The May Fête at the U of I

Alpha Xi Delta Stunt Show performers, 1910

Alpha Xi Delta Stunt Show performers, 1910

Each year, people around the world celebrate May Day and the arrival of spring. At the University of Illinois, this celebration took the form of the May Fête, a mid-month celebration with a maypole dance and pageant.  Celebratory May activities held at the University began in 1899, although activities like Field Day began earlier, in 1883.[1] Later, the May Fête became a central part of the University Interscholastic, a multi-day event with popular sporting events and field days featuring the U of I athletes and teams from area high schools, a circus  featuring the various student groups on campus, open-air concerts, operas and dramatic performances, a parade, and general merriment.

Crowning the May Queen, c. 1908

Crowning the May Queen, c. 1908

At the May Fête, the women’s physical training courses were in charge of putting on a themed pageant to accompany the Maypole dance. In 1917, for example, the Fête was a traditional Greek pageant.[2] Each year, the glee and mandolin clubs hosted performances and renowned international orchestras gave concerts. During the festival in 1909, for example, on May 10, the New York Symphony Orchestra gave a concert, followed by performances from the University’s choral and orchestral societies.[3] The May Fête was an important part of campus life, and was held rain or shine, like in 1911, when the festivities took place despite cold weather and rain.[4] It was a major event on campus; in 1921, more than 350 tickets to the pageant were sold on the first day of sales. Tickets were 35 cents.[5] The Fête was held in a number of places on campus; it originated at the Library, but was later moved to the Peach Orchard and Old Illinois Field. In its final years, it was held at Memorial Stadium.[6] The Fête was an official part of Mothers Day weekend from 1921 until the mid-1930s when it “was discontinued because ‘it didn’t seem to fit in the campus program any longer.’”[7]

May Fete Costume Dancing c. 1911

May Fete Costume Dancing c. 1911

If you’d like to learn more about the University’s May activities, the Fête and Interscholastic are popular subjects in students’ diaries and scrapbooks; students discuss going to the festivities with sweethearts and friends. SLC and the University Archives hold programs, photographs, and postcards from the  event (39/2/20, 16/4/810, alumni scrapbooks). There are also images and information available in the Illio (available at the Archives or digitally, 41/8/805).




[1]-[4] Annals of the University: 1862-1918″ in the semi-centennial edition of The Alumni Record of the University of Illinois. 1918. pp. xxxviii, xlvi, lix, lxii, lxiv.
[5] “May Fete Tickets Boom on Opening Day of Sale.” Daily Illini. May 10, 1921.
[6]-[7] “Mothers to Visit University.” Daily Illini. May 4, 1956, p. 3.

Photos from RS 39/2/24. Click each photo for more information.


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