Photo: Fire and Skoal, 1976
The majority of societies keep their membership secret until Commencement, when members of senior societies may be identified by their carved canes. Each senior society is unique in character and composition. Some are single sex and others are gender inclusive; some are residential, others are not. Approximately 31 percent of the senior class members are affiliated with a senior society.
The two oldest senior societies still in existence are Sphinx, founded in 1886, and Casque and Gauntlet, founded in 1887. Both are part of the Dartmouth landscape. Casque and Guantlet has occupied the house at 1 South Main Street since 1894, and the Sphinx Tomb building on East Wheelock has inspired curiosity since its construction in 1903.
Members of the other Dartmouth senior societies that date to the 19th century, Dragon, founded in 1898, and Palaeopitus (Greek for "old pine"), founded in 1899, do not carry canes at graduation.
The other senior societies recognized by the College were founded after coeducation came to Dartmouth. Fire and Skoal, founded in 1975, is Dartmouth's oldest co-ed society and Cobra, established in 1978, reportedly with support from Sphinx members, is the first all-female senior society at Dartmouth.
Most of the societies recruit members in a process known as "tapping," through which juniors are invited to become members. The tradition of senior canes became associated with the secret societies, but is actually part of a separate tradition that goes back to the earliest days of the College, according to a Rauner Special Collections Library blog post. College rules in the early days stated that canes should be carried only by upper classmen because, as Rauner's blogger put it: "A cane was an accoutrement of a gentleman and freshmen were too young and immature to have attained such distinction."
Read more from Dartmouth Commencement
Image courtesy of the Rauner Special Collections Library