“Strike for better grub”: Poetic Complaints about campus food after the Civil War

April 21, 2020

In addition to University-produced records which convey an “official” version of events on campus, the University Archives preserves student-produced documents and publications which can show campus life from a very different perspective. This blog post highlights one of my favorite examples of this—a poem written by a student from Louisiana named Warren Chism during the 1867-1868 academic year. I am drawn to this item because of its content and also because of its form.

The content speaks to the quality of food on campus—and I imagine that complaining about that topic is something of a tradition on most university campuses. At Georgetown, we can trace complaints back at least to 1812, when our founder John Carroll commented that while our meals were good in substance, he feared our cook was deficient

When we look at the form of the poem, we can see from the creases on it that it was cross-folded down to a much smaller size. This and the fact that the phrase Open. Read and Pass On is written on the back indicates that it was passed, presumably surreptitiously, around a Georgetown classroom or study hall.  And apparently, a student to whom it was passed strongly agreed with the sentiments in it because the words Hurrah for Chism were added in a different hand, perpendicular to the words of the poem.

Back of Chism poem

A second, later, addition comes in the form of explanatory notes at the bottom. These are signed F.B. and dated May 28, 1899.  While the full name of the writer is not given, the handwriting is very familiar to me.  Father Francis Barnum became Georgetown’s Librarian at the end of the 19th century. He was the first person to attempt to systematically organize material in the University Archives and was an inveterate note-writer, dispersing written explanations, descriptions and reflections throughout the Archives collection. I always feel a connection to him as a fellow Georgetown archivist when I see his handwriting (even if we are separated by the span of more than a century) and know that I am going to learn something from what he says. Barnum's notes are inevitably accurate; in this case, he had been a student at Georgetown from 1866 to 1872 and would have been familiar with both Walter Chism and the food that was served.

Chism poemChism’s poem reads:

Come rally round your flag boys*
And strike for better grub
We’ve stood it long enough boys,
But now we’ll make the rub.

Let it cost us what it might boys
Let it cost us what it may
We can’t live without eating boys
No not a dar –ned day.

If the “petition” is not heeded boys,
We’ll all dine out in town,
But we can’t live without eating boys,
And we won’t eat John Brown.

* The first line of the poem may have been influenced by the first line of the Civil War song Battle Cry of Freedom, which was also known as Rally 'Round the Flag.  Its opening lines are: Yes we’ll rally round the flag, boys, we’ll rally once again, Shouting the battle cry of Freedom.

[Father Barnum’s notes:]

This was written in 1867-1868 by Warren Chism La
The food had become wretched, and all hands were on the verge of revolt. A petition was gotten up and things improved a little.
“John Brown” was the name given to a horrible kind of dry hash which was served regularly.
“Open read and pass” was the customary formula on all general notes which were circulated around the study hall.
This was given by B. Camalier in Apr. ’99 while on a visit. He was a fellow student of Chisms and preserved this memento.
Poor Chism was shot by his overseer down in La. He was a brilliant fellow and a general favorite

May 28, 1899

--Lynn Conway, University Archivist