The Early Years
Not long after Wesleyan opened its doors in 1831, there were students who "fizzled" and "smashed" now and then. In the slang of that era, to "fizzle" was to give an insufficient response to an instructor's question, and to "smash" was to reveal a total lack of preparation. What Wesleyan alumnus or alumna does not remember the words used for similar situations in his or her academic career?
Many things have changed at Wesleyan in the 175 years since its founding, whether by design or otherwise, but the essence of a Wesleyan education, as stated by Wesleyan's first president, Willbur Fisk, still remains constant: a liberal arts program that serves "the good of the individual educated and the good of the world."
Most likely, a New Englander between the ages of 12 and 30 from a public high school, and certainly a male?at least until 1872?a student in the early years might also have been a licensed Methodist minister who wanted to earn a college degree, but who had to preach in area pulpits on Sundays in order to earn the $11?$12 per term tuition.
A student's day began before sunrise. Most students lived in the Old Boarding Hall or the Dormitory, which is now North College, or with families in Middletown. As it was a hardship for many families to send their sons to Wesleyan, the living conditions and food reflected this.
Each term's bill included tuition, room, board and "washing, fuel, and lights." Linens were brought from home. Furniture was not supplied by the university, so a student either had to bring it with him or buy it locally. Spending money was deposited with the president or with a faculty member, who charged a commission for holding it. It was thought that students could not be trusted with money, and that the cost of the commission would have less impact than had the student spent it foolishly.
The food included in the board charge was generally simple, reflecting the modest economic background of most students, although the cash book for the Boarding Hall does record purchases of ginger, mustard, and vinegar. Clams and a variety of meats were served; purchases of apples, potatoes, and watermelons are also noted, and fresh vegetables may have been grown on campus. During the 1830s nearly half of the student body followed a vegetarian diet, and these students had the option of paying slightly less for board; some students became adherents of "Grahamism," a modified vegetarian diet named for Sylvester Graham, the inventor of the graham cracker. Eating clubs, most of which were affiliated with fraternities or other student groups, started to become popular in the late 1830s.
Students were required to attend morning chapel services. Recitations, study hours, and required evening chapel followed, and after a full day students generally retired around nine o'clock. In the early years students took a classical course and had to pass comprehensive examinations in each of five departments?Moral Science and Belles-Lettres, Mathematics, Natural Science, Ancient Languages and Literature, and Modern Language.
Life was not all serious, though. Fraternities, called "ornaments of education" in the yearbook, provided social diversion, as did recreation and exercise in the form of informal games of football, ice-skating on Pameacha Pond, and sailing or rowing on the Connecticut River. Student pranks were not unknown, and political involvement was popular, particularly participation in the debate over slavery. Two early Wesleyan presidents were forced to resign because of student pressure.
The Methodist tradition under which Wesleyan was founded meant that there was no alcohol on campus. The Methodist hymnody, however, provided the basis for Wesleyan's moniker, the "singing college."
It took more than a financial commitment to attend Wesleyan in the early years. It also took determination and perseverance in the rigorous courses, not to mention ingenuity in order to get to campus. While most of the students came from New England, others from the mid-Atlantic states and the few from southern states faced a 12-hour trip by steamboat from New York City to reach Middletown. Alumni loyalty was remarkable from the start?testimony to the university that began in 1831 with two buildings on Middletown's High Street, which Charles Dickens called "the most beautiful street in America."
For more information about Wesleyan's history, please visit the Wesleyan Through the Years interactive timeline.