Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Obey the Summons of the Conch

A black and white photograph of a conch shell.Several years ago we published a blog entry on the tradition of horning at Dartmouth. In response, one of our readers remarked that students at Dartmouth back in the late eighteenth century were paid to "blow a conch shell to mark the beginning and ending of classes in place of a bell," and suggested that the charges to students' accounts for horning instead might be payments given for their service. That idea piqued our curiosity enough to inspire a deeper exploration of the archives. Here’s what we found.

The first discovery was that we still have the original conch shell from those days and it’s fully functional! The second was that, according to Dartmouth Traditions by William Carroll Hill, 1902, Native American students were assigned the task of sounding the horn three times a day for approximately five minutes to call everyone for twice-daily prayers and 11 am recitations. Anecdotally, every college student at the time was charged thirty-three cents for the service.

With this admittedly shaky evidence in hand, we reviewed the student accounts ledger from the 1770s and found that there were no universal charges of thirty-three cents per student. Instead, there are several charges of varying amounts to select individuals for their "part in blowing the horn." This leads us to believe the original hypothesis about penalties for horning, but it does raise fresh questions about the details of the arrangement with the Native American student population, among others.

A page of sheet music title "The Old Conch Shell."A second page of sheet music.

Regardless, by William Carroll Hill's time, the sounding of the conch shell had achieved such a reputation among Dartmouth students that a song about it, "The Old Conch Shell," was included in Dartmouth Songs, a collection of college tunes compiled by Edwin Osgood Grover, '94, and musically edited by Addison Fletcher Andrews, '78. All of these materials are available for viewing at Rauner, using the following call numbers:

Conch shell: Uncat Realia 117
Student Accounts Ledger B: DA-2, Box 1746
Dartmouth Traditions: Reference LD1438 .H6
Dartmouth Songs: Alumni G918d

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