1st Cornell College students were physical distancing experts

Student life during Cornell College’s early years was heavily regulated. Consider the infamous Rule Twelve: The escorting of young ladies by young gentlemen is not allowed. 

It was the most contested of 14 rules listed in all catalogues dating from 1853 to 1869. The regulations certainly would make any current student blanch. Students had to rise at 5 a.m. for recitations and prayers (Rule One), needed permission from a teacher before leaving town (Rule Four), and were forbidden from attending dancing parties and circuses (Rule Eight).

Rule Twelve, as it was known, was the most difficult to interpret and enforce. A standard of 6 feet was established by a professor who suggested it in response to frequent questions and objections. Legend has it that a discussion ensued and students agreed they would get sticks 6 feet and two hands long, to make sure they were properly distanced, “and many a smitten lover offered his stick to his sweetheart and saw her home under the legal distance rule.”

Nearly 170 years later, a global pandemic has made Rule Twelve relevant once again. As students returned to campus this fall, signs and guidelines reminded them to stay 6 feet apart for safety.

William Heywood, author of the “Cornell College: A Sesquicentennial History” Volume 1, wrote that Rule Twelve could be understood in part because coeducational colleges were the exception rather than the norm at that time. Cornell College, after all, was the first Iowa college to graduate a woman. 

Apparently Rule Twelve wasn’t completely hardbound. Heywood recounted an incident when about 20 male and female students took a sleigh ride to Mechanicsville, nine miles east of Mount Vernon, without permission. President Richard Keeler rebuked them, but announced that students who were not involved were free to go on a sleigh ride the following Saturday. 

When Cornell President Jonathan Brand welcomed the Class of 2024 at two New Student Convocations Sept. 2 he was holding a 6-foot-and-two-hands-long stick and shared the story of Rule Twelve.

“This is original physical distancing at Cornell College in the 1850s,” he said, and challenged everyone to follow the college’s pandemic safety rules so the entire community stays healthy.

“If we all commit ourselves to the practices, the policies, the procedures all together, we will come through this relatively well,” he said, “and you will have those life-changing experiences that you seek and that we wish for you to have.” 

Pictured: Cornell seniors Paulina Diaz-Alton and Jack Bressett demonstrate the use of a 6-foot-and-two-hands stick, with President Jonathan Brand keeping a watchful eye on them. College Hall, built in 1857, opened when the sticks were in use to keep student couples apart.