For over forty years, Commencement Week activities at the University of Vermont included what a 1912 headline called a “brilliant commencement function.” From 1894 to 1936, the evening of Class Day ended with a senior reception followed by a senior promenade. The reception and prom were held in Billings Library, “a most delightful place for dancing.”
A student committee organized the annual event. Guests included students, faculty, alumni returning for reunion, and for some years, “the young society people of the city.” Newspapers routinely reported that 200-400 people came to the reception and the dance. In 1936, nearly 1,000 people came through the doors.
Vermont orchestras and dance bands provided the music, although a Boston band provided the entertainment on at least one occasion. One year, a musician from Montreal performed a notable xylophone solo during a dance number. While waltzes remained a staple, some dances changed with the times. For example, old fashioned quadrilles lost favor to new dances like the foxtrot.
For one night during Commencement Week, Billings Library was transformed for the Senior Prom. One writer noted, “In its vacation garb, the library did not much resemble its appearance during the college year.” Tables on the main floor and in the apse were moved out to make room for the reception, the band and the crowds. A large platform was set up inside the entrance for the band, and the floors were waxed “to perfection.” The rooms were decorated in the college colors, and potted palms and cut flowers added to the atmosphere. In short, as the Burlington Free Press reported in 1936, “endless rows of books, dusty rafters, and furrowed brows were replaced in a flurry of gay-colored dresses and happy faces.”
Dance cards with decorative covers served as souvenirs of what was for seniors one of the final social events of their college years. On the pages inside, dance partners signed up for one of the evening’s twenty dances, sometimes using a small pencil attached to the card with a cord. The dance order below on the right is from 1894, and includes several deux temps and waltzes, a polka, two types of square dances (quadrille and lanciers). Two names on the line next to the polka suggest that a second partner cut in before the dance ended.
The well-attended 1936 gala was the last prom held in Billings Library. In 1937, the tradition ended when the senior reception and prom moved to the newly completed Southwick Memorial Hall on the Redstone Campus.
Submitted by Prudence Doherty, Public Services Librarian