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Oberlin
Unmasked

by Delazon Smith, a Student

Written 1837
Condensed 2019

~

Preface by TBT.

Conduct and Character
of the Church.

Introduction.

Conduct and Character, Concluded.

Course of Study,
and Manual Labor.

Abolition.

Board and
Mode of Living.

Intolerance or
Suppression of Opinion.

Connexion of Male and
Female Departments.

Concluding Remarks.

 

Disclaimer, by an Alumnus:  After its rather rocky first decade, Oberlin College has become much more worthy of our support.

It was on this date 160 years ago — February 14, 1859 — that Oregon joined the Union.  The new state's first two Senators were Democrats Joseph Lane and Delazon Smith (left to right).

Oregon had been admitted as a free state, but Smith, despite having studied at abolitionist Oberlin College, “did not subscribe to anti-slavery sentiment.”  Having drawn the shorter straw, he received the shorter term, which would expire when the 36th Congress was sworn in on March 4, 1859.

Unfortunately, Oregon's legislature declined to re-elect him, so he was out.  He had served only 18 days as a United States Senator.  The seat would remain empty until a Republican was named in the fall of 1860.

Decades earlier, when Delazon Smith was an Oberlin student, he also served less than a full term.  “His disagreement with school policy and philosophy ... earned him an invitation to leave and not return.”  Thereupon he promptly published a book telling what was wrong with the college — including even the vittles.

The institutional food served in college cafeterias and dining halls has always drawn complaints.  That's why so many present-day students will instead send out for pizza.

In Smith's 1837 pamphlet Oberlin Unmasked, the disaffected former student described far worse fare at his boarding hall. 

Article 5 of the Oberlin Covenant had proclaimed, “That we may have time and health for the Lord's service, we will eat only plain and wholesome food ... and deny ourselves all strong and unnecessary drinks ... and everything expensive that is simply calculated to gratify the palate.”

The college's leaders therefore prohibited such sinful substances as pork and pepper and coffee and tea.  Students sometimes had to subsist on bread and water, like prisoners!  They were, however, allowed salt.

Smith bemoaned the ban on all types of tea, including Bohea and Imperial and Gunpowder.  He claimed that folks from other towns could tell that a young man was from Oberlin by his emaciated appearance, his “lean, lantern-jawed visage.”

He was so appalled that he exclaimed, “We are led to cry out in the language of the poet!”  The nine-stanza tirade that resulted is the highlight of this installment from Smith's book.

 

Board and Mode of Living.

Historians determine, in part, the degree of civilization of a nation by the kind, quality, and quantity of their food.  Applied to Oberlin, this rule would leave them somewhere in the neighborhood of barbarism and pagan custom.

The managers of this institution have run to very singular extremes in attempting to carry out the “Graham System.”  I suppose this system consists in seeing who can live the longest and eat the least amount of wholesome food.

Upon this is built another system.  In honor of the author, it may be called Finneyism, and it is questionable whether it would be received in any other community. 

It consists almost wholly of bread and salt, compounded with gravies, gruels, milk and water porridges, and “crust coffee.”

For months together dating from my first arrival in Oberlin, students to the number of 30 or 40 were fed principally on coarse heavy sour bread and salt!  Down to a later period, bread and salt has often constituted the only diet for meals together.

Butter would have made our meals much more acceptable, had we but had it.  But when set on the table, its odor was often such as to destroy the exquisite luxury of eating bread and salt.

When the bread had become so unpalatable and unhealthy that we found it impossible to subsist longer upon it, a meeting was called.  To our astonishment, individuals employed in the cooking department stood up and testified that the steward, in making bread, boiled and mashed old crust and then stirred in new flour.

By analysis, gravies are found to consist of flour, hot water, and a little grease of some kind.  The inventive steward found that by stirring flour into what is usually called “pot liquor” (water left in a kettle after having food boiled in it), a gravy would be made answering all purposes.  How clean and wholesome such a composition must have been must be left for the imagination of the reader.

As for their crust coffee, gruel, and milk and water porridges, they are really too filthy and contemptible to merit a comment.  They are usually known among the students as swill, slosh, dishwater, et cetera.

It may be inquired how a student can sustain life on such a diet.  If students could not purchase other articles of food at the stores, tavern, et cetera, it would be utterly impossible for many of them to sustain their health.

When board in the Commons was ten shillings ($2.40) per week, Professor Henry Cowles declared that only 54 cents went to provisions for the tables.  The surplus was given to the Female Department and for rent, dishes, waste, compensation of the steward, et cetera.

Says Professor Cowles, “When I hear a student muttering about the quality of his board, I immediately conclude that either he has been the babe at home; or else he thinks, by grumbling, to make folks believe that he has been used to living high.”

Whenever a Professor makes a remark of this kind, there is not moral courage enough generally among the students to resist it, such are their developments of reverence. 

This system of living is by no means confined to the Commons.  The Public House of the place follows close in the wake, for even this concern is under the direction of the author and advocate of this truly strange system.  No spices, no seasoning, no tea or coffee can be had by townsmen or travelers, by saint or sinner.

In reviewing our wrongs, and considering the conduct of the authors of this poverty-stricken table, we are led to cry out in the language of the poet.

 

O! wond'rous age, surpassing ages past!
    When mind is marching at a quick-step pace,
When steam and politics are flying fast,
    When roads to rails, and wine to tea gives place,
When great reformers race, and none can stay 'em:
O! Adams, Tappan, Burchard, Finney and Graham!

Sirs Finney and Graham first:  'Twere shame to think
    That you, starvation's monarchs, can be beaten,
Who've proved that drink was never meant to drink
    Nor food itself intended to be eaten,
And Heaven provided for our use, instead,
The sand and sawdust which compose your bread.

A startling truth!  We question while we stare.
    A ling'ring doubt still haunts the imagination,
That God ne'er meant to stint us in our fare
    — No doubt a prejudice of education,
For fact is fact.  This ought to make us humble.
Our brains confess it, though our stomachs grumble.

But why on us pursue your cruel plan?
     Oh, why condemn us thus to bread and water?
Perchance you reckon all the race of man
    As rogues and culprits who deserve no quarter,
And 'tis your part to punish, not to spare,
By putting us upon State Prison fare.

All meat is poison in your sapient eyes.
    No doubt you're right, and all mankind are wrong.
But still, in spite of us, the thought will rise:
    How, eating poison, have men lived so long?
Mayhap you call it a slow poison then
Which takes effect at threescore years and ten.

Our table treasures vanish one by one
    Beneath your wand.  Like Sancho's they retire.
Now steaks are “rare,” and mutton chops are “done.”
    Veal's in a stew.  The fat is in the fire.
Fish, flesh and fowl are ravish'd in a trice.
Sirs Finney and Graham!  Cannot one suffice?

When wine was banished by your cruel fates,
    O! gentle tea, for thee I trembled then,
“The cup which cheers but not inebriates.”
    — Not even thou must grace our boards again!
Imperial is dethroned as I foreboded.
Bohea is dish'd.  Gunpowder is exploded.

Venison is Vile.  A Cup of Coffee, Cursed.
    And Food that's Fried or Fricasseed, Forgot.
Duck is Destruction.  Wine, of Woes, is Worst.
    Clams are Condemned, and Poultry's gone to Pot.
Pudding and Pork are under Prohibition.
Mustard is Murder.  Pepper is Perdition.

But dread you not, some famished foe may rise
    With vengeful arm and beat you to a jelly?
Ye robbers of our vitals' best supplies,
    Beware!  “There is no joking with the belly.”
Nor hope the world will in your footsteps follow.
Your bread and doctrine are too hard to swallow!

 

Continue to “Connexion of Male and Female Departments.

 

TBT

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