“The Z Society is the most secret ribbon organization. Its membership, like that of the Thirteen Club, comes from Eli and Tilka. Its notices or signs are written in the night-time on buildings or sidewalks. The members of the Seven Club are unknown. They are likewise nocturnal sign writers.”
—John S. Patton, in his 1906 book, Jefferson, Cabell and the University of Virginia

The University’s “nocturnal sign writers” have been busy for more than a century. The symbols of student societies, painted on buildings, stairs and walkways around Grounds, are as much a part of the University’s character as red brick and white columns. Posters, pumpkins, pitchforks, purple quills and white roses are among the other signs that student societies have been at work, providing philanthropic support or honoring the contributions of UVA community members. The ubiquity of these symbols and signs is a testament to their respected place among the University’s traditions. But it hasn’t always been that way, and controversy still bubbles up on occasion.

The "IMP King"

One of the first student organizations on Grounds, the Jefferson Literary and Debating Society, began in July 1825 as a secret society, warning its initiates “not to divulge any of its proceedings, or anything that may occur in our Halls; everything seen, said or done shall be held in utmost secrecy, and any member guilty of a violation of this obligation shall be ignominiously expelled.” The society, which quickly ceased to be secret, offered Thomas Jefferson an honorary membership. Because the Patrick Henry Literary Society also existed on Grounds, he politely declined the offer, wanting to “preserve the inestimable consciousness of impartiality to all, but the equally inestimable exemption from all suspicion of partiality.”

Jefferson was not unfamiliar with secret societies. He was a member of the F.H.C., established in 1750 and commonly known as the Flat Hat Club. “When I was a student of Wm. & Mary college of this state, there existed a society called the F.H.C. society, confined to the number of six students only, of which I was a member, but it had no useful object, nor do I know whether it now exists,” Jefferson wrote.

Unruly student behavior was common during the University of Virginia’s early years, and faculty feared that organized student groups, operating in relative secrecy, would make matters worse. “Faculties tended to see the earliest societies as evil threats to their authority and discipline,” Clyde Johnson writes in Fraternities in Our Colleges. The growth and continued viability of student organizations, says Johnson, are rooted in student self-government’s desire to “overcome the paternalism of their institutions and to provide for their own needs.”

UVA’s first president, Edwin Alderman (center), displays the Seven Society banner at Lambeth Field.

A mutual wariness between faculty and students was apparent in 1852, when UVA’s first fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, sought formal recognition from the faculty and was initially rejected, partially because the six-member group refused to disclose its rules or planned activities. Nevertheless, numerous fraternities soon appeared on Grounds: By the end of the century, fraternity membership included about half of the student body. “[The students] have their secret societies, chiefly of the Greek letter order, their school clubs, their German and dramatic clubs, and other organizations demanded by their social instincts and training,” writes John Patton in his 1900 book, The University of Virginia: Glimpses of Its Past and Present.

Most of the student organizations that formed in the late 19th century were organized without any attempts to keep their membership hidden. A quartet of ribbon societies—Eli Banana, T.I.L.K.A., the Thirteen Club and the Zeta Society—so named for the ribbons its members pinned to their lapels—were among the most prominent and influential student organizations on Grounds.

Established during Mardi Gras in 1902, the Hot Foot Society burst onto the scene with elaborate, bacchanalian public ceremonies during which they would crown a new “king” each year. “The success of the Hot Feet is due in large measure to that love of extravagance, burlesque, and horse-play which fills many cities of the world every year with merry-makers throwing confetti and doing a thousand absurd things in obedience to an amiable and frolicsome mood,” writes Patton in his 1906 book, Jefferson, Cabell and the University of Virginia.

Art from the 1909 edition of Corks & Curls

However, that same love of extravagance would land the Hot Feet in hot water. On Easter morning of 1911, the University awoke to a transformed Academical Village. The Hot Feet had removed “the stuffed animals, snakes, and other varmints from the Cabell Hall basement, where they were stored, and stationing them behind the professors’ classroom desks and in front of their residences on the Lawn,” writes Virginius Dabney in Mr. Jefferson’s University. “On top of this, some well-lubricated Hot Feet bulled their way into a student’s room, roughed him up, and carried off a beer stein.” More accurately, the Hot Feet carried off a chamber pot, which was the official and ceremonial stein of the society.

Afterward, the administration issued a stern proclamation. “The Hot Foot Society has been, on the whole, very detrimental to the University’s welfare, and it is, therefore, unanimously resolved that the existence of the Hot Foot Society, and of all other organizations which promote disorder in the University, shall be forbidden.”

IMPs marching on Beta Bridge in 1983

The demise of the Hot Foot Society led to the formation of the IMP Society, an organization composed of many former Hot Feet who were dedicated to preserving the activities they’d come to enjoy, but in slightly toned-down fashion. While the Hot Feet drew widespread attention with their antics, the Seven Society quietly formed, and to this day remains the most secret of the University’s societies. Neither the exact date nor the circumstances of the Seven Society’s formation has been revealed, but its symbol first appeared in the 1905 edition of the student yearbook, Corks and Curls.

While many of these societies certainly knew how to have a good time, their members also formed the leadership of more serious-minded organizations, such as Student Council and the Honor Committee. In his History of the University of Virginia, 1819-1919, Philip Bruce recounts the 1913 observations of an unnamed member of the University community: “The ribbon societies include many leaders in college life, especially those who can scintillate at a pink tea or go through a ten-course dinner without missing the right fork. No athlete, however great, without a touch of fashion, can get in. Fame even is not an open sesame.” In the 1960s, Dean B.F.D. Runk responded to critics of the ring and ribbon societies, saying that they were “looked upon with dignity and respect … and on the whole did a great deal of good for the University.”

A flag from Sons and Daughters of Liberty and the Purple Shadows’ wreath at the Jefferson statue on the Lawn

In more recent decades, Eli and T.I.L.K.A. have emphasized conviviality over student leadership. “Nowadays the two ring societies, Z and IMP, probably represent the true undergraduate leadership of the University,” says Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam Jr. (Col ’55), who serves as UVA’s protocol and history officer.

For nearly a century, student societies had focused on three main areas: social pursuits, honoring outstanding members of the UVA community, and philanthropic support of the University. In the second half of the 20th century, new societies were formed that added a fourth element to those traditional emphases—activism in support of a specific cause. When controversy has arisen over the years, it’s often been tied to this aspect of student-society activity.

The prevalence of student societies also “plays upon the ever-present UVA theme of inclusion versus exclusion,” writes Jennifer Mendelsohn (Col ’90) in a 1989 Declaration article. While concerns about the veil of relative secrecy and perceived exclusivity occasionally arise, Mendelsohn concludes, “They are an integral part of University life, inexorably linked to the web of tradition which gives this University such a strongly individual character. And indeed by nature of their very secrecy, they add a great deal to the Virginia mystique.”

P.U.M.P.K.I.N. members in Clemons Library

For today’s students, that mystique continues to contribute to the UVA experience. “The idea that there’s something interwoven beneath the surface of the University’s history that makes this a better place is very appealing to a lot of students—that there’s more here than meets the eye,” says Dan Morrison (Com ’12), Student Council president. “Every group has its own flavor, culture and calling cards that come together to create a fun melting pot of drama and showmanship that you don’t see anywhere else. The University is more than just buildings and academics, there’s a deep culture that these groups get to play a hand in.”

The Student Society Field Guide

This list is not intended to be all-inclusive. Many student societies have faded away over the years. There are current organizations about which little is known and likely others that have yet to reveal their presence.

The Mystic Order of Eli Banana
Description: Ribbon society
Founded: 1878
Activities: To mark its 125th anniversary in 2003, the society created a fund that has provided more than $400,000 in support for various University projects, including historic preservation and the South Lawn project. Part of the fund’s mission: “Giving back to the great University that has put up with us since 1878.”
History: “The society took its name from the Japanese Order of Eli Banana, to which only citizens of the highest rank were admitted,” according to Virginius Dabney. That explanation, while rooted in the organization’s lore, seems to be apocryphal. In the 1870s, few Southerners could afford to go to the resorts in western Virginia and West Virginia, but they remained a popular destination for wealthy Pittsburgh industrialists. One hotel owner, facing a shortage of young dance partners for his guests’ daughters, invited students from Yale and UVA to come and dance the summer away. The Yale students belonged to a group back in New Haven called Eli Banana and they made the UVA students members. Upon returning to Charlottesville, the students founded a chapter at the University. The Yale chapter disappeared several years later.
Notable: The student head of Eli is called the Grand Banana. The Elis installed a plaque in 1949 on Pavilion VIII in honor of William “Reddy” Echols, who was a member of the organization. It reads, “William Holding Echols (1859–1834), Professor of Mathematics, lived in this pavilion. By precept and example, he taught many generations of students with ruthless insistence that the supreme values are self respect, integrity of mind, contempt of fear and hatred of sham. The Eli Banana Order, by this tablet, honours Reddy Echols and his unique place in the history of the Order.”

The 13 Society
Description: Honorary society
Founded: Feb. 13, 1889
Activities: A list is posted annually on the eve of the April 13 Founder’s Day that identifies the 13 current student members.
History: Began as a ribbon society called the Thirteen Club, which drew its members from the two ring societies. Notable: Its motto is Superstitio solum in animo inscii habitat, which roughly translates to “Superstition dwells only in the ignorant mind.”
Myths and Legends: At one time it was rumored that being a 13 was a step on the path to becoming a Seven, but there was little to support this assumption.

T.I.L.K.A
Description: Ribbon society
Founded: 1889
Activities: Launched the Rotunda Challenge campaign last year to raise $300,000 for restoration of the Rotunda and has encouraged other societies to undertake similar campaigns.
History: A 1961 T.I.L.K.A. reunion pamphlet reads: “The T.I.L.K.A. Society[’s] … purpose is to bring together students who will work for the ideals and traditions of the University. T.I.L.K.A. has been termed an honorary society. If a person examined the records of the organization, he would find that the past members have set examples of leadership not only while in college, but also in their lives after graduation. Thus, the term honorary is applicable; for it is indeed an honor to be placed on the rolls with men who have done so much for Virginia.”
Notable: According to historian Virginius Dabney, T.I.L.K.A. is “reportedly an acronym for five mystical words, probably Hindu.”

Z Society
Description: Semi-secret ring society
Founded: Founded in 1892 as Zeta Ribbon Society
Activities: In addition to its philanthropic efforts, the Z Society hosts numerous honorary dinners and grants academic awards. The Edgar F. Shannon Awards are given to the “best” graduating students from each of the University’s schools. Those so honored have “pursued academic greatness with fervent ardor and keen insight while never forgetting the importance of those priorities aside from school.” An annual Distinguished Faculty Award is also given, based on student nominations.
History: According to historian Philip Bruce, the Z Society originally drew the best from both Eli and T.I.L.K.A. to form “an altogether incomparable association of students.”
Notable: The organization’s symbol occasionally includes the number 3711, the sum of 1819 (year of University’s founding) and 1892 (year of Z’s founding). Correspondence from the society is signed “Mystically, Z.” Its student members remain anonymous until Final Exercises, when they wear rings with the Z insignia. This is a relatively new tradition: Its student membership was once widely known, but the society became semi-secret about 30 years ago. The large white Zs around Grounds are temporarily repainted at times to show the organization’s concern for pressing matters of the day. Recent examples have indicated its support for issues related to gay rights and race relations, and for Virginia Tech following the April 2007 shootings.
Myths and Legends: Superstition holds that a female student who steps on the Z painted on the steps of the bridge between Ruffner and Newcomb halls will become pregnant before she graduates. A male student who steps on the Z will fail his first exam.

The Raven Society
Description: Honorary society
Founded: April 20, 1904
Habitat: Room 13, West Range
Activities: The organization’s highest honor, the Raven Award, is given annually to “students, faculty, administrators or alumni of the University who have widely and sympathetically shared, supported, and advanced the function of this institution.” The society also awards scholarships and fellowships to outstanding students.
History: The idea for the society came from William McCully James, a medical student who is also believed to have introduced lacrosse at UVA. Joining with other students and faculty in 1904, James helped organize an academic honor society similar to Phi Beta Kappa, which was not established at the University until 1908. The first Ravens were chosen by a faculty committee that invited a dozen students to a special meeting concerning “a matter of grave importance to both students and faculty.” More members were elected at subsequent meetings and 31 students and four faculty members were considered charter members. The October 1904 edition of the Alumni Bulletin notes, “‘The Raven’ is the name of the new honor society organized here last spring. Its membership is composed of the leading students of each department, the number being limited, and of those who have contributed in some definite way to the literary activity of the University.”
Notable: The name Raven Society was chosen as a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s time at the University. The society is responsible for maintaining the West Range room where Poe lived while he was a UVA student from February to December 1826.

The Seven Society
Description: Secret society
Founded: c. 1905; symbol first appeared in the 1905 Corks & Curls
Activities: While the inner workings of the Seven Society remain secret, its numerous gifts to the University are presented publicly and with a flair for the dramatic. One notable example occurred during Final Exercises in 1947, when the commencement address was interrupted by a small explosion at the front of the stage, followed by a check for $177,777.77 floating to the ground. The money established an interest-free loan fund for any student, faculty or staff member who was in financial trouble.

In 1950, a stonemason received a request to place the Seven Society’s emblem on the hill at Scott Stadium. On the day the work was completed, he found the payment of $1,000.77 in his lunchbox. Five years later, President Colgate Darden was instructed to remove the bottom stone from the symbol during halftime of a football game. Underneath the stone he found $77.77, designated for the installation of a drinking fountain next to the Madison Bowl intramural athletics field.

Over the years, gifts from the society have included the Chapel bells, the silver mace carried at the head of formal University processions, a documentary film about the Honor System, and support for student activities, scholarships and fellowships. Recent gifts include a $14,777.77 contribution in 2008 to fund student-submitted ideas for improving the University—delivered to Scott Stadium by a skydiver carrying a large 7 flag. During the groundbreaking ceremony for the South Lawn, an envelope was opened with a $1 million pledge to the project.
History: Mary B. Proffitt, who served as secretary to several deans of the College from 1912 to 1953, was revealed to be the first known female member after her death in 1958. Ravenell “Ricky” Keller III (Col ’85), who died in 1997, is the first known African-American member.
Notable: Membership is revealed only at death, when a banner appears at the member’s funeral. The practice of sending a 7-shaped wreath of black magnolias to funerals seems to have been discontinued. At the time of the funeral, the University Chapel bells toll in increments of seven, every seven seconds, in a dissonant seventh chord, for seven minutes.

Letters from the society are signed with seven astronomical symbols for planets. Communication to the society is traditionally left at the base of the Jefferson statue inside the Rotunda.
Myths and Legends: One persistent theory surmises that the society was founded when eight students planned to get together for two tables of bridge but only seven showed up.

IMP Society
Description: Ring society
Founded: 1903 as the Hot Feet, reconstituted in 1913 as IMPs
Activities: The society’s mission involves “spreading revelry around Grounds through recognition events of students and faculty, annual community service grants, and other fellowship initiatives.” The IMP Award is presented to a “faculty member who has been outstanding in promoting student-faculty relations and perpetuating the traditions of the University.” The IMP Student Athlete Award honors the University’s top female athlete.
History: The IMP Society earned praise from the Cavalier Daily in 1974, when it observed,“It has in some ways taken the lead,” by electing to its membership “students who may have been left out of other groups, especially women and blacks.”
Notable: IMP stands for Incarnate Memories Prevail. Members can be seen marching with pitchforks and wearing devil’s horns. The IMPs occasionally play pranks meant to embarrass or reveal the identities of Z Society members. Because of the rivalry with the Zs, membership in these organizations is mutually exclusive.

Society of the Purple Shadows
Description: Secret society
Founded: 1963
Activities: In a letter written to a University Guides chair in the late 1980s, the Purple Shadows identified their two guiding tenets as support for the Honor System and encouraging activities that “enhance the University’s tradition of excellence.” The society recognizes members of the UVA community with a purple goose quill and with letters written in purple ink. As part of its staunch support of the Honor System, the group welcomes first-years to the community of trust with notecards at Convocation and presents the James Hay Jr. Award to the individual who has made the greatest contributions to the Honor System. In 2008, the Shadows established the Gordon F. Rainey Jr. Award for Vigilance to the Student Experience.
History: Dedication to preservation of traditions has occasionally sparked controversy. In 1982, the Purple Shadows broke into the office of Dean of Students Robert Canevari and left a purple-inked letter that expressed disagreement with the decision to cancel Easters. Not amused, Canevari filed Judiciary Committee charges against the group that, according to a Cavalier Daily article, had “tweaked the University’s whiskers by daringly delivering its opinions to students, faculty and administrators.”

“They’re flaunting their ability to get into a major University building,” Canevari said. “They’re so damn bold—that’s what bothers me.” His judiciary charges went unanswered.
Notable: On Founder’s Day, they are seen in purple robes, laying a wreath at the foot of the Jefferson statue on the Lawn. The society presumably took its name from the “Remembering the purple shadows of the Lawn” line in James Hay Jr.’s 1903 poem “The Honor Men.”

P.U.M.P.K.I.N.
Description:
Secret society
Founded: c. 1967
Activities: On Halloween, the society gives carved pumpkins to those who have made significant contributions to University life. Pumpkins are always delivered to the Rotunda, Carr’s Hill and Monticello. In 2000, the society discontinued the practice of distributing smashed pumpkins to those whom they disapproved.

“Positive recognition from anonymous sources gives the impression that people are watching what you do, and that the University rewards those who deserve to be praised,” wrote Cavalier Daily editors in applauding the decision. “Anonymous scorn, however, does not have the same effect.” However, the delivery of a smashed pumpkin, cryptically named the E.B. Pendleton Award, has been revived.
Notable: Motto is “When the Corn’s in the bin, Gourds are on the vine.” Citations read “Each Year the P.U.M.P.K.I.N. Society Recognizes Individuals Who Enrich The University Community Through Their Silent and Selfless Achievements. As Thomas Jefferson Wished for the University, Its Members should be ‘Honest and Dutiful to Society.’”

Rotunda Burning Society
Description: Honorary society
Habitat: Base of the Rotunda’s south steps
Founded: c. 1981
Activities: On October 27, members of the society dress in red and congregate by the Rotunda steps to burn a model of the building that was destroyed by fire in 1895.

Thursdays Society
Description: Honorary society
Founded: Mid- to late 1970s
History: Formed after T.I.L.K.A. added female members in the mid ’70s, but reversed the policy shortly thereafter. The Thursdays Society was formed by the women who had briefly been in T.I.L.K.A.

A.N.G.E.L.S. Society
Description: Secret society
Founded: 1998
Activities: Letters of support and white roses are given to students who are in need or grieving. The group similarly recognizes noble acts and commemorates Founder’s Day by placing white roses on the angels surrounding the Jefferson statue in front of the Rotunda’s north steps.

The 21 Society
Description: Semi-secret society
Founded: 1999
History: The 21 Society announced its existence on June 21, 1999, in 21 letters distributed to individuals and organizations around Grounds. The letters stated the society was founded to “to unify the politically active students of the University.”
Activities: Goals are to protect student self-government, including “the autonomy of the student judicial system” and promoting “activism among concerned members of the University community.” Annually, the group recognizes 21 fourth-year students “for quietly serving this university, improving it in character and in name through persistent action.”

The Lantern Society
Description: Secret society
Activities: An all-female group dedicated to the advancement of women and gender equality at UVA.
Founded: 2000
Activities: Annually presents the Lantern Society Award for Leadership in Women’s Education to a faculty member.

Sons and Daughters of Liberty
Description: Semi-secret society
Founded: 2003. The group’s original name, Sons of Liberty, was changed to Sons and Daughters of Liberty last year.
Activities: Can be seen wearing white masks and colonial attire. A list of “Tyrants and Rebels” is posted every year, which praises “rebels” and criticizes “tyrants.” The Jefferson Literary and Debating Society has appeared each year on the list of tyrants, reflecting a rivalry between the organizations.
Notable: Membership is secret until Final Exercises, when members wear tricorn hats instead of mortarboards.

Order of the Claw & Dagger
Description: Secret society
Founded: 2006
Activities: According to an anonymous McIntire School alumnus: “The Order of Claw & Dagger seeks to unite those individuals among the McIntire School of Commerce who best exemplify its founding tenants of Honor, Excellence, and Humility. Members of The Order serve as Stewards of the McIntire School of Commerce, defending its interests, contributing resources, and furthering its standing. Members are tapped as students and continue as alumni.”