Princetoniana | May 15
At 7 a.m. on the morning after Winter Formals, Matthew ’10 found himself standing behind Cottage Club in the snow with 20 other juniors facing a dumpster. The 21 young men had accepted bids to join one of the University’s most exclusive institutions: the 21 Club.
Founded in 1881, the secret society includes a group of 42 male juniors and seniors who must consume 21 beers in 42 minutes at their annual contest, held the morning after Winter Formals.
Every year, each of the 21 senior members selects one junior who will take his place. Five members each are picked from Cottage Club, Cap & Gown Club, Ivy Club and Tiger Inn, and one student is chosen among independents.
“There are certain bids that are reserved for fraternities [and] for teams,” Matthew explained. “The bids tend to be given under the pretense or obligation that you will give it to another person in that association. [For example, in] Cottage, the football team has one bid, [Kappa Alpha] has three bids, [Zeta Psi] has one bid, and there might be a lacrosse bid. [The] independent bid … is generally held by [Pi Kappa Alpha].”
After accepting their bids, the incoming members participate in a drinking contest in which they consume 21 beers, one every other minute for 42 minutes. After finishing the contest, each member receives a 21 Club card that gives him access to the participating clubs at any time.
While every current member of the club was contacted for this article, all except two either declined to be interviewed or did not respond to requests for comment. Several alumni who were contacted also did not respond.
“I can’t talk about the 21 Club,” one member said in an e-mail. “It’s [a] super secret society, just like the movie ‘The Skulls.’ ”
The names of the two members interviewed have been changed because members were told not to speak with the press.
Matthew said that senior members “haze” incoming members before the event, but another member, Scott ’10, said in an e-mail that there was “no informal or formal pre-meeting hazing.”
“I heard last year that one person had to drink almost three quarters of a 1.75-liter bottle of rum [as a hazing task],” Matthew said. “The [senior member] came up to him while he was in line for dinner and was just, like, ‘Here you go,’ and he had to do it in public and was just vomiting in the line for food.”
Scott said that most new members are told not to drink the night of Winter Formals in preparation for the contest the next morning.
“The person who gave me my bid told me weeks before so that I knew not to get too hammered at Winter Formals,” he explained. “Other guys, however, keep their bids a secret up until Winter Formals night, so it ends up being that a few guys who get bids unfortunately arrive a little hung over.”
Matthew noted that, in the past few years, only two or three students had turned down their bids.
“Most of these people [who receive bids] go out multiple times a week and are completely blacked out, so they’re chosen for a reason,” he said.
The members assemble at one of the eating clubs on the morning of the contest, Matthew said, adding that each club provides one or two kegs.
“It’s a scary thing … We’re all sitting there with a big dumpster in the middle, and the older brothers are behind you feeding you beers, and you have to [drink one] every [other] minute, no stopping, and people are yelling at you,” Matthew explained.
Even before the contest begins, the juniors must each drink seven social beers in addition to the 21 they will later consume.
“Keeping it down is not the point,” Matthew said, adding that there was a certain sense of apprehension among the new members.
“There were only five people per club, and we finished a keg, like, a half-hour in,” Matthew said. “They had to go and get another one. That was my first realization: I was, like, ‘Oh, shit.’ ”
Most members start vomiting while drinking the social beers, he added, noting that the next year’s contest is held at the club of whoever vomits first because “no one wants it at their club.”
The last person to vomit is appointed the club’s vice president, while the member who can chug a pitcher of beer the fastest after the contest ends becomes the president, he added.
“The last person to puke made it 14 or 15 beers … [which was] eight into the contest. If you’re not in it to win it, there is no reason you should go through that,” he said.
No one usually wants to be secretary, Matthew explained, because that person is normally expected to do an especially disgusting task. In past years, the position has traditionally gone to the independent bid, he added.
“Whoever wants to be secretary has to take a cup out of the dumpster at the end of the competition … and drink it,” he said.
Every time a member vomits while drinking the social beers, the entire group must drink an additional penalty beer. This year, there were 12 penalties in addition to the original 21, Matthew said, adding that this year’s contest ended early, before all penalty beers had been consumed, because many members were unconscious or unable to drink more.
By the end of the contest, Matthew said he had consumed between 30 and 35 beers in just more than an hour. He added that most members puke “20 to 30 times.”
Matthew noted that senior members — who do not participate in the contest — pay close attention to any health risks and whether students may require medical attention.
“People have gotten [sent to McCosh Health Center] routinely every year,” he said. “There is a certain element of secrecy, and it doesn’t make sense for a person to go to the hospital at 9 in the morning. It wouldn’t make sense for Winter Formals, so [the people at McCosh] know something’s up.”
Matthew added that, while senior members might be reluctant to take someone to McCosh, “they don’t want to be negligent, and if something happened, it would be infinitely worse.”
But Scott offered a different perspective on the health risks of the club’s activities.
“All in all, we very rarely have a McCosh-ing,” he said, adding that the senior members “make sure that anyone who needs to be looked after receives any necessary medical attention.”
“The hazing of one member landed him in McCosh Health Center before the contest even began,” Matthew said. He added that, at the 21 Club’s annual formal earlier this year, two members were taken to the hospital.
After the contest
After completing the contest, each member is rewarded with a 21 Club card, which grants him entrance to all four clubs even on members-only nights and allows him behind the tap. Each card lists on which beer the member first vomited — for those who vomit during social beers, that number is “0” — and in what order the member vomited compared to the others.
“In my opinion, it works better than [Interclub Council (ICC) stickers] because sometimes they’ll say no ICC, but if you flash a 21 Club card, you’re in immediately,” Matthew said.
Scott explained that members carry cards because they “do not wish to remain a complete secret.”
“We are proud to be members,” he said. “But we would prefer if what we do was indeed kept a secret.”
In the past, alumni of the club have been forthcoming about their memberships. Numerous obituaries in Princeton Alumni Weekly list the club as an extracurricular activity during alumni’s years at Princeton.
One prominent member of the group, former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker ’52, even mentioned his membership in the club in his autobiography.
“Liberated from the constraints of prep school, I went wild,” Baker wrote of his early years at Princeton. “I became a member of both Princeton’s Right Wing Club — so named because we spent much of our time using our right arms to hoist spirituous beverages — and 21 Club, another social organization with a similar mission.”
Scott said he believes the 128-year-old tradition has continued because there “is a sense among the membership that this club holds a place in Princeton’s history.”
“The administration could do very little to shut us down,” he added.
Matthew noted that he thinks his experience in the club will be an important college memory for him.
“Especially when I’m older, I’m going to think ‘How the hell did I do this?’ ” he said.