Phi Kappa Sigma was founded by Samuel Brown Wylie Mitchell (pictured right) at the University of Pennsylvania on August 16, 1850.
Fascinated by the prospect of fraternal relations with his fellowman, Mitchell set out to found a new, secret order in the restricted life of the university at that time. His papers indicate that on August 16, 1850, he had determined to install a new order on the campus in the fall of 1850.
Between August 16 and October 19, 1850, Mitchell sought six other men to constitute the Alpha Chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma. The formal organization of Alpha Chapter occurred at the home of James Bayard Hodge on October 19, 1850.
While the official founding date of the Fraternity is August 16, 1850, Phi Kappa Sigma began celebrating “Founder’s Day” on October 19 as a commemoration of the establishment of Alpha Chapter.
Mitchell, born August 16, 1828, attained a high level of achievement at the University, including earning B.A., M.A., and M.D. degrees. He spent a year as an assistant physician at Philadelphia Hospital and was responsible for supervising the Fraternity’s growth at the early chapters of Phi Kappa Sigma. Dr. Mitchell practiced medicine until he was commissioned on April 11, 1861, to be a Major and Surgeon in the Union Army with the Eighteenth Pennsylvania U.S. Volunteers. He served with distinction until the expiration of his service on January 24, 1865. In March of the same year, Mitchell was made Lieutenant-Colonel U.S.V. for “gallant and meritorious service.”
Dr. Mitchell was also an outstanding member of the Masons, and an active participant in the professional, social, cultural, and civic life of Philadelphia. James Chamberlain (likely the first pledge of the Alpha Chapter) wrote in 1850, “I remember with profound satisfaction and pleasure the kindly and genial appearance of our founder. A nobler man in ideas, sentiments, and character has rarely lived.”
In the autumn of 1849, when Samuel Brown Wylie Mitchell matriculated in the sophomore class of the University directly after his graduation from Central High School in Philadelphia, the Delta Phi Fraternity established a chapter at the University of Pennsylvania. During the summer of 1850, a chapter of the Zeta Psi Fraternity established itself on campus. It is probable that the institution of chapters by these two social fraternities inspired Mitchell to formulate in his own mind the ideals of a society that would emphasize good fellowship, pursuit of scholarly activities, and qualities of being a gentleman, all combined into a lifelong bond.
The idea of establishing the Fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania was first recorded in Dr. Mitchell’s personal papers on August 16, 1850, which was also his twenty-second birthday. The date of his birthday, as well as that of the Fraternity, was destined to have a further significance when Dr. Mitchell died on August 16, 1879. When college opened for the fall term of 1850, Samuel B. W. Mitchell had developed the basic principles of the Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity. These included the Constitution and Ritual, the order’s name, and the design of the badge – a Maltese cross supporting the six-pointed star, the letters Phi, Kappa, and Sigma, and the Skull and Bones. No modification, except in size, has ever been made to the badge originally designed by Dr. Mitchell.
As soon as the school opened for the fall session, Mitchell communicated his ideas to Charles Hare Hutchinson. Hutchinson was impressed with Mitchell’s ideas and explained them to Alfred Victor du Pont, John Thorne Stone, Andrew Adams Ripka, James Bayard Hodge, and Duane Williams. It was these seven men, with Mitchell serving as their leader, who organized Alpha Chapter and officially founded Phi Kappa Sigma on the 19th of October 1850.
Fraternities were not welcomed by faculty and administrators at many universities prior to the American Civil War. To that point, many chapters were forced to exist sub-rosa or become extinct. Along with other fraternities, Phi Kappa Sigma was banned from the University of Pennsylvania campus in 1852. Dr. Mitchell was called before the Board of Trustees and asked “Why do you wear that ‘Piratical’ ensign?” His answer was not recorded, but he must have been convincing since the fraternity was allowed to maintain a sub-rosa existence with headquarters in Mitchell’s rooms at the Philadelphia Hospital, where he later served as Assistant Physician.
While the fraternity operated at the clandestine level, Dr. Mitchell and his fellow brothers established chapters at more receptive institutions. Princeton and Lafayette were added in 1853, and Jefferson (now Washington & Jefferson), Dickinson, Franklin and Marshall, and the University of Virginia were added in 1854. In the mid-1850s, the University of Pennsylvania rescinded its ban on fraternities and in January, 1855, Phi Kappa Sigma was officially recognized by the school. Meetings of the Chapter were held in rented chapter rooms, without dormitory or dining facilities, in various sections of downtown Philadelphia until 1896, when a house was purchased adjacent to the university campus in West Philadelphia.
According to the first constitution, only Alpha Chapter was authorized to issue charters to new chapters; however, at the First Phi Kappa Sigma Convention of 1856, the constitution was amended to require the unanimous approval of all existing chapters in order to establish a new chapter. Unfortunately, the development of the abolition movement in the North and the arguments over secession in the South made it impossible for the Fraternity to grant charters to many fine groups located in colleges in the North and particularly in New England. This fact retarded the growth and development of the Fraternity above the Mason-Dixon Line.
At one point, Theta Chapter at Centenary College circulated a petition among southern chapters asking for an amendment to the constitution that would make the Fraternity “an organization for white men, and for white men only.” It was further requested that the attitude of the northern brothers on the slavery question be ascertained and all chapters be informed. Mu Chapter, at the old University of Louisiana, presented the problem before the Convention of 1860. After three days of intense debate, the chapters of the Fraternity unanimously voted that no discriminatory clauses should be included in the constitution of the Fraternity. This policy from 1860 has never been modified in any way.
In the 1850s, the southern chapters of the Fraternity inaugurated the custom of wearing silver skulls on their badges and thus were known as the “Silver Skulls.” Iota Chapter at Columbia University adopted a smaller badge in 1861 than had been worn previously by the membership of any chapter. They also copied the southern custom of utilizing the silver skull. The silver skull on the badge was never reinstituted by any chapter after the Civil War and is now a legend of the Fraternity.
There were fifteen chapters of the Fraternity at the outbreak of the Civil War. The conflict would ultimately destroy all eight southern chapters and seriously weaken the others. All active members of Alpha Chapter enlisted, and the affairs of the Fraternity were handed over to two young alumni, Robert H. McGrath and Edmund Cash Pechin. They maintained correspondence with all chapters in the North and with individual Phi Kaps in the South.
Through letters from southern members, they learned that wearers of “Silver Skulls” had been captured by Union forces at Gettysburg and assigned to prison camps at Fort Delaware and Johnson’s Island. They secured donations of clothing, and over $100 in currency to forward to these destitute brothers.
Months afterward, Edmund Cash Pechin received a note through the mail from Anthony Sambola, a leader among Phi Kaps in the South, stating that the fraternal action of the brothers in Philadelphia was known throughout the southern armies and requesting the names of northern brothers in southern prisons so that they might reciprocate. This note, which is now in the archives of the Fraternity, was written on common brown wrapping paper. It is symbolic today of the economic conditions in the South at that time as well as the fraternal spirit of those engaged in the conflict between the states.
Several unofficial alumni groups were established prior to and during the Civil War. The most noteworthy of these were the Vagabond Club in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the Orphan Club in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Sub-Epsilon Chapter in Cumberland, Maryland. The Sub-Epsilon Chapter was created to provide an opportunity for brothers wearing the blue and the gray to mingle socially within the bonds of the fraternity. The records of this early alumni group relate how Confederate Phi Kaps were cleared through the early Union lines in order that they could dine and dance with their northern “enemy” brothers at the St . Nicholas Hotel in Cumberland.
After the war, Eta Chapter was revived at the University of Virginia in 1872, Lambda Chapter at the University of North Carolina in 1877, and Mu Chapter at Tulane University in 1893. Additionally, the Fraternity instituted chapters at Randolph Macon College in 1872 and at the University of Richmond in 1873. Upsilon Chapter was established at Northwestern in 1872 and provided a base for further expansion into the Midwest. Phi Kappa Sigma became an international fraternity with the founding of Alpha Beta Chapter at the University of Toronto in 1895. The first west coast chapter was established at the University of California at Berkeley in 1903.
The fraternity’s expansion policy between 1860 and 1890 was relatively conservative and focused on the east coast. With the establishment of Psi Chapter at Pennsylvania State University in 1890, and Rho Chapter at the University of Illinois in 1892, a comprehensive, yet modest, expansion policy was enacted. During the following quarter century, chapters were developed at various outstanding institutions from coast to coast.
First Alumni Chapter
The first regularly constituted alumni chapter was organized in New York in 1869. Since then, others have been established in large cities throughout the United States and Canada. Though they do not have the authority to initiate new members, their elected delegates have limited voting privileges on certain matters of national policy at Fraternity conventions. The Hershey, Pennsylvania, Convention of 1936 simplified the method of organizing these chapters, and, as a result, groups of at least ten alumni are now encouraged to form alumni chapters.
Conventions of delegates were called by Alpha Chapter until 1858. No permanent executive body existed during the interim between the annual or biennial meetings, so the officers of Alpha Chapter served as the officers of the fraternity. At the convention of 1858, the Supreme Consistory and the High Arch Tribunal were established to provide legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government. These in turn were supplanted by the Grand Chapter and the Executive Board in 1869. It is noteworthy that Phi Kappa Sigma was the first fraternity to organize a grand chapter system and establish a democratic government based on chapter representation.
First Official Publication
The first official publication of the fraternity was the Phi Kappa Sigma Magazine, issued by Alpha Chapter in 1857. It was edited by Pechin and featured chapter reports, news of general fraternity interest, and special features for alumni. In 1872, the General Register, a general listing of Fraternity members by chapter, was published. It was printed every ten years until 1940, presumably when cutbacks due to world War II caused its cessation. It served as a predecessor to the present Alumni Directory that is currently printed approximately every five years.
In 1891, The Phi Kappa Sigma Quarterly, the successor to the Magazine, was put into circulation. The fraternity-wide publication was the first regularly published composition of the fraternity and was later succeeded by the semi-annual Phi Kappa Sigma Newsletter in 1901. Then, in 1993 the Phi Kappa Sigma Newsletter was changed to the Maltese Cross of Phi Kappa Sigma. In addition to the Maltese Cross, most chapters issue publications for their alumni.
The turn of the century was a period of growth and reorganization for the Fraternity. Under the leadership of Grand Alpha James Hartley Merrick, the Chapter Advisor system was adopted, making Phi Kappa Sigma one of the first fraternities to utilize such a program. Also during this time was a period of rapid growth and expansion. In fact, this was fastest the Fraternity had grown thus far in its history, with 30 active chapters operating by 1906.
Merrick’s determination and leadership strengthened the Fraternity and placed it in a position of prominence within the world of social fraternities. To support the financial burden of the Fraternity, the Phi Kappa Sigma Endowment Fund was established in 1907. In addition to the endowment fund, a general headquarters was opened in Philadelphia, after being approved proposed and approved at the convention of 1915. It was there where daily business was conducted under the supervision of a professional staff rather than active members of Alpha Chapter.
The World Wars
The United States’s entrance into World War I curbed the growth of most fraternities, including Phi Kappa Sigma. More than 1,400 members were in the armed services during the war; remarkably, the Fraternity was able to operate during this period. Chapters were allowed to initiate men, but social functions were severely restricted.
The years between the two world wars were quiet for the Fraternity, but the outbreak of World War II once again threatened the future of Phi Kappa Sigma. In 1942, the first complete year of American involvement in the war, the Fraternity set two records: 623 initiates and over 1,000 undergraduate members. Unfortunately, these numbers were drastically reduced in the first six months of 1943. During World War II, over 2,500 Phi Kaps entered military service, and nearly half of Phi Kappa Sigma’s forty chapters closed.
Grand Alpha Murray H. Spahr instituted a Maintenance and Rehabilitation Fund to compensate for the decrease in the number of men who returned to the active chapters after the war. The Fund helped to ease the financial burden for active chapters that were still open until they got back on their feet. Of the chapters closed during World War II, all except those at the University of Chicago and the University of Minnesota were reactivated.
The Phi Kaps who fought for their country were awarded many decorations ranging from the Purple Heart to the Congressional Medal of Honor for Distinguished Service. However, the war did not pass without leaving its scars on our Fraternity. Over 200 Phi Kaps gave their lives in service to their country. The first half of the twentieth century, although twice interrupted, witnessed several major administrative changes in Phi Kappa Sigma. The Convention of 1927 provided that an Executive Secretary be appointed as a representative of the Executive Board to administer the General Headquarters of the Fraternity and to promote and develop close relationships between the chapters and Headquarters. However, it was not until 1947 that the first full-time Executive Secretary, later designated Executive Director, was appointed. His major responsibilities were the supervision of all fraternity affairs, chapter visitation, alumni affairs, and fund-raising. The Field Secretary position, which later became t he Assistant Director position, was established in 1948 in order to provide a closer tie to the undergraduate chapter and conduct chapter visits.
In order to bolster the scholastic endeavors of the Fraternity, the Phi Kappa Sigma Educational Fund was created in 1953. Its income, which is generated through alumni donations and appreciation, supports numerous scholarships for undergraduate members.
After the close of World War II, Phi Kappa Sigma began to grow again. In 1948, the Beta designations for new chapters started with the installation of the Beta Alpha chapter at the University of Oregon. In 1950, the fraternity held its Centennial Convention in Philadelphia. More than 300 brothers attended, revising the Constitution, visiting the International Headquarters Building and Memorial library, and celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Fraternity. The 1950’s were banner years for Phi Kappa Sigma as well as many other fraternities. Fraternity membership in North America reached an all-time high and this positive growth continued into the early 1960’s. The middle and late 1960’s however, brought student opposition to the Vietnam War and the “anti-establishment” movement. Fraternities were seen as part of the “establishment” and thus came under fire from students. These student attitudes continued into the early 1970’s and caused a marked decrease in fraternity enrollments and initiations. After the end of the Vietnam War and the quieting of student unrest, Phi Kappa Sigma and other fraternities ran into many member and chapter issues such as alcohol and behavioral problems which translated into today’s risk management issues and the need for liability insurance.
A study of fraternities began in the early 1980’s which helped to bring into focus certain common and detrimental practices. Students responded to the new decade by modifying their behavior and resolving to strengthen their fraternities. At the 81st Grand Chapter, the Fraternity’s organizational structure was extensively modified to accommodate current demands and services. The Executive Board, while retaining authority for the operation of the Fraternity, was restructured. The Grand Delta position was created to improve communication between the Fraternity and undergraduate chapters. In 1982, the Phi Kappa Sigma Foundation was created to promote scholarship and leadership programming for the undergraduate members of the Fraternity. The Foundation manages the Annual Alumni Giving Program and Baltzer Graduate Scholarship programs. Funds donated to the Annual Giving Program are used for numerous programs including the Regional Leadership Conferences, educational programs and videotapes. The Baltzer Graduate Scholarship Program, which was made possible through a generous bequest, provides grants to graduate students who give advisory assistance to undergraduate Phi Kap chapters (2007 Note: The Baltzer Program is currently discontinued but is under review for possible renewal).
With the development of a more positive atmosphere on college campuses, the Fraternity began to emphasize expansion. Phi Kappa Sigma became a stronger institution, both locally and internationally. Expansion proceeded at a steady pace and the number of the Fraternity’s international programs increased. The 1980’s were strong years for Phi Kappa Sigma and they helped to set the tone for the Fraternity into the 1990’s and beyond.
In recent years, the Fraternity has continued to meet the challenges of the fraternal environment. Procedures for chapter expansion, both undergraduate and alumni, have been modified with the commitment toward continued growth while maintaining strength and continuity. The Director of Chapter Services position was created in 1990 to supervise the Assistant Directors, coordinate chapter visitation and provide better assistance and services to the chapters. This enhancement to the Fraternity’s internal structure, combined with the reorganization of the management team of alumni volunteers, helped to increase the number of visits and services offered to the undergraduate chapters.
Brotherhood, quality, and commitment are the fibers that comprise a strong International Fraternity. With over one-hundred fifty years of experience, Phi Kappa Sigma Fraternity continues to produce loyal and outstanding members and remains capable of meeting every challenge that the future may hold.