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It started with tennis and ended with Greeks

S.P.D. Tennis Club, from the 1910 yearbook

Despite doubters, fraternities and sororities were here to stay

In the early 20th century, tennis was all the rage on the Augustana campus. By 1909 the college boasted eight tennis clubs, and in 1911 the Observer reported that nearly one in every five Augustana students played the sport.

Although the earliest tennis players were men, the popularity of tennis quickly extended to Augustana's women, who determined to form their own club. Thus, the S.P.D Tennis Club — whose members quickly earned the nickname "Speeds" for their agility on the court — was born in 1908.

The 1909/1910 yearbook features a photo in its Athletics section of 10 young women in tennis uniforms, leaning on their elbows in the grass, tennis rackets in front of them. Each one smiles confidently at the camera, as though certain of her abilities as an athlete. But there is a knowingness to the smiles as well, a knowingness that suggests there is more to this group than meets the eye. In fact, as many readers of this story are likely aware, the S.P.D. Tennis Club (now Sigma Pi Delta, though it is still casually referred to as the "Speeds") was the first Greek organization on the Augustana campus, and it quickly evolved to become a sorority as most Americans would conceive of one today.

Although Sigma Pi Delta arose immediately out of the college's tennis craze, the Greek groups' most important predecessors were actually the Phrenokosmian and Adelphic literary societies, which dated back to the earliest years of Augustana's history (see last week's story). In the United States as a whole, college and university literary societies had first appeared in the 18th century. They not only supplemented student learning but also provided a social outlet; however, as time went on, the social lacuna in students' lives began to call for more urgent consideration.

Fraternities and, eventually, sororities filled that gap beginning in the 19th century; like many literary societies, their membership was exclusive, but they were largely more attentive to students' increasing need for social gratification and self-governance. The evolution of Greek groups signaled, in part, a growing sense that students can and should develop in college in more ways than academic alone.

Not surprisingly, the early 20th-century Augustana community was well aware of the distinctions between literary societies and social organizations like fraternities and sororities, the latter of which increased swiftly in number after Sigma Pi Delta's establishment. In early 1910 — when Sigma Pi Delta was still the S.P.D. Tennis Club — the Observer printed an ambivalent editorial about the changing social scene at Augustana. In this column, the editors acknowledged the advent of social clubs and societies on campus, even as they distanced Augustana from the concept of fraternities and sororities:

PUGS pose with a dog, from the 1918 Rockety-I (yearbook). (See larger image)

It may be said . . . that the name by which such organizations [i.e., Augustana's new social clubs and socities] are known does not, in any way, influence their character, and thus, whether the name be Greek, English or any other language, it matters not so long as the real purpose of the society is to bind its members together in closer bonds of comradeship. Aside from organizations of this kind, there are no social cliques at Augustana, and the report that the faculty has sanctioned fraternities and sororities is without any foundation whatever.

Perhaps not surprisingly, another editorial, only two years later, lamented the ongoing struggles of the Phrenokosmian and Adelphic literary societies:

Do we really have two prominent literary societies, or has the adjective prominent become a misnomer? . . . A sad fact to be noted is that almost any other kind of an entertainment is given preference to the regular society meeting, the result of which is anything but beneficial to the societies.

Although this later editorial never makes explicit the precise threat that the literary societies faced, the influence and appeal of social organizations are a clear subtext to the editors' argument.

In fact, the rise of fraternities and sororities coincided with the end of literary societies at colleges and universities nationwide. At Augustana, the Phrenokosmian and Adelphic societies disappeared entirely by the late 1920s. As interest in those societies steadily faded, the number of Augustana Greek groups increased rapidly; by the end of the 1910s a number of additional groups had already appeared, including some that still exist today.

Doubts persisted about the new social organizations. In the early 1920s, pressure from the synod and college board led President Gustav Andreen to require that all fraternities and sororities change to non-"Greek" names, an action that gave rise to the story of an early ban against Greek groups on campus. The name change did not remain in effect for long, however, and fraternities and sororities were unquestionably here to stay.

Today, 34% of Augustana men join fraternities and 38% of women join sororities. None of the social Greek groups on campus are chapters of national organizations; rather, each is unique to Augustana, meaning that the bond between fraternity and sorority members and their college is close. Many more additional student groups — with a large variety of foci — exist on campus today than when Sigma Pi Delta was established in 1908. However, the Greek groups' ongoing popularity testifies to the profundity of the changes they heralded one hundred years ago.