The Origins of Stepsinging
Cordelia C. Nevers Marriott (class of 1886) and Roberta H. Montgomery McKinney (class of 1897) compiled the first edition of Songs of Wellesley in 1896. This expansive book was a collection of class and crew songs, along with advertisements for corsets, shoes, and the late 19th-century candy factories of Boston. It is a wonderful resource for those wishing to take a look back to where Stepsinging originated.
These early melodies, many of them original to the College, were frequently sung during chapel service, or sometimes afterwards, and also performed for momentous occasions such as Commencement, student elections, large formal gatherings, holidays, and events where the College President was present. Occasionally, Wellesley would host visitors from other schools, which was a perfect opportunity to present the College's unique songs. Some were formal, and others were anything but. Cheers were soon added to the mix.
The thoroughly informative Wellesley College 1875-1975: A Century of Women, published in 1975 for the College's centennial, describes how Stepsinging as we know it today first came to be:
"In 1900 after the dedication of the Houghton Memorial Chapel, a new tradition was attached to May Day- all-college singing in the evening on the chapel steps, with each class having its own special place. Seniors were symbolically at the top until 1922 when the juniors voted that they would keep as seniors the equally symbolic position of front and center. For some years there were only two step-singings, the one on May Day and another shortly before graduation. But in time they came to be scheduled once or twice a week on pleasant fall and spring evenings when students who were free after dinner would come together to sing class and college songs and give their class cheers. The freshman song and cheer were permitted only after Tree Day. Step-singing is obviously intended for the satisfaction of the participants, but there was always a group of faculty listeners, some of whom might be summoned to join one or other of the classes ("We want Miss X on our steps!") Recent happenings were incorporated into a song, sending some prominent member of the community "up to Academic Council." "He went up on--" What followed was an incident or remark that the professor in question would probably prefer to forget. Step-singing still continues, scheduled now once in the fall and once in the spring. Class songs are a thing of the past, but class cheers continue, some of them reported to be getting a little "gross," with freshmen not allowed to give their cheer until the second step-singing. Songs are usually the hits of recent Junior Shows or very old college favorites. "It's fun," one student said, "to laugh at the really strange old songs, some of them out of the 1920s...A present-day senior, when asked about Wellesley's traditions, put step-singing at the top of the list. "It happens," she explained, "at the beginning of the year just when you're beginning to think 'I'm a member of this class' and again at the end just when you're beginning to think 'I'm not a member of this class any more.'"
Today, Stepsinging is held three times a year by the Alumnae Association - first in the fall, following Convocation, then on the last day of classes in the spring, and in the summer at Reunion, where the crowd of over 3,000 makes for a fantastic resonance of song that can be heard well beyond the Hay Amphitheatre, and has even been said to be heard on the far side of Lake Waban!
While some of the pageantry has faded away, Stepsinging remains an essential part of the Wellesley experience, ranking 3rd out of 50 activities on the student-created list of "50 Things To Do At Wellesley Before You Graduate." When the Class of 2020's time on campus came screeching to a halt in March, the students scrambled to cram as many iconic Senior traditions as possible into 48 hours - and Stepsinging was among the best attended. New songs, and updates to this beloved tradition are sure to come, but Stepsinging itself is here to stay.
Click here to return to the Stepsinging home page.
A 1906 letter from student Ruby Willis to her parents in Reading, Massachusetts, describes Stepsinging taking place alongside the reveal of the student government election results.