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Broom and Board

  by Charles Milhauser  

Isaac Newton waited tables and emptied chamber pots to pay for his education at Cambridge University in the 1660s. Some Cornell students have likewise worked their way through college as janitors.

This 1907 photograph from the Cornell College archives is identified as a "Male students' room either in janitor's quarters of a college building or in a private home in town."

Between 1857 and 1878, the chapel was on the third floor of College Hall, and a student janitor lived in a nearby room next to the bell rope. His morning duties were to ring the bell to summon the school to prayer and to lock the chapel door to prevent latecomers from disturbing the service and those inside from sneaking out. After some renegade Sioux in 1857 massacred settlers at Spirit Lake, Iowa, Cornellian pranksters disguised as Indians broke into College Hall late one night. Their war whoops awoke the janitor, and as they charged into his unlocked room, all they saw were a pair of bare feet disappearing into the attic belfry.

When South Hall became a classroom building, student janitors roomed there as well. Their job, like that of their fellows in College Hall (whose room was now on the second floor), was to chop wood for the stoves, tend the fires, clean out and dispose of the ashes, sweep the floors, wipe the blackboards, and wash windows. They were more fortunate than later student janitors because before 1916 these buildings lacked indoor plumbing and there were no toilets to scrub.

The college continued to house student janitors in academic buildings through the 1940s. Following the war, a married couple lived in King Chapel, and the student husband looked after the building in exchange for room and board. Their baby was born while they were residing in a room under the stage area.

Several alumni have shared their recollections about being student janitors. None of them roomed in academic buildings, but all remember having to rise early to perform their duties before the start of classes. Don Struchen '45 was head janitor in King Chapel from 1942 to 1945. One of his duties was to ring the bell: "I would pull it eight or 10 times to announce the daily chapel each morning or for any other event going on in the chapel. If I had a class just before chapel I would leave it five minutes early and run to the chapel to ring the bell." He also unlocked the building before breakfast and locked it at night, changed light bulbs, arranged the stage for speakers, musical events, etc., "watered the organ" (to raise the humidity), swept and dusted the auditorium and the offices of the music professors, and shoveled snow.

Victor Furnish '52 served as janitor in Bowman Hall, where his duties were limited to the first floor unless the housemother accompanied him upstairs to make sure "the girls were 'decent.'" He wondered whether he "was assigned the job of being janitor in a girls' dorm because it was presumed that a pre-theological student (as I was) could be trusted more than others." His cleaning supplies were in a closet under the stairs "that happened to be a convenient and favorite spot for couples to do a little more 'smooching' than was deemed appropriate (or allowed?) in the lounge itself, so I often had to negotiate carefully as I retrieved and replaced my brooms and dustpans."

The author is indebted to Struchen and Furnish as well as Richard Grummon '40 (South Hall), Donald Buss '49 (Bowman kitchen, dining room), Dr. Don Beckman '49 (Bowman), H. Thomas Ore '57 (Guild Hall), and William Kren '84 (swept and mopped Commons' dining rooms).

Charles Milhauser is classics professor and registrar emeritus.
He may be reached at or
100 Intracoastal Place,
Apt. 307,
Tequesta, FL 33469.

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