New walking tours uncover historical sites of Princeton University

Photo by Samantha Brandbergh
Decals like the one pictured here dot various walkways throughout the campus at Princeton University. (Photo by Samantha Brandbergh)

While taking in the sights during a recent walk through the Princeton University campus, a small group of tourists busily snap photos, their cameras pointed up to the gothic architecture. Below their feet, however, 49 colorful stickers and scannable codes hold a key to the university’s unknown history.

The circles placed strategically along the university’s major walkways are part of four recently launched walking tours detailing various aspects of Princeton’s past and present.

The tours —  African American Life at Princeton, Firsts at Princeton, Traditions at Princeton and Women at Princeton —  are part of the new (In)Visible Princeton series, which aims to bring the lesser-known sites of Princeton University to the attention of students, local residents and tourists.

According to Acting University Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, an average of 860,000 people visit the Princeton campus annually since it became open to the public. With that traffic, those at the university hope the tour codes will be utilized, and visitors can learn something new.

Hotchkiss said that, although the (In)Visible Princeton series is designed as a tour, visitors explore to stops independently or with friends and family, allowing the codes to be scanned at any time without having to download an external app.

“Tens of thousands of people come [to campus] as tourists every year, and those kinds of tours don’t give any context for this stuff,” Project Specialist Abby Klionsky said.

Those on the walking tours will find the stickers with a scannable QR code on each. Tour followers will scan the code using the camera on their mobile device to access text, video and audio about each historical site.

The tours can also be accessed off-campus through the GuidiGO website for those who wish to take a virtual tour at home.

“What stood out for me was how good the experience was on my phone and computer, you can really get a rich experience either way,” he said. “People don’t want to download an app to take a tour.”

The Princeton University website says the tours “aim to narrate, demonstrate and reflect on the nuanced history of Princeton, and are part of broader efforts overseen by the Campus Iconography Committee to update and diversify campus art and iconography.”

Walking the campus, Klionsky shares some of Princeton’s hidden history from the 1800s to present day.

The first stop on the Traditions at Princeton tour is located at the entrance of campus, which leads to Nassau Hall. This tradition relates to a superstition claiming that students who walk out of the center walkway of FitzRandolph Gate, which was closed until 1970, won’t graduate.

While students still practice this tradition today, many others evolve over time.

“Some students don’t know how they’ve changed,” Klionsky said. “We wanted to focus on ones relating to current students, graduate and undergraduate.”

By looking through archives, yearbooks, conducting surveys and talking to alumni and representatives of different groups on campus — such as the Princeton and Slavery Project, the LGBT Center and the Women’s Center — the content for the tours was selected.

“We wanted to make sure they were accurately represented on the tours and that we had our facts right,” Klionsky said.

She added that the African American Life and Women at Princeton tour stops were organized chronologically, while Traditions and Firsts were placed in specific geographical locations on campus that relate to the content.

For example, the Center for Jewish Life is home to one of the Firsts at Princeton tour stops, which details the earliest record of a Jewish student at Princeton — Mordecai Myers, class of 1812.

“Myers arrived at Princeton in 1809 and graduated in three years,” the text reads. “According to census records, it is likely that Myers owned enslaved people in Georgia, where he moved after becoming a lawyer.”

Tour stops like these also indicate how the “firsts” have changed over time, Klionsky said, like how Princeton offers kosher dining options and hosted a L’Chaim conference in 2016, which celebrated the over 100 years of Jewish life at Princeton.

Further into campus, behind the Cannon Green, lies a tour stop relating to recruiting African American students in the 1960s. Audio for this tour stop features alumna Vera Marcus, one of Princeton’s first African-American female students in 1969.

“There was a division, there was a cover that was pleasant, but underneath that cover was the sense that you were different and you that were not included,” she says in a recording about her experiences at Princeton.

Other stops on the tour explain why buildings that females donated money for are named after men, the forming of the Association of Black Collegians and the Step Sings and P-rade traditions on campus — things current and prospective students can relate to.

“We really wanted people to become engaged with the history,” Klionsky said.