugler sounding Charge! Columbia University raiders set off firecrackers to cause confusion, those at Duke employed dynamite caps. To slow police response at the University of Miami, students let the air out of the tires of a dozen squad cars. As a proactive measure, the director of women’s housing at Indiana University set out a “barrelful of female undergarments in the hope that the males would help themselves and go home quietly,” while at Iowa State, students declared a “pantry raid” and scoured sorority houses in search of cookies and other eatables. The University of Arkansas football coach, Otis Douglas, tried to “good humor” students out of staging a raid: “If you guys had to worry about beating Texas next year like I do, you wouldn’t be out here.” Police at the University of Minnesota resorted to tear gas to break up a rowdy mob, but misjudged the wind direction and accidently gassed themselves. And when more than 2,000 University of Missouri men marched and sang on their way to sorority row – the third target of a panty raid that evening – the police chief of the town of Columbia realized his 22-man force needed assistance. Near midnight, Missouri Governor Forrest Smith was wakened, told of the situation, and authorized the use of the National Guard, though by the time the Guard mustered, the students had spent their energy and returned home.
While the actions of the men received most of attention, in almost all cases the women assisted. They unlocked the doors to the dorms and sorority houses, cheered from upstairs windows, and sometimes defended their would-be raiders from the police. When 600 men at Columbia University besieged the residence hall of the all-female Barnard College next door, hundreds of coeds “waved undies from their windows and tossed water-filled bags as Columbia males fought with police.” Barnard’s dean, Millicent McIntosh, believed the women deserved an equal amount of the blame: “The Columbia boys could not be dispersed by the police because of the continued encouragement given them by the girls.”
At the University of Texas, only days after Dean of Women Dorothy Gebauer declared, “I’m sure our boys are too much of gentlemen to indulge in such antics,” the campus experienced its first bout of “Panty Raid Fever.” On the evening of Thursday, May 22, 1952, in the middle of spring finals, “a milling, mooing crowd of male animals shifted leaderless from various girls dorms and sorority houses” until 3 a.m. the next morning. The group of several hundred students was deterred by a coalition of Austin and University police, UT football players hastily recruited as bouncers, the sprinkler system in front of the Scottish Rite Dormitory, and a stern talk from Arno Nowotny, the venerated Dean of Student Life. Though the raiders went home empty-handed, future efforts would prove more successful.
Media reports of the new “college craze” triggered responses that ranged from amused to horrified. Some thought panty raids were in line with the pre-World War II student fads of goldfish swallowing and flagpole sitting (and the soon-to-be 1950’s fad: telephone booth stuffing). “The nationwide rash of college boys in coed dormitories,” wrote Pulitzer-prize-winning columnist Hal Boyle, “strikes a cheerful and zany note in a mad and angry world.” While “blue-nosed gentry will surely see this as a new sign of moral decadence . . . [the panty raids] restore my faith in youth and higher education.” Boyle added that sometimes “college boys have to erupt and show they are something more than tame receptacles to be stuffed with stale knowledge. Just because they are working for sheepskins is no sign they enjoy the life of sheep.”
Photo above: One of Joe Munroe’s iconic photographs of the phone-stuffing fad in the late 1950s, this one at St. Mary’s College in Moraga,California. Click image for a larger view.
Sergeant Carlton Rutledge of the U.S. Army, a then participant in the American military action in Korea, strongly disagreed. In a letter to the editor published in the New York Times, Rutledge claimed to have read accounts of panty raids in Stars and Stripes. “What kind of young men are growing up in our country – the leading nation in the world, standing for democracy, civilization and refinement? . . . It was only a year or two ago that the papers back home were full of discussions on how to exempt these young morons from the draft so they might continue their education and become better men for our country.” Rutledge was direct: “My opinion is that such young whelps be drafted at once, given a rough training and sent to the front lines, to help there until the fighting has finished. . . I consider anyone who is so low as to act in the manner I read should have nothing less than a horse whipping.”
As the school year ended across the country, so did the outburst of panty raids, which gave college deans and presidents time to act – or perhaps to overreact. New rules were created. Some students received warnings, others suspended, and a few were expelled outright. Two football players at the University of Oklahoma were dismissed for leading a raid on the women’s dorms, and newspaper headlines soon declared “Bloomer Sooner.” As a last resort (perhaps taking a cue from Sergeant Rutledge), the military draft was threatened. At Whittier College in California, the dean of students warned that the local draft board chairman would “try to draft any man involved in any panty raid.”
College newspapers sided with campus authorities and called the raids absurd, but were against the harsh penalties directed at a few students. “The responsibility of the raids is a collective matter and cannot be laid at specific individuals,” said The Minnesota Daily. At UCLA, The Daily Bruin proposed that “book raids” in the library ought to replace the desire for panties with a passion for knowledge. In Austin, The Daily Texan dubbed the panty raiders “bloomer bandits,” applauded the police and football team who “quelled immature actions by a few students,” but joined other newspapers in “resisting the totalitarian edicts issued from college officials. . . . A student’s whole life is altered by dismissal from an institution for participation in a panty raid.”
What happened? While student shenanigans have been a part of campus life for centuries, what was behind the panty raid? Some, like Dean Walter at Michigan, dismissed it as a case of spring fever on a grand scale. While there was an occasional broken window or damaged furniture, the raids were, for the most part, college fun: mischievous at times, not malicious. But they also had an undercurrent of real rebellion. Those who study such things have proposed that the students of the 1950s were challenging the concept of the university as in loco parentis – “in place of a parent” – the idea that a college should look after its students as if it were a legal guardian, setting limits in the form of dress codes, curfews, and so on. The post-war generation of the 1950s thought many of the rules outdated and irrelevant. At UT, women were still required to wear dresses or skirts to class. Jeans were taboo, as were shorts. Coeds who had changed for P.E. classes in their dorm rooms had to cover up with trench coats as they crossed the campus on their way to the gym, or risk getting into trouble with the Dean of Women. Most girls thought the rule was pointless. Panty raids, then, provided an excuse to rail against the old-fashioned confines, and foreshadowed the more substantial social upheavals of the 1960s.
For the next year, panty raids were in short supply, likely deterred by the threat of expulsion or reminders that Americans were fighting in Korea. But after the Korean Armistice was signed in July, 1953, student antics didn’t seem so inappropriate. While the 1952 outburst was never repeated, panty raids were a regular campus feature for another 15 years, though they were always controversial.
A little after midnight on Thursday, May 3, 1956, a group of 40 to 50 members of UT’s Kappa Sigma fraternity stormed the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority house on University Avenue (where it is today). “They came from everywhere” said housemother Lucy Worthley. The men had brought paint ladders to gain access to the roof, and then entered through a window near the head of the stairs. Once inside, the front door was unlocked for others so as “to enter the house in one quick move.” Police were summoned. Two fraternity members were arrested, but later released, as they had appointments to meet with the Dean of Students the following morning. But the raid was a successful one. According to the Austin Statesman, “The known loss consisted of 13 pairs of nylon panties, four silk slips, three bras and eight pairs of socks.” Kappa Sigma, though, was required to make reparations with the girls.
Panty raids persisted through the rest of the decade, but were often unpredictable, and campus administrators had to be creative with their responses. Cal-Berkeley experienced its first spring “uprising” on a hot afternoon in 1956, when a mass water fight between dorms turned in to a panty raid that involved 2,000 men and an equal number of coeds. A power outage in Huntsville, Texas interrupted study at Sam Houston State University, and without anything else to do, a panty raid was rumored. Quick-thinking President Harmon Lowman called out the university band and organized a pep rally in the middle of campus, which kept the students occupied until electricity was restored. A group of University of Michigan coeds staged a “reverse raid,” showed up en masse in front of a men’s dorm and chanted, “We want shorts!” The men complied by tossing garments out of windows. At Texas Tech, 250 masked students launched a panty raid to protest the formation of an emergency faculty committee dedicated to “hold down panty raids.” As United Press International reported, “The male students had little trouble in gaining access to the women’s dorms. The girls opened the doors for them and invited them in.”
Photo above: Sorority sisters of Zeta Tau Alpha dumped water-filled pots to slow would-be raiders at Southern Methodist University.
By the late 1950s, panty raids had evolved away from the potentially destructive entering of women’s residences to wooing the ladies from outside. Groups of men sang and chanted, and hoped to be rewarded by lingerie dropped from windows. As part of the fun, a co-ed might write her first name and a telephone number on the inside of an undergarment, and the gentleman who acquired the prize was obligated to return it by way of a blind date
It was a quiet, unusually warm Thursday evening in Austin on November 2, 1961. Just after 11 p.m., a fire ignited in a trash bin next to Moore-Hill Hall, which then housed UT athletes. Though the blaze was self-contained, because it was next to a residence hall, the city fire department erred on the side of caution and sent eight trucks to extinguish the flames. With such a commotion, the denizens of Moore-Hill, along with the men of Brackenridge, Roberts, and Prather Halls across the street, poured out of the dorms. The fire was easily doused, but once the students were outside and away from their books, they weren’t all that motivated to return. Instead, the group decided to take a study break and pay a friendly visit to the women’s dorms.
Setting off around the back side of Gregory Gym, the crowd continued to swell. Students from the petroleum and chemical engineering buildings on the East Mall (today’s Rappaport and Schoch Buildings) joined the ranks, reinforcements came from the central library then housed in the Main Building, and still more as the group passed by the Texas Union. When the mob arrived at last in front of Kinsolving Residence Hall, some 2,500 to 3,000 men were chanting, “We want panties!”
Above: Headline of The Daily Texan on November 3, 1961.
The coeds of Kinsolving smiled, giggled, and waved from their windows, but only one pair of panties was tossed from a third story window. The crowd changed tactics. Instead of the direct approach, the men began to serenade the ladies with The Eyes of Texas. This didn’t work either, and not wanting to waste the evening, the group moved across the street to try their luck at Blanton.
Blanton residents were more cooperative. A single pair of undergarments appeared, quickly followed by “an airdrop of flimsies which rallied the troops.” The men below chanted and sang, and some would-be Romeos attempted to scale the second floor railings.
By now, the entire University Police force, along with 12 additional officers of the Austin Police, had arrived to break-up the proceedings. The crowd, though, was far too large, and the best the authorities could do was to keep everyone moving. The police charged. The longhorns stampeded. North to the Scottish Rite Dorm, where the girls were instructed to lower their window shades, and sprinklers were turned on to flood the lawn. West to the sorority houses and some limited success, and then back to the campus. At Andrews residence hall, some of the girls went up to the sun deck to “greet their worshippers.” Before long, even the statue of Diana the Huntress, in the center of the women’s quad, was sporting the latest in female lingerie.
Photo above: UT men climb the walls of the Littlefield residence hall (not recommended!) during the November 1961 panty raid.
Above: The police charged. The longhorns stampeded.
“Why aren’t you taking part?” a UT student asked a police officer. “Just too old,” was the overheard reply.
Dean of Student Life Arno Nowotny arrived on the scene, collected Blanket Tax cards by the handful, and set up appointments for their owners to retrieve them the following morning. The cards, which proved students had paid their campus fees, were required to gain entrance to UT sporting events, especially football games.
“The riot ebbed and flowed from dorm to dorm for two scream-filled hours,” reported The Daily Texan. It wasn’t until well after midnight that the last cry of “We want panties!” was heard.