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The first warm night of 1952. Music blares. Students' thoughts turn to love and fighting. Time to launch a national craze: the panty raid.
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Panty Raid, 1952
July 15, 2008
It had been another dismal Michigan winter. The gray and the cold had stretched well into March. But finally, as the earth approached the vernal equinox on Thursday, March 20, 1952—the eve of the first day of spring—the temperature in Ann Arbor crept up to 57 glorious degrees. Jackets came off. Windows opened.
At about 6:30 p.m., Art Benford, a junior, finished dinner in the dining hall of West Quad. He went to his room in Allen Rumsey House and picked up his trumpet. Benford said later he had only meant to relax by playing a little music. But his impromptu rendition of Glenn Miller's "Serenade in Blue" set off a chain of events that gave America a distinguishing fad of the 1950s—the panty raid.
Across Madison Street, in South Quad, an unidentified trombonist opened up with a loud reply to Benford's serenade, and the two began to duel. Guys began to shout, "Knock it off!" (Both dorms were all-male.) Then someone began to blow a portable fog horn. Someone else put a phonograph up to his window and played "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" at high volume. Two tuba-ists accompanied. Men began to run down the stairs and out onto Madison.
Stop here and review the ingredients: a) the first comfortable night outdoors in four or five months; b) a great deal of ambient noise; d) a strict code of rules forbidding unsupervised mixing of the sexes; and d) hundreds of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old males.
By the Daily's estimate, about 600 men were bellying up to a Quad-vs.-Quad imbroglio when the Ann Arbor police pulled up. This turned the quaddies' attention away from each other and toward the law.
Commenting the next day, Professor Amos Hawley, a sociologist, suggested the cops' arrival was the point of ignition. "Up to then it was a usual sort of thing," he told the Daily, "but that gave it a rallying point and set up a conflict situation."
Students jeered at the cops, who returned to their cars, whereupon scores of bodies swarmed over the cars and rocked them. The cops, vastly outnumbered, did nothing.
Perhaps the breaking of that one taboo—the defiance of police, unanswered—put the crowd in the mood to break more. Whatever the reason, the swelling mob began to move, first east on Madison, then around the corner and north on State toward the nearest concentrations of women, at Helen Newberry and Betsy Barbour Halls. There, the Daily said, men entered the women's dormitories, then "heckled excited residents and broke into the lounges."
Remember, it would be more than 15 years before men were allowed to visit women's dorms at Michigan without restriction. (See the Michigan Today article The day in loco parentis died.) Incursions like this were very much against the rules.
Back outside, someone shouted words that would become a rallying cry for the next decade—"To the Hill!"—meaning, to the much larger and then-all-women's dorms on Observatory and Ann. The crowd surged east on North University—first to Stockwell, then Mosher-Jordan. At each, they made incursions, ran up stairs and down corridors, then left. Women poured wastebasket-loads of water from the windows.
By the time the men got to Alice Lloyd Hall, women residents had locked the front doors. This apparently fueled the fire. The rowdies got in through side doors, raced upstairs and into women's rooms, and seized what the Ann Arbor News called "miscellaneous female unmentionables." The Detroit News, less squeamish, said the men took "items of lingerie as souvenirs."
After a rush through Couzens, the men streamed back down North University, where they invaded the all-women's preserve of the League. Others made it to the Michigan Theater, where they stormed the stage—interrupting, as chance would have it, a screening of "Behave Yourself"—and sang a verse or two of "The Victors."
By now it was 9 p.m., and for a moment the storm seemed to have spent itself. But then the milling crowd of men spotted a counterattack heading their way: a horde of women flooding into Central Campus from the Hill.
The women aimed straight at the symbol of male privilege—the front door of the Union, which by tradition was never to be entered by an unaccompanied female. They surged through the Union, then into all-male West Quad, where "several quadders, caught unawares with their shorts on, were forced to scamper for safety," according to the Daily.
At South Quad, "pandemonium broke loose," the Daily reported. "While some men beckoned to the women, others formed a barrier at the front doors, but the screaming coeds broke through. In a moment, the lounge was cluttered. Hysterical staffmen called for order."
Here at last authority was reasserted in the stern form of Deborah Bacon, dean of women, the enforcer of in loco parentis. Her appearance took the steam out of the women, who left and walked home before curfew.
Hundreds of men, still game and unrestricted by "hours," spread out for new assaults. Some went back to the Hill, where, at Alice Lloyd, a resident had mounted a flashing red light in her window; some to Martha Cook, where President Harlan Hatcher, venturing out of his house across the street, told the boys to go home, without much effect; some back to Betsy Barbour, where they were repelled by residents wielding a fire hose at a window.
Chuck Elliott, a Daily editor, detected a dark edge to the revelry, "the earlier, funny stages slowly changing as the night went on into unpleasant demonstrations of near-viciousness."
At about 1 a.m., it started to rain, and it was over.
But only for that night. The "mass riot," as the Daily called it, drew a good deal of news coverage, even making the national newsmagazines. Within weeks, copycat episodes sprang up on other campuses, and a national "panty raid" craze ensued. The spontaneous swiping of women's underwear that night at Alice Lloyd became a standard, planned practice that went on for ten years—the ritual seeking of trophies by men raiding women's dormitories and sororities. Although the term "panty raid" apparently had been used earlier, it was the Michigan fracas that inspired the national fad.
The nation looked on with a mixture of amusement and disapproval. Some saw the panty raids as a replacement for the prewar fads of goldfish-swallowing and phone-booth-stuffing. Others were appalled by naughty frivolities on college campuses while soldiers were dying in Korea.
Exactly what had happened that night?
Dean of Students Erich Walter, announcing that no disciplinary measures would be taken, called the episode nothing more than "a form of spring madness"—though he noted, perhaps in a reference to male brutishness toward women in the dorms, that "a few of our students showed some pretty bad manners."
Dean of Women Bacon concurred. "Boys will be boys," she said.
Others didn't buy the "spring fever" theory. Professor Guy Swanson, a sociologist, pointed out that the University had seen many first days of spring come and go without 2,500 students running wild. To some who saw what happened—the mass breaking of rules, the flouting of the strict code of in loco parentis—there was a faint note of genuine rebellion, a hint, perhaps, of more serious things to come.
One of these was Professor Roger Heyns, a social psychologist who would leave Michigan in 1965 to become chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley. There he would see student rebellion in its full flowering, an awesome force that changed higher education and, one might say, American society as a whole.
When the Daily asked his opinion about the "riot," Heyns said he was curious himself.
"I'd like to know whether I was sitting on a powder keg," he mused, "or whether I was just surrounded by normal, wholesome American boys."
Sources consulted include The Michigan Daily, the Ann Arbor News, the Detroit News, Life magazine, and a U-M senior honors thesis in history, "The Dean's Last Stand: Deborah Bacon and the Student Politics of the Fifties" (2006), by Lindsey Helfman. Thanks, too, to Jonathan Marwil, U-M lecturer in history and author of "A History of Ann Arbor" (University of Michigan Press, 1991), for suggesting a connection between the first panty raid and the student revolts of the 1960s.
is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.