UC Berkeley students analyze trash, discover valuable artifacts from the oldest fraternity west of the Mississippi

by Gretchen Kell

Berkeley -- Studying garbage may not sound like the best choice for a college term project.

But students in a University of California at Berkeley archaeology class did just that recently and discovered a slice of life in the early 1900s at Zeta Psi, the oldest fraternity west of the Mississippi River.

In 1995, a construction crew discovered an old trash pit behind UC Berkeley's Archaeological Research Facility, a former Zeta Psi fraternity house on College Avenue. Faculty and students mobilized and rescued thousands of artifacts -- most of them dating from 1918 to 1930.

The "fraternalia" -- a term coined by Laurie Wilkie, the UC Berkeley assistant professor of anthropology who taught the undergraduate historical archaeology lab -- included beer and ketchup bottles, antique light bulbs, dental care products, an ROTC emblem from a cap, broken dishes decorated with the fraternity's crest, ink bottles, hair pins and beads.

Zeta Psi received its charter from the university in 1871 and was the first fraternity on campus. It still exists today, and the brothers live in a house on Bancroft Way. But the fraternity's first house was built on the College Avenue site in 1876.

Its second house, the same brick building that now houses the research facility, was built on the site in 1910. The brothers lived there until 1957. An archival photo from the early 1920s shows some of the approximately 30 fraternity members digging a large pit in their backyard.

Decades later, Zeta Psi's old garbage became a gold mine for students in Wilkie's class. They used the semester to analyze artifacts they had unearthed, discoveries made on their own campus.

"It's more authentic than analyzing someone else's finds," said Lorinda Miller, one of the students. "This is our research."

"We're making it so that people can come along and use our information for a bigger project," said her classmate, Persephone Hintlian.

To construct the most complete view of the past, Wilkie, a historical archaeologist, had the students not only analyze the artifacts, but also research archival information including oral history, diaries, blueprints, photographs and yearbooks.

Miller and Hintlian found two elderly men who used to be Zeta Psi fraternity brothers. They were "tickled to death" to be interviewed, said Miller.

The men recalled a strict daily schedule at the house, with formal group meals, mandatory study times, and rules forbidding women in the house, except during spring dances.

Students also studied the building's architecture and design, finding evidence of the brothers' loyalty to Zeta Psi and the campus. White disks above the front entrance still bear the fraternity's letters, as does the chimney. Some of the ceiling woodwork once was painted blue and gold.

The brothers even ate from dishes -- dubbed "fratware" by Wilkie's students -- that were specially ordered from an East Coast china company and decorated with Zeta Psi's dark green crest.

Confused at first about finding broken demitasse and tea cups in the trash, class research revealed that the fraternity had a mother's club that met at the house for tea.

"Meals were structured and 'etiquettely' correct," said Wilkie. "By using these special dishes, the fraternity members were reinforcing through imagery their sense of brotherhood."

She said several pieces of "completely functional" but slightly worn or chipped dishes were found in the trash pit, indicating that they were "prestige items. Those that were cracked or without handles had lost their prestige, and new ones were ordered."

The food, however, apparently was not as appealing as the dishes it was served on.

Animal bones found among the artifacts indicated the brothers ate inexpensive cuts of meat, said Wilkie, and the large number of condiment bottles -- including 46 empty Del Monte ketchup bottles -- suggest their cuisine "was not particularly tasty."

The discovery of bottles that once contained medicine for stomach ailments only adds to that theory, she said.

Dental hygiene items gave the class a glimpse of tooth care in the early 1900s. A toothbrush head made of bone that was almost three inches long showed how "the only teeth people worried about brushing back then were the teeth people could see," said Wilkie.

At the time, she said, only society's upper class practiced dental hygiene. Bottles of mouthwash found among the artifacts could indicate it was used for status, said Wilkie, "or to disguise alcohol breath."

Old advertisements and formal photographs of the brothers with their hair slicked down helped explain the Vaseline jars recovered from the site.

Likewise, learning that ROTC training was required back then of all upperclassmen gave meaning to the ROTC crest that was found.

At first, the discovery of hair pins and beads confused Wilkie's class, since rules were strict about women visiting the house. But then, archival photos were found of some of the fraternity brothers dressed up as women.

"There was definitely evidence of some degree of cross-dressing going on -- it's still part of fraternity life today in the way of skits and making parodies of women," said Wilkie. "It was how they reasserted their maleness."

A 1933 diary kept jointly by Zeta Psi freshmen provided a wealth of information, especially about how the brothers coped with Prohibition, which began in 1919 -- and how they celebrated when it was repealed in 1933.

"Today it is legal to buy anything you may wish," one freshman wrote on Nov. 6. "The only fly in the ointment seems that there will not be sufficient beverage to satisfy the demand."

More than 70 percent of the beverage bottles found at the site were beer bottles, said Wilkie. Five percent were for wine, 13 percent for hard liquor and 12 percent for soda or mineral water.

While members of Zeta Psi were proud of their academic prowess, high grade point averages and successful alumni, Wilkie said that, other than ink bottles, there were not many school supplies found.

"Education wasn't what was bringing these individuals together," she said. "The big thing at Zeta Psi was sports, especially crew and baseball."

Wilkie said the research project will continue and that the students' work eventually will be published.

"This has been a unique opportunity to study the community life of men on campus," she said. "A more complete portrait will emerge in the future."

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