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Teetotaling On The Hilltop

  Charles Milhauser  

The faculty for most of the college’s history have been subject to all the regulations imposed upon students relative to dancing, card playing, tobacco, alcohol, and fraternizing with members of the opposite sex. Students had only to endure these restrictions for four years (eight if they began in the Cornell High School), but faculty and their spouses had to abide by them both on and off campus for as long as they remained connected with Cornell, which for many was the rest of their lives. As late as the 1960s, a married professor was admonished by the dean for having coffee with an unmarried female colleague at Bishop Cafeteria in Cedar Rapids. They had met by chance while shopping.

The graduating class of 1915 presents a sober picture on the King Chapel steps. Raising a glass of champagne in celebration was against college regulations, as it has been for most of the college's history.

The ban on consuming alcoholic beverages was perhaps the most burdensome because many faculty came from backgrounds where drinking an occasional glass of beer or wine or a shot of whiskey was not a sin. There was a saloon in Mount Vernon in the 1870s, but for a faculty member merely to be seen inside would have resulted in instant dismissal, as would purchasing booze from local moonshiners. When Iowa adopted prohibition in 1884, it also became illegal to purchase or consume alcoholic beverages except with a physician’s order. Teachers’ conventions and summer travel afforded opportunities to bootleg a few bottles home. Disposing of the empties was risky because teetotaling neighbors or a garrulous trashman might inform. Renovators of old houses in Mount Vernon have found caches of bottles stashed behind walls and in long-sealed cisterns.

After the automobile became common, a small group of faculty men began driving to Cedar Rapids once a week for a beer or two and then, according to the wife of one of them, returned home guilt-ridden.

Beginning in 1934, Iowans could purchase liquor within Iowa but only from state-owned-and-operated liquor stores. One had to have a permit, which took the form of a small passport-like book in which the clerk recorded all purchases. The names of all permit holders were a matter of public record and for several years the Des Moines Register published them annually. In the earlier years of the system, which ended in 1963, faculty shied away from possessing a permit and depended upon townie friends to buy a bottle or two for them. In the 1950s the Cornell administration began to relax its absolute prohibition on faculty imbibing in private off campus, but it wasn’t until 1982 that alcohol could be served in The Commons at faculty and trustee functions.

Faculty no longer have to be teetotalers—or pretend to be. How happy Ermina Fallass would be. She was hired in 1891 as professor of French and English and also as preceptress (dean of women). She was the first woman on the Cornell faculty to hold an earned PhD—from DePauw University in 1888. On one occasion she entertained President and Mrs. King at dinner and served Shrimp Newburg, for which she was elsewhere famous. Her secret ingredient was sherry. When asked for the recipe, she prudently substituted lemon juice. Later Mrs. King told her that she had made the dish but “it didn’t taste so good as yours.”

Charles Milhauser is Cornell’s registrar emeritus and collector of college history.

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