The Ugly Club
One of the highlights of the 1869 commencement at Davidson College might be a bit surprising to modern readers. According to the July 8 edition of the Yorkville Enquirer, a group called the Ugly Club held a celebration on the night after commencement which “was, probably, in the estimation of the gay and fun-loving portion of the audience, the grand scene of the whole play.”
According to the Inquirer, “The ‘Club’ had elected from their fraternity members to represent certain characters – their ‘Pretty Man,’ their ‘Little Man,’ ‘Lazy Man,’ ‘Ladies’ Man,’ ‘Conceited Man,’ and Ugly Man.’ Some of these members no doubt were elected with reference as much to their ability to act well the parts assigned to them, as to their natural characteristics – though in some instances the characters fitted amazingly, which made it all the more ‘funny.’ Each had his ‘Presenter,” who made a speech and presented an appropriate gift; and the receiver responded – all except the ‘Lazy Man,’ who was ‘too lazy to speak.’ The speeches were all in comic style, and were cheered and applauded enthusiastically. We reckon the entire performance was a success. May the ‘Uglies’ live long, and make useful men.”
While the concept is foreign to us today, such clubs had long existed in Europe. According to Ugliness in Art and Theory (2013) the first one in the U.S. was probably organized in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1784. In most cases club members, rather than being chosen for their ugliness, were self-selected, and chose to join what was essentially a social club. An advertisement for the club in 1789 included the following poem:
Ugly Mortals, thither haste
Enjoy our mirth – enjoy our feast
Bring rich red noses – long or crooked.
The Shandean* nose, and noses hooked;
Bring wide stretch’d mouths, form’d for loud laughter:
Let lengthy chins come following after;
But each must bring a well form’d heart
Or hear this sentence – OFF-DEPART.
Such clubs were not only organized in towns and cities, but in colleges and universities, as well. Among the earliest organized in the South was that at the University of North Carolina. According to William Powell in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina, the club there was organized in 1831, “for the avowed purpose of helping homesick students overcome their malady. As altruistic as that motivation may have appeared, it was soon forgotten, and in time the Ugly Club came to be regarded as the beginning of hazing.”
Other Southern colleges that had such clubs included Washington and Lee, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Virginia. According to Virginia Magazine, the UVA club held an event on the college lawn which “featured many clever speeches. Entrants vied for awards given to ‘the man with homeliest countenance,’ ‘the prettiest man,’ ‘the smallest man,’ and ‘the vainest man.’ The prize for being the ugliest was a pair of boots.”
While the idea of the Ugly Club gradually disappeared, in recent years it has reappeared in a rather surprising form. According to a September 2014 article in Britain’s Independent, students at Royal Holloway University in London formed the “Ugly Girls Club” to protest the stereotyping of women, and especially feminists. After hearing themselves referred to as “ugly girls,” members of the feminist society organized a club which began on a small scale, “a joke between society members that was a bit tongue-in-cheek.”
Members began posting distorted photos of themselves online with the caption #uglygirlsclub. The idea soon caught on, and women elsewhere began following suit. According to the Independent, “Because this type of name-calling epitomizes the problem of female body image and social ideals based on appearance, the group took it in their stride and in doing so, harnessed a perfect opportunity to turn society’s perverted standards on its head.”
*Probably a reference to the title character in Laurence Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history. She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.