The Greek Games were an annual competition, based on Ancient Greek competitions and consisting of athletic and artistic contests, held at Barnard College between the freshman and sophomore classes from 1903-1967, with sporadic attempts to revive them in later years. The Greek Games collection (1898–1996) consists of materials used in and created during the competitions. Among them are reports, instructions, rule books, annual programs, publicity materials, newspaper clippings, reference materials, and correspondence. Also included in the collection are photographs, films, costumes, and props from the Games, along with other realia.
History of the Greek Games
The Greek Games began in 1903 as an informal competition when Alice Rheinstein Bernheim and Cecil Dorrian, members of the Class of 1905, challenged the Class of 1906 to a contest loosely modeled on Ancient Greek athletic and lyrical competitions. The early years of the Games were very informal, with a greater emphasis on the athletic components: wrestling, archery, and tug-of-war. Although other colleges and universities held similar events based on the Greek model, Barnard’s was unique in becoming more “Greek” in nature, with more effort devoted to costuming, poetry, pageantry, and performance. In 1908, the Class of 1910 presented a chorus and dance as part of the competition. The athletic portion also changed to reflect a greater emphasis on historical accuracy, and began to include such events as the discus throw, hurdling for form, hoop rolling, torch races, and chariot presentations. A panel of judges awarded scores to the participants in the various competitions, including poetry and costumes. Starting in 1909, each year’s Games were dedicated to a specific patron deity.
Starting in 1912, admission tickets were offered to people other than students, faculty, and alumnae, and in 1913, men were allowed into the audience for the first time. Notable women and men of the day were invited to judge the competitions; for instance, Christopher Morley of the Saturday Evening Post attended as a spectator in 1923, and W. H. Auden was a Judge of Lyrics in 1947. As the Games became a staple of Barnard campus life, they became more formalized and better organized. Initially handled by two small committees, one from each participating class, the increased extravagance and size of the Games required greater oversight. This was reflected by the creation of a centralized Greek Games Committee, formed from members of both classes, that oversaw everything from finances to lyrics to musical selection. Faculty oversight was also necessary, and professors from the Physical Education, Classics, English, Dance, and Music departments were key players in the organization of the Games. Of particular note are Edward Delevan Perry, professor of Ancient Greek; Agnes Wayman, Lelia Finan, and Marion Philips, professors of Physical Education; and Bird Larson and Mary Porter Beegle, dance instructors. Dean Virginia Gildersleeve was also instrumental in providing support for the Games.
By the 1920s, the Greek Games had become an elaborate pageant based more on aesthetic performance than on athletic skill. Having been established as an essential part of campus life, there was great interest in the Games throughout the first half of the 20th century. However, in the 1960s, student interest began to wane. The Games came to be seen as an antiquated tradition that had little to do with the concerns of students. These feelings culminated in 1968 when, during the student strikes at Columbia University, the Greek Games participants voted to cancel the Games in solidarity with the protesters. There was an attempt to revive the Greek Games in 1969 as part of a more general music and arts festival, but it was unsuccessful due to lack of interest. Several other attempts were made to bring back the Games in later years, but were similarly unsuccessful. Finally, in April 2011, the Greek Games were held for the first time in more than 40 years.
The Greek Games collection (1903–1969) consists of committee, faculty, and instruction reports; judging guidelines; rule books; correspondence; music and lyrics sheets; programs; newspaper and magazine clippings; general information pamphlets; tickets; judges’ scorecards; scrapbooks; promotional flyers; reference materials, including reproduction photographs, design sheets, and manuals; and manuscripts. The collection also contains photographs, films, costumes, props, and other pieces of realia related to the Games.
The Organizational Papers (Series I) contain records pertaining to the administrative processes of the planners of the Greek Games. There are no records from the earliest years, 1903–1917. The records for the years 1918–1929 are minimal, demonstrating the initial lack of formal centralized planning. The records after that are extensive, providing information on the various committees and faculty members that planned the Games; the one exception is the Games of 1953, for which only one record is extant. The records from the 1960s are not as uniformly structured as those from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, demonstrating the decline of the Games as a part of campus life, which contributed to their eventual cancellation in 1968. The Reference Materials (Series IV), used in order to create as accurate a presentation as possible, illustrate the high commitment participants had to the Greek Games in their heyday. The intensive work that went into the staging of the Games in also apparent in the intricate props that were used, particularly the costumes worn and wreaths awarded during the Games (Series V).
Items such as programs (Series II) and publicity materials (Series III), highlight the pageantry and complexity that were hallmarks of the Greek Games. The programs highlight the scope of the Games, with reproduction photographs of the events as well as the poetry and lyrics that were created for them. The publicity materials highlight the interest people in the greater New York area had in the Games, as demonstrated by the extensive news clippings in scrapbooks created by the Athletic Department and the Publicity Committee. It is of note, however, that by the 1960s, this interest had waned considerably, and the clippings from that time come almost exclusively from the Barnard Bulletin and the Columbia Daily Spectator.
The Greek Games collection also boasts around 1,100 photographs, dating from 1908–1966 (Series VI), which provide an extensive portrait of the various activities that went into staging the Games. These include images of dress rehearsals and action shots of the actual events. Films are also part of this collection, and there is also footage in the Barnard College Documentaries, which are part of the Moving Image Collection.
This collection has no restrictions.
This collection is located on-site.
Barnard College Archives
Lehman Hall, Room 19
New York, NY 10027