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From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:

Junior and Senior Exhibitions

Junior and Senior Exhibitions were a tradition which began in the days of President Maxcy, when oratory was of great importance and the College shared this public display of talent of its students with the community. The sophomore-junior exhibitions were held twice a year, in April and August. The sophomores recited selected pieces, while the juniors delivered original orations and poems, debated and acted scenes from plays. The sophomores were no longer included after the spring of 1820 in what now became the “Junior Exhibition.” The seniors had their exhibition in December. Originally held in the chapel, after 1806 these presentations often took place in the Town House, which stood at the southwest corner of Benefit and College Streets. It was built for the First Congregational Church in 1723 and served as the Town House from 1795 to 1860, when it was torn down. The end of the senior exhibitions was noted in an obituary of the Senior Exhibition which appeared in the first Brown Paper in November 1857, with these lines:

We watched his breathing through the week,
His breathing hard and slow,
And cried, when Seniors wouldn’t speak
At exhibition, “Oh!”

But when appeared the fell decree,
That told the deed was done,
Grief filled each heart that erst with glee
Had pokèd at him fun.

The junior exhibitions continued to be an attraction for the public. Robert P. Brown 1871 recalled these events in Memories of Brown:

“The most graceful and enjoyed event of the year was junior exhibition, which took place in April. It was religiously observed by all young and pretty maidens as the function where they should appear in their spring adornments, and this gave an audience of bewildering charms and beauty adorned to its utmost. At this exhibition the best original speeches of the junior year work were delivered by their authors, and it was a higher honor to speak at junior exhibition than was the perfunctory appointment for commencement, which was strictly according to marks. The junior exhibition speaker, however, had no halo about his head, for while he was trying to prove the greatness of his soul or his proficiency in oratory very likely the audience was reading comments about him, full of sarcasm, ridicule, and abuse scurrilous even beyond the bounds of decency; for the wicked sophomores had been busy for weeks preparing mock programmes.

“These mock programmes were usually printed out of town, say in Boston, were brought down by a messenger in a late train the night before and quickly and quietly divided among a select few, who saw to it that the audience was supplied with the eagerly sought supplement to the regular programme, and thus had an inside and highly-tinted view of the character of the speakers and of many professors besides. As discovery meant expulsion, the greatest secrecy was observed. The sole object of these sometimes witty, and often disgraceful, sheets was to give the opportunity to repay the juniors for all the abuse and indignities which the sophomores had suffered at their hand when they, the sophomores, were freshmen.”

In 1870 the Brunonian called for an end to the “obsolete custom,” by which the exhibition speakers were obliged to appear in a gown in which “the speaker can make no gesture with grace, nor even stand at ease.” The last junior exhibition was held in 1882. The next year the appointed members of the Class of 1884, protesting the current practice of appointing the speakers, which, according to the Brunonian, was based “almost entirely according to the marks obtained in all the studies during the entire previous course, slightly modified by particular excellence in speaking and writing,” asked to be excused from speaking.

The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright 1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.

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