As Friends struggled with the issues surrounding the proper place of music in their lives, so did the educational institutions they supported. Begun with the intention of giving Quaker youth a “guarded education” in an environment consistent with the values of Friends, the earliest years of these schools were the most rigid. Music gradually found a legitimate place within the education curriculum of Friends schools, yet there were decades of dissonance among culture, youth, Quaker values and organizations. In his history of Haverford College, Rufus Jones (1863-1948) commented upon the cultural starkness of the early years of the college:

We look back with mild pity on the generations of Haverford students who were deprived of the joy of music and art. The strong anti-aesthetic bias in the minds of the Quaker founders and the early Managers was, I think, an unmitigated misfortune. They loved to see a beautiful campus and they had an eye for beauty in landscape, architecture and external nature, but they severely excluded art and music from any place in the sphere of culture.... It was associated with the dance hall and the stage, and was likely, it was assumed, to draw those who indulged in its charms away from the oaths of robust rectitude into a frivolous life.

This page documents the difficulties and development faced by some local Quaker schools and colleges as they tried to discern the appropriate place for music in the lives of the students they were charged to raise.

Banks Script  Banks Script

In 1883, Swarthmore College published a rule book governing the academic and social conduct of its students, male and female. It provides a glimpse into the well-regulated lives of the early Quaker students. Much of this particular rule book is taken up with the mixing of the sexes. For instance:

24. Students of the two sexes, except brothers and sisters, shall not walk together on the grounds of the College, nor in the neighborhood, nor to or from the railroad station or the skating grounds. They shall not coast upon the same sled.

While music is not expressly mentioned in this rule book, the boys were warned to “move quietly about the house, avoiding whistling and rushing through the halls or up and down the stairs.” The girls, meanwhile, were cautioned only to “move quietly about the house.” Similar rules were in place at other area Friends schools. (Courtesy of the Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College).

Fisk Jubilee Singers

Swarthmore co-ed Alice Jackson wrote home to her mother in 1880 about the very first musical concert at Swarthmore College. The original letter is unaccounted for, but a transcription completed late in life by Jackson herself still survives. The inaugural ensemble described by Jackson is the Fisk Jubilee Singers (pictured here in 1881). Organized in 1871 in order to raise funds for the financially struggling all-black Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, the Jubilee Singers went on to receive critical acclaim for their concert tours given around the world. (Courtesy of Friends Historical Library, Swarthmore College).

[ listen ]

One of the pieces mentioned in Alice Jackson’s letter is the African American spiritual Roll Jordan Roll. It was recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1909.

Banks Script

Banjo, mandolin, and guitar clubs became popular on most college campuses between 1890 and 1930, and surprisingly Haverford was right in step with the times. Two of the first musical groups to be allowed on campus were a Glee Club and a Banjo Club, the latter pictured here for the first time in 1888. By 1900 these clubs had gained enough caché to be pictured each year in the official college bulletin.

Members of the Banjo Club shown here are: Standing: W. G. Audenried, Percy S. Darlington, George T. Butler, David J. Reinhardt, Robert E. Fox; Sitting: W. M. Guilford, Jr., W. R. Dunton, Jr., Gilbert J. Palen, William Percy Simpson; Front: R. Linwood Martin.


In 1925 Westtown Boarding School addressed parents directly on the questions surrounding music in the lives of the all Quaker students. A wide range of opinions were expressed, however, these two examples demonstrate some common thoughts held by Quaker parents. Generally there was support that appreciation of good music be taught and that this was part of the guarded education Quaker parents sought for their children. If this lesson was learned “bad” music such as Jazz would not be a temptation. Although music was acceptable as a cultural expression, it was not to be a part of worship, which was to stay unprogrammed and unscripted.


This photograph was taken on the boys’ dormitory at Westtown School in 1913 where the only kind of permitted music was being “played.” Note the Cricket bats used as pseudo-stringed instruments. (Courtesy of Westtown School Archives, Westtown PA).


Music was allowed on the Haverford campus only gradually and the first Haverford songbook was published in 1903, seventy years after the college’s founding. Yet its numerous alma maters, football songs, and excerpts from campus entertainments composed by Haverford students indicate that this type of musical activity had been going on surreptitiously for years. Additional songbooks came out in 1912, 1916, 1934, and 1954.


Although not strictly incorporated as an all-Quaker school, Bryn Mawr College was nevertheless founded by Quakers and was run by an all-Quaker board of trustees for its first twenty years. In this 1886 letter from trustee James Whitall to Bryn Mawr President M. Carey Thomas, the subject is the arrival to campus of a practice piano, which Whitall dramatically calls the “four-footed beast.” He suggests that the piano be dispensed with along with “the patronage of the girls to whom it is a necessity.” Note too the mention of the many small instruments known to be among the boys at Haverford College. (M. Carey Thomas Papers, courtesy of Bryn Mawr College Special Collections).


In the earliest days of Quaker schools, music was not permitted as was consistent with the principles of the Society of Friends. Despite the prohibition, though, small musical instruments such as the “Jew’s Harp” found their ways onto campuses at Haverford and Westtown.

If a Haverford offender was detected the harp was confiscated. Alumnus John Collins reported in 1883 that it was believed enough melodic contraband met this fate in Haverford’s early years to fill a barrel.

Similarly, Elton Thomas, who entered Westtown in 1839, knew how to help his little sister, Margaretta, with her music requirements in 1854. She had been at Westtown for three years already when she received her "basket of peaches" so perhaps this ruse had been used before for other illegal imports. (Elton Thomas to Margaaretta Thomas, Westtown School 9th month 7th 1854, courtesy of Westtown School Archives, Westtown, PA).

Jew's Harps

A note about the Jew’s Harp: Also called the Trump, Tromba, and Gewgaw in parts of Europe, “Jew’s Harp” is the common name for the instrument in the English language. While the instrument has been referred to as a “Jaw Harp” or “Juice Harp” in recent years, there does not seem to be any historical basis to these names, and indeed there is no evidence that the term “Jew’s Harp” was ever used derogatively. The instrument is played by placing the free end of the harp between the teeth and strumming the tongue of the harp with the thumb. The pitch is changed by manipulating the size and shape of the oral cavity.

[ listen ]

The words to one Haverford College song were written by Francis Gummere, class of 1872, professor of English, and son of the college’s President Samuel Gummere. The words are to be sung to the patriotic tune Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean. It is sung here by current Haverford students Larry Bomback and Matt Lewis.

Ask Us a Question!

Your Email
Haverford College Libraries