In 1831, Wesleyan inaugurated its first class of students. Twenty-seven years later, in 1858, students produced the first issue of what would become Wesleyan’s yearbook, the Olla Podrida. After 147 years of publication, the yearbook was summarily discontinued in 2009 due to declining purchasing rates. Retired to Floor 3A of the Olin stacks, with another set housed in the Special Collections and Archives, the yearbooks still carry their legacy, and a look through them reveals what they represented to the campus community throughout their nearly century and a half of publication.
Only theories abound as to the origin of the name “Olla Podrida.” In the 1862 publication, Sancho Panza, Don Quixote’s famous sidekick, is credited with saying: “Serve me what they call olla podridas and the rottener they are the better they smell.” The 1966 issue’s editors link “Olla Podrida” to its German equivalent, “Zeitgeist,” meaning changing times. The 1971 issue traces the phrase’s meaning to “putrid pot,” a sort of undesirable conglomeration of ideals. Most recently, in 1976, editors define Olla Podrida as a type of Spanish soup that includes a little of everything, warning readers to “be careful how you spice your Olla Podrida.” These disparate theories do have a common thread: in some way, they all represent a melting pot of cultures and ideas that are supposed to exemplify the Wesleyan experience.
On Nov. 8, 1858, members of Wesleyan’s secret societies (which at the time were not very secret), decided to publish a quarterly magazine of sorts for the rest of the student body. This was the first issue of the Olla Podrida, then a four-page newsletter, and it included lists of members of the fraternities, the secret societies, the eating clubs that existed throughout the nineteenth century at Wesleyan, musical associations, and other clubs. Chique Chaque, Wesleyan’s longest-running dining establishment, is heavily referenced throughout the premiere editions of the Olla Podrida. In the 1870s, the original Argus Board took over Olla Podrida’s publication, hoping to expand it into more of a literary magazine that included editorials, poetry, and short stories. However, after four years, the board no longer wanted to fund its publication.
In 1879, the junior class took it upon itself to rekindle and revive the Olla Podrida’s publication. In the years that followed, it became the responsibility of each succeeding junior class to produce the Olla for the rest of the school. In the 1890s, the Olla began to expand in size and content, echoing the expansion of Wesleyan’s student body. It wasn’t until 1911, though, that the Olla Podrida officially became a full-fledged yearbook instead of a single class’ endeavor.
Digging through these publications is like taking a tour through Wesleyan’s history, as well as national trends and upheavals over the years. For example, in 1917, during World War I, the yearbook documented the dwindling of Wesleyan’s student body due to the fact that many students enlisted in the military.
The Olla Podrida documents the progression of Wesleyan’s physical campus as well. Descriptions of the finalization of the Van Vleck Observatory in 1917 and the possibility of breaking ground on a new dorm in the 1950s were followed by reports on the creation of the Center for the Arts (CFA) in the 1980s.
In the early 1900s, Wesleyan welcomed women to its campus for the first time. According to the Olla Podrida, this development was met with mixed reactions. The Olla reports that many young men felt uncomfortable studying with women, and that the number of male applications to the University dropped. The early 1900s also saw the first inclusion of photographs in the Olla Podrida. These pages showed seniors dressed in suits of the era, next to their name, course of study and extracurricular involvement, very similar to a modern high school yearbook.
One of the most memorable vignettes in the early publications of the Olla is a parody poem titled “The Freshman’s Burden,” adapted from “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling. In this poem, the reality of being at the bottom of the food chain at Wesleyan is both lamented and turned into a common misery with which all students could identify.
The yearbooks also documented and described special memories or comical occurrences as they were recalled by particular classes. Perhaps the largest addition to the Olla was the eventual inclusion of the varsity sports teams’ rosters, records, and photographs, with full descriptions of each of their seasons.
The Olla Podrida archives make clear that Wesleyan was once home to multiple fraternities that are no longer in existence; nearly 90 percent of all students in the early twentieth century were part of these organizations. Each edition of the Olla Podrida dedicates a great portion of space to each fraternity’s membership, its mission, and a photograph of its house. With the major decline in the 1970s of fraternity membership, frats’ presence in the Olla declined as well.
Perhaps the most intriguing entities that the Olla Podrida highlights are Wesleyan’s secret societies. Wesleyan, at least at one point in time, had at least six secret societies that functioned almost as fraternities, and even though they were referred to as secret societies, students’ participation in each organization was published next to hir name and senior class photograph.
In 1971, the year that women were once again allowed entrance into the University, the Olla almost went out of print, but, thanks to a generous donation, it ended up producing its most effervescent and funny edition ever. In reference to athletics, one maxim reads: “Sports? They go well with wine and beer.” Another psychedelic quote states that “Wes life is like a cosmic burp.”
Beyond serving as a factual record of the University, the Olla Podrida acts as a reflection of how students felt about their time at the school. The 1985 edition took it upon itself to write its own, teasing interpretation of a mission statement for the school: “[Wesleyan] is where the hockey player and the poet attend a guest lecture together, where the chemistry major is found immersed in discussion of philosophy, where the sounds of the Javanese garden merge with the slap of a soccer ball, where the conservative and the liberal listen to each other.”