1918: Olympia High School Students Go On Strike Over Old Clothes (And More)


In Fall 1918, Olympia High School was a very different institution than it is today. Only a fraction of young people in town were enrolled. The school, which had been located on what is now the state capitol campus, had burned down that summer and classes were temporarily meeting at the local Baptist, Episcopal and United Churches until a new building was completed. World War I was still raging. The flu pandemic was looming. Both students and faculty were under a lot of stress.

Elizabeth McElroy Allison Remembers ‘Old Clothes Day’ at Olympia High School

Writing decades later, former student Elizabeth McElroy Allison remembered a 1918 incident related to “Old Clothes Day,” a school tradition: “Early on the day the boys all met at the YMCA, dressed in their worst hobo clothes and they were joined by us girls and then we all paraded up the hill to School. Mr. Aiken put out an edict the day before the March-‘It’s out!’ But we marched anyway. Upon arrival at School we were refused entrance so we went across the street, made a huge bonfire, in pouring rain, toasted weinies on sticks, sang songs and had fun! All the parents got in the act and tried to break it up. I can’t remember how it ended except that we were all eventually back in school.”

Olympia High School Celebrates ‘Hobo Day’ in 1918

Allison’s memories closely match contemporary accounts. The incident started in late October 1918. Early in the week, a delegation of young men met with Principal Newton Aiken, wanting to hold a “Hobo Day” celebration for an upcoming football game against Montesano.

The Olympia High School football team of 1918
The Olympia High School football team of 1918, coached by W.T. Meyers, played very few games because of the flu pandemic. Meyers lost his infant son Walter to the flu on October 18. Photo courtesy: Olympus, February 1919, Washington State Library

Aiken was against the event. “I told them,” he later told reporters, “that there had been so much time taken out of classwork recently, especially because of the [wartime] food [conservation pledge] drive that it would be out of place…I do not object to their holding a celebration to advertise their football game, but I do object to their detracting from the study time.”

Some of the students insisted and refused to promise to come talk to him about it again. On Thursday evening, a group of students decided to hold the event anyway. When Aiken learned of the plans, he warned them that anyone who came to school in their “old working clothes” would be suspended.

The next morning, October 25, the day before the football game, a group of junior and senior boys gathered at about 8:30 in front of the YMCA (510 Franklin Street SE). Before they could march, they were met by Principal Aiken who warned them again they would be suspended if they came to school dressed like that. The students marched to school anyways, parading around the building (most likely the United Churches, then at 600 Franklin Street SE) several times. After being suspended, they lit a big bonfire nearby. A few girls also joined them – including Allison. It is unclear if the female students were also punished.

Olympia High School Students Make Demands

old photo of United Churches in Olympia in 1916
The strikers likely marched across the street from the YMCA to the United Churches, then at 600 Franklin Street. Built as the First Presbyterian Church, it merged in 1916 with the Congregational Church to create the United Churches. Photo credit: Drew Crooks

Midmorning, a delegation of striking students tried to meet with Aiken but were rebuffed. “No, we want some things,” an unnamed football player told the press about their demands. “And we won’t go back until we get them.” The group demanded an annual “loud sock day,” where students wore colorful socks to class, the appointment of a student committee to talk with faculty over athletics issues, and the reinstatement of suspended students.

The defiant students even published an article in the Morning Olympian:

“No more ‘loud sock’ day at the high school. That had been relegated to the past with the rest of the non-essentials of peace times prior to the great conflict, when the youth of the land are not regarded as beyond the pale if they indulged their fancies for the extremes in ‘screams’ for ties and ‘explosions’ for footwear.

Yes, the day of ‘Loud sock’ day is done. Nowadays it isn’t just the thing.

Most extravagant and out of place, you know, a bit off the proper.

But look who’s here?

Now we have ‘Hobo day.’

Something old and yet the very newest. It’s in line with the times, too.

Everybody’s doing it. The ‘Bo’s’ the things. So significant of modesty, husbandry and centering on a single purpose. No time for side issues, what?

Today is the day. The lads of the high school junior and senior classes will be the little observers and don’t you forget it, all will be there. You wear your old clothes, the oldest you have. Your auto jumper will pass. It’s the annual thing now and most commendable. You look such a man.

And it is much more to the point than that ‘loud sock’ thing, don’t you think? Why decidedly.”

Any action was delayed as Aiken left Olympia that afternoon for Tacoma on school business and would not return until the next week. Olympia School district superintendent Chauncey E. Beach was also out of town.

The football game was cancelled.

YMCA historical building in Olympia in 191-
Built in 1910 after a massive fundraising campaign, the YMCA (510 Franklin St SE) was remodeled many times before it moved in 2019 to its current location (505 Plum Street SE). Photo courtesy: Washington State Digital Archives, General Subjects Photograph Collection, 1845-2005

Olympia High School Strike Resolution

The following week, Aiken and Beach met with parents of the suspended students. Although they made no promises of athletics or other changes, the students were allowed to return to class on Tuesday, October 30. The boys met with the principal again, and the school considered the situation finally settled.

High School Spirit Week: An Enduring Tradition?

While “Hobo Day” and “Loud Sock Day” have faded away, students at Olympia High School and elsewhere have continued to dress up in unusual ways to celebrate and test the rules with traditions such as Spirit Week held before homecoming.

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