"Posture photos," as they were then called, were taken of every incoming student at many prestigious colleges in the first half of the 20th century, as a part of the registration process. George L. Hersey '51, now a professor of art history at Yale, says, "I was told to show up at the swimming pool, I took my swim test and posed. We were expected to show up and do this." Students acquiesced in the days of single-sex colleges because nudity was a normal part of the college experience, Knight says. "We never wore bathing suits in the swimming pools, it was considered more hygienic that way," he says. "The House [swimming] races were in the nude." And so posture photos were snapped and collected--and saved for later research which was intended to link physique to temperament. This practice--led nationwide by a Harvard researcher--remained widespread through the 1950s and 60s.
The students in the so-called "posture photographs" probably had no idea that the photos were used for outside purposes. Indeed, many of them probably collected dust in library or athletic archives for years. A few schools, including Yale, destroyed part or all of the photographs when they were rediscovered in the 1970s. Ron Rosenbaum's search for the remaining photos led to his New York Times Magazine article earlier this year. He discovered hundreds of them in the Smithsonian Institution's Anthropological Archives. Currently sealed from public view, the photographs remain in storage, capturing the stiff poses of hundreds of college students who did not realize that they were guinea pigs for a new breed of pseudoscientific experiments.
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