Upton Sinclair, Class of 1897: A 110 Year Anniversary Celebration

Most people when they pass Baruch College on Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street do not realize that the building stands on the site of the original Free Academy, established in 1847. It was the seed out of which grew the municipal college system and later the City University of New York. During the 19th century many distinguished men graduated from the Free Academy, later the College of the City of New York. The list of early alumni is impressive, and Upton Sinclair, the noted American writer was a member of the class of 1897.

This year we celebrate the 110th anniversary of Upton Sinclair's graduation by turning back the clock to glimpse at the college 110 years ago and the life and times of its famous alum.


Photography of the Free Academy Building. c.1900. Courtesy of C.C.N.Y. archives


Pictures of 23rd street in the era of Upton Sinclair


Wurts Brothers, Photographers- “Manhattan - 5th Avenue,” c. 1905
(NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library)

Wurts Brothers, Photographers- “Manhattan23rd Street – Madison Avenue (South),” c. 1905
(NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library)



Life at the College of the City of New York

The college celebrated 50 years since the founding of the Free Academy in 1897, the year that Upton Sinclair graduated from the College of the City of New York. Its reputation had grown, not only in New York City but across the country, and other American cities tried to emulate the success of the college.

Expansion of the campus was already being planned when an article appeared in The New York Times on October 24, 1894 describing the celebration in honor of President Alexander Stewart Webb's twenty-five years of service to the College of the City of New York. At this event the President of the Board, C.H. Knox "alluded to the cramped quarters in the present building; to the recent unsuccessful attempt to acquire a new home, and promised that he should do all in his power to secure new and sufficient accommodations for the college."

"United to do Honor to Gen. Webb," New York Times, October 24, 1894, p.1,column 4. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)


Students in the 1890s, took an active role in trying to persuade politicians to improve conditions at the College of the City of New York. Upton writes in his Autobiography about his early foray into the political sphere, foreshadowing his later socialist beliefs.

"The crowding in our ramshackle old building had become a scandal, and an effort was under way to persuade the legislature to vote funds for new buildings uptown. No easy matter to persuade politicians to take an interest in anything so remote as higher education! We students were asked to circulate petitions, to be signed by voters; and I, in an access of loyalty to my alma mater, gave my afternoons and Saturdays to the task for a month or two, and went the rounds of department stores and business houses. Not many of the persons invited to sign had ever heard of the matter, but it cost them nothing, and they were willing to take the word of a nice jolly lad that a free college was a good thing. I brought in some six or eight hundred signatures, and got my name in the college paper for my zeal." (p.40)

It was not until 1897 that plans for a new campus really began to be formulated and there was an exhibit of the various plans in the 23rd Street college building. It took ten years until the new campus at St. Nicholas Heights was realized and it was then that more students could finally take advantage of the wonderful education that the College of the City of New York offered.

"College of the City of New York," Print by H.M. Pettit, 1903. (NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library) 

Social Activities on Lexington Avenue

Literary and Debating Societies

Literary and debating societies in American colleges can be traced back to the 1730s. At the Free Academy (later C.C.N.Y), two societies were founded, Clionia in 1851 and Phrenocosmia in 1852. In the early years both societies only held debates among their own members, but by 1859 they began joint debates and this continued until the beginning of World War I.

"College Boys Debate" New York Times, December 24, 1892, p.5. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Sports at the College

When the Free Academy first opened its doors in 1847, college athletics was not an important part of student life. The original academy building had no provisions for sports or exercise. Gramercy Park was used as the open space for outdoor activities, as was the East River which was close by. By the time the Free Academy became the College of the City of New York in 1866, it had formed a baseball and a rowing team. In 1872 a football club was started and a lacrosse team was organized in 1887.

In the 1890s baseball was a popular sport with City College men, and announcements of upcoming games appeared in New York City newspapers.

"City College Baseball Games," New York Times, March 4, 1895, p. 16, col. 3. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Students at the college participated in track as early as 1874. The following article describes the 1893 spring game of the College of the City of New-York Athletic Association.

"Sports at the College," New York Times, May 1, 1893, p.11. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Program cover from "Annual Spring Games of C.C.N.Y. Berkeley Oval, May 3, 1895" Courtesy C.C.N.Y. archives.

The 1890s has been labeled the "Golden Age of the Bicycle" when for the first time men and women had their own personal means of transportation. Cycling clubs were formed all over the country and the League of American Wheelman founded in 1880 by the 1890s had over 100,000 members. The College of the City of New-York had a team of "wheelman" as the following article describes.

"Among the Wheelmen," New York Times, December 22, 1894, p.6. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

During Upton Sinclair's days at the college a football team was formed as illustrated by this 1894 article.

"City College Will Have New Teams," New York Times, September 25,1894, p.3.(Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Upton Sinclair and the City College of New York

Upton Sinclair was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1878 and moved to New York City in 1888. By 1890 the precocious Upton considered himself ready to attend the prestigious College of the City of New York, but being only 12 years old, was forced to wait two more years. In his Autobiography he said:

"It was a combination of high school and college, awarding a bachelor's degree after a five-year course. I passed my entrance examination in the spring of 1892, and I was only thirteen, but my public-school teacher and principal entered me as fourteen. The college work did not begin until September 15, and five days later I would be the required age, so really it was but a wee little lie." (p.23)

In his Autobiography he writes of life at the college during his years as a student. As students today, Upton Sinclair complained about required courses.

"I began Latin, algebra, and solid geometry, physics, drawing, and a course called English, which was the most dreadful ordeal I ever had to endure. We had a list of sentences containing errors, which we were supposed to correct. The course was necessary for most of the class because they were immigrants or the sons of immigrants. For me it was unnecessary, but the wretched teacher was affronted in his dignity, and would set traps for me by calling on me when my mind had wandered." (p.23)

The year Upton began as a student at City College the Board of Trustees debated the merits of the curriculum. On January 29, 1892 the following was resolved:

"That a Special Committee of seven be appointed by the Chairman of this Board to investigate and report as to the course of study pursued in said College, and as to whether such course of study should not be altered and broadened so as to be within the reach of a majority of the students who enter and desire to obtain a degree; also, as to whether the years of the required course should not be reduced to four years instead of five; also as to whether studies of a more practical nature than are now afforded should not be adopted, and the general instruction so shaped that for the present sum annually expended a larger number of students may be educated at said College, and receive a degree therat; and that the course of study be more adapted to the needs of the classes of the people for whom said College was designed; and that the said Committee do make report as to any further change in the course of study or conduct of the College as may be deemed desirable;. . ." (Board of Trustees, January 29, 1892, p.20)

Upton Sinclair recorded in his Autobiography the names of some of his Professors at the college. Charles G. Herbermann was Professor of Latin and in 1874 was appointed as the college librarian. "As a teacher, Herbermann was rather conservative and orthodox, and on the Faculty he was one of the leaders of the classicist faction in all battles over the curriculum." (Rudy, The College of the City of New York: A History, 1847-1947, p.156)

Professor Herbermann. Courtesy C.C.N.Y. archives

Professor George Edward Hardy was a professor of English Language and Literature. Remembering Professor Hardy was Howard C. Green, class of 1902. He wrote that he was "a man beloved and respected by all whose privilege it was to have known him. He had been with us only three years." (Mosenthal, The College of the City of New York: Memories of Sixty Years, p.344)

Professor George Edward Hardy. Courtesy C.C.N.Y. archives

R. Ogden Doremus was Upton Sinclair's Professor of Chemistry and Physics. "He had snowy white mustaches, one arm, and a peppery temper. His assistant was his son, whom he persisted in referring to as Charlie, which amused us, because Charlie was a big man with a flourishing black beard. I managed early in the course to get on the elderly scientist's nerves by my tendency to take the physical phenomena of the universe without due reverence. The old gentleman would explain to us that scientific caution required us to accept nothing on his authority, but to insist upon proving everything for ourselves." (Autobiography, p.23)

Professor Doremus. (Rudy, The College of the City University of New York. A History, 1847-1947, facing p.85)

Living in the City and Going to School

Cable car lines were the mode of transportation between the 1860s and the 1880s on 23rd Street and Broadway, but by 1878 the new Sixth Avenue elevated lines became the way to go.

T.B. Kelley, "Riding on the Elevated Rail Road" Jersey City Heights: Kelly
Brothers, 1879. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885. Library of Congress, Music Division.

John Joseph, "New-York Elevated Railroad Galop for Piano" New York: Published by the author, 1879. Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music, 1870-1885. Library of Congress, Music Division.

When Upton Sinclair began college he lived on West 65th street. By 1892 students attending the City College of New York were dispersed throughout the city and used the new transit system to make their way to 23rd street and Lexington Avenue.

"When the weather was Fair, I rode to college on a bicycle; when the weather was stormy I rode on the Sixth Avenue Elevated and walked across town. I took my lunch in a little tin box with a strap: a couple of sandwiches, a piece of cake, and an apple or banana." (Autobiography, pgs. 24-25)

"Broadway and 6th Avenue looking south from Greeley Square" 1899. (NYPL Digital Gallery, The New York Public Library)

Map showing distribution of student population in 1892. ( R.R.Bowker, The College
of the City of New York 1847-1895, p.14)

Upton Sinclair's Student Activities

Extracurricular activities were an important part of life as a student when Upton Sinclair was enrolled at the College of the City of New York. Sports, literary clubs, religious organizations, debating societies were some of the offerings to the 1890's student. Upton was a contributor to the Phrenocosmian, published by the college literary and debating society.

"In the Chemistry Room" Phrenocosmian, 1896. Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University

"He Knew" Phrenocosmian. [n.d.] Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University

"Ye Olde Tyme Tale ..." Phrenocosmian. [n.d.] Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University

"Love Will Find a Way" Phrenocosmian. [n.d.] Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University.

In addition to literary contributions to the Phrenocosmian, Upton Sinclair also participated in debates. A review of his performance was published in the Phrenocosmian.

Review. Phrenocosmian, 1895. Courtesy of the Lilly library, Indiana University.

Religion was an important part of Upton's life. In his Autobiography he writes: "I became a devout little Episcopalian, and at the age of fourteen went to church every day during Lent. I taught a Sunday-school class for a year." (p.3 1)

At the City College of New York a branch of the Young Men's Christian Association was started during the 1895-96 academic year. The 1897 Microcosm introduced the organization saying: "And what can be more important in the college than an organization for the purpose of training the moral side of man, which of necessity must go uncared for, in an institution such as the City College." (n.p.) In that year Upton was elected the Treasurer of the Association.

Description of the YMCA from the Microcosm 1896. [n.p] Courtesy C.C.N.Y. archives.

Page from the 1897 Microcosm listing Sinclair as an officer. p.101. Courtesy C.C.N.Y. archives.

The Beginnings of Upton Sinclair's Literary Career

Present day Baruch College students often juggle work and school to accomplish their dream of graduating college. Today, the City University of New York charges modest tuition, but in the days of Upton Sinclair, tuition and books were all free at the College of the City of New York. To cover any extra expenses and to help his family he began to write stories, his first accepted by the publication, Argosy for which he earned $25.00!

Our family fortunes happened to be at a low ebb just then, so I fell to digging in this new gold mine. I found several papers that bought children's stories at low prices; also, before long, I discovered another gold mine-writing jokes for the comic papers. At seventeen, jokes were my entire means of support. My mother and I spent that winter on West 23rd Street, near the river. My weekly budget was this: for a top-story hallroom in a lodging-house, one dollar twenty-five; for two meals a day at an eating house, three dollars; and for a clean collar and other luxuries, twenty-five cents. It seems a slender allowance, but you must remember that I had infinite riches in the little room of the college library. (Autobiography, p.32)

Variety of puzzles and jokes from Harper's Young People (1895).i.e. "Why-is Salty" with the answer. Courtesy Lilly Library, Indiana University.

College library from Bowker, "The College of the City of New York" reprint. p. 16. c. 1895

Upton writes in his Autobiography that "My jokes became an obsession.. .I kept my little notebook before me at meals, while walking, while dressing, and in classes if the professor was a bore." (p.35)

Many of Upton's writings as a young man and still enrolled at the College of the City of New York were kept in a scrapbook by his mother, who preserved almost 150 items which included cartoon captions, riddles, stories, and poems.( Gottesman, Upton Sinclair: An Annotated Checklist, p.1-2) We are fortunate to have obtained copies of a few of these rare writings of Upton Sinclair as an adolescent from the archives of Lndiana University.

"Riddle" (n.p., n.d.) Courtesy of the Lilly Library, Indiana University.

"A Mixed Mickron's "SA." Harper's Round Table, n.d. Courtesy of the Lilly Library. Indiana University.

"A Queer Sign" n.p. 1896. Courtesy of the Lilly Library. Indiana University.

"The Fad of Having Fads" n.p. 1896. Courtesy of the Lilly Library. Indiana University.

"Jack's Burglar" n.p. 1896. Courtesy of the Lilly Library. Indiana University.

By the end of the nineteenth century newspapers were being published across the country in every town, village and city. New York City had many popular newspapers and Upton Sinclair is known to have been a contributor to the New York Evening Post, and the New York Evening Journal. However, he also tried his luck across the river in Brooklyn, which at the time was an independent city. It was not until 1898 that Brooklyn became consolidated into Greater New York City.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, published since 1841 was an excellent outlet for his writing. One of his riddles is found in an 1895 issue of the newspaper.

"Riddle" Brooklyn Daily Eagle. September 15, 1895, p. 22. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Upton Sinclair's graduated on June 24, 1897 from the College of the City of New York. He intended to go on to law school but decided first to enroll at Columbia University to study literature and philosophy.

Class of 1897, City College of New York. Courtesy of the City College of New York archives.


Commencement bulletin of the 45th annual commencement of the College of the City of New York, 1897. Courtesy of the City College of New York archives.

List of degrees to be conferred, 1897. Courtesy of the City College of New York archives.

To support himself while a student at Columbia University he began writing for Street and Smith, publishers of pulp fiction and general interest titles. He began his new venture writing for Army and Navy Weekly, "a five-cent publication with bright red and blue and green and yellow covers, which the firm was just starting." (Autobiography, p. 49) He wrote using the pseudonym Lieutenant Frederick Garrison, and his writings were called the Mark Mallory stories. The first of these stories actually appeared 5 days before he graduated from City College, on June 19, 1897!

Cover from Army and Navy: The Monarch of Juvenile Publications, January 8, 1898. Courtesy Brandeis University archives.

Life After the College of the City of New York

His Mark Mallory stories proved very successful and Sinclair was paid forty dollars per story--an acceptable sum at the end of the nineteenth century. He soon was asked to write more stories and this time under the pseudonym Ensign Clarke Fitch he wrote a small novel every week. This led to other offers by other publishers for his writings and his writing career was launched. "Not merely was I earning a living and putting away a little money; I had a sense of fun, and these adventures were a romp." Autobiography,

Upton Sinclair Joins the Ranks of the Muckrakers

By 1900 Upton was ready to write the great American novel, but his success would have to wait. He wrote a trilogy in 1903 titled Manassas about the Civil War which put forth some of his socialist views. It was reviewed favorably but unfortunately it did not sell well. He was now being noticed by the American socialist movement and this eventually led to his investigation of the Chicago meat-packing industry and the resulting novel, The Jungle. The publisher initially was hesitant to publish the book until they had checked on the accuracy of his statements. Doubleday, Page and Company did publish The Jungle in 1906 and Sinclair became an immediate success.

"I had now "arrived." The New York Evening World said, "Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of world-wide celebrity won in a day by a book as has come to Upton Sinclair." (Autobiography, p. 122)

Not all the notoriety was positive. He had many critics and the book was even banned at some libraries across the country.

Upton Sinclair, "Letter to the Editor" New York Times, May 18, 1906, p.8. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

H.E. Henry, "Libraries Withdraw "The Jungle" New York Times, May 20, 1906, p.8. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Upton by this point had joined the ranks of the Muckrakers. They were investigative journalists during the Progressive Era from the 1890s to the 1920s, who exposed the evils of society in both the public and private sectors and pressed for reforms.

He tried practicing his socialist beliefs by founding the Helicon Home Colony at Englewood, New Jersey in 1906. It was short lived and a fire in March of 1907 destroyed the colony. "So, from November I, 1906, to March 7, 1907 (at three o'clock in the morning, to be precise), the young dreamer of Utopia lived according to his dreams." (Autobiography, p. 129)

"Novembernox," Puck, November 7, 1906, p.0-10. (Proquest-APS)

Upton continued writing articles, books and plays until the end of his life, most reflecting the spirit of the muckrakers.

His political aspirations were another important aspect of Sinclair's life. He was a devoted Socialist until 1917 when he resigned from the party until World War I was over, after which he re-joined the party. He moved to California in 19 15 and ran as a Socialist candidate for Congress in 1920 and for the Senate in 1922. He also ran for Governor of California in 1926 and 1930 and by 1934 he had switched his loyalties and ran for Governor of California as a Democratic Party candidate.

"End Poverty In California Upton Sinclair for Governor" California History.net

Hall, Chapin, "Upton Sinclair Out for Governor" in New York Times, April 1, 1934, p. E6. (Proquest Historical Newspapers)

Cover, Upton Sinclair, I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. (1934). (Baruch College Library)

He continued writing and lecturing for the rest of his life. It is reported that in the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle on April 8, 1962 Sinclair wrote: "I didn't like the way I found America some sixty years ago, and I've been trylng to change it ever since. I think I have succeeded in some ways." Upton Sinclair died on November 25, 1968 in Bound Brook, New Jersey leaving a legacy of writings and activism leading to reform legislation that still has an impact on America today.

A Lasting Legacy

The experiences of Upton Sinclair during his years as a student at the College of the City of New York were the seeds out of which his literary genius grew. Although his writings and activities over a lifetime focused on the evils of society and changes did take place, the issues and barriers to enforcement of legislation that were around 100 years ago, are unfortunately still a problem today. In 2006 we celebrated the 100th anniversaries since the publication of The Jungle, which led to the passing of federal food safety laws. How far have we come when we consider the recent spinach poisonings and other food and drug related incidents? Baruch College should take pride in having Upton Sinclair as one of its distinguished alumni, and remember that his intellectual and social growth all began here on 23rd Street.


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