Blue Bottles: A Tradition



Dan Moriarty leads the singing of Blue Bottles.

Last Monday, we celebrated Groton’s 131st birthday at sit down dinner. After a meal of mashed potatoes and steak, the Dining Hall was slowly filled as students from the Webb Marshall Room filed in around the tables in anticipation of the famous “Blue Bottles.” The sixth form then stood up in the front of the room and called out, “We want blue bottles!” While the rest of us munched happily on our ice cream cakes, the fifth formers faced opposite them and sang the celebrated tune (starting at 131, the age of the school this year), as directed by a knife-wielding Mr. Moriarty. The tradition has an unclear background, and there is lots of speculation regarding the origination of the song.

“Blue Bottles” is tradition that has been upheld since 1899, when there were only fifteen blue bottles hangin’ on the wall to symbolize the age of the school. It would not have made a lot of sense for it to start in 1884, for there would only have been one blue bottle hangin’ on the wall. After dinner, fac- ulty member Sherrard Billings picked up the carving knife that he had used to carve the meat. It used to be customary to have each form sit at their own table. As Mr. Billings was sitting at the fifth form table, he gathered the fifth formers and directed them through “Blue Bottles,” theatrically waving his knife. Billings conducted the song until 1932, when Frederick De Veau, class of 1914, took over. It has now become typical for a graduate of the school to lead the fifth form in the song. Last year, graduate Mr. Bannard ’01 conducted. He was unable to conduct this year due to outside commitments.

“When I got here in 1953, a guy named Charlie Rimmer (Tim Hoopes’ grandfather) was conducting after De Veau retired,” said Doug Brown, graduate of ’57 and shop teacher. “Bob Parker took over from seventy-four to seventy-nine, and it was at that point that they asked me to do it. I know I did it for the 100th anniversary and a few years after it.”

The School’s birthday used to be celebrated in the reading room, where the Dining Hall was originally. “John Brown’s Body” would be sung during a candle-lit procession through the halls of the old Dining Hall. After the dinner, they would sing “Blue Bottles.” However, when the Dining Hall moved to where it is now, there were no more hallways to wind through and “John Brown’s Body” was discontinued and only “Blue Bottles” remained.

Just like the school hymn, “Blue Bottles” was a Civil War tune. The Civil War was still a fairly recent event in 1899, when the rendition of the song began. The song was part of the Ozark’s folk song book during the Civil War. Whereas the school hymn adapted the lyrics from the original song on which it is modeled, the lyrics of “Blue Bottles” remains untouched. There is lots of deliberation concerning the real significance of the words. Many are convinced the bottles reference alcohol, and that “blue” is a replacement for “beer.” However, according to Mr. Brown, “The words are not changed. They are simply blue bottles.” The true meaning behind the song still remains a mystery.

Despite the changed Form tables and new location of the Dining Hall, the School’s birthday, in its foundation, remains the same.