By Nancy Spitler & Tara Wood —— Photography by Ashley Jones & Josh Wilson

Ten things you might not expect to find in Special Collections

On the bottom floor of the Strom Thurmond Institute, somewhat tucked away in the back, is a veritable treasure trove of papers and physical objects that, taken together, tells the story of Clemson. Special Collections — the archives of the University — houses items that are cataloged and preserved by dedicated staff members, archivists and librarians, who then make them available for research by academics and journalists.

And to satisfy the curiosity of the rest of us as well.

It’s not a small job. There are more than 7,000 artifacts and more than 21,000 boxes encompassing millions of individual items carefully stored away on shelves and in cartons at Special Collections, as well at the offsite Library Depot. There are those items you would expect to find: rat caps that were required of freshmen in earlier years, uniforms for generations of  Tiger Band members, minutes from trustee meetings throughout the decades, photographs that range from solemn class pictures of the early 1900s to the streaking fad of the 1970s.

But beyond the expected, there are items that strain the imagination and often provide some unexpected humor. They sometimes offer a window into life at Clemson during very different times, as well as a glimpse into the lives of many whose collections have been donated to the University.

With the help of Tara Wood, instruction and outreach archivist and lecturer in the Department of History and Geography, we narrowed our list down to the top 10 items you might not expect to find in Clemson University’s Special Collections and Archives.


This is not just a sword. A gift from His Royal Highness Amir Saud, crown prince of Saudi Arabia, the 16th-century sword was presented to U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes in 1947 during Saud’s visit to the United States.

Byrnes served as a trustee of Clemson from 1941 until his death in 1972. He received an honorary doctor of textile industries degree in 1951. In 1960, the Board of Trustees requested that Byrnes donate his papers and memorabilia for preservation and for use by scholars.

The James Francis Byrnes Collection, sword received by Byrnes in 1947 (Mss-0090), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.


Sen. Strom Thurmond, Class of 1923, received this hand-painted coconut from an individual representing the Tavernier Towne Welcome Center in November 1987. The coconut’s surface shows a fishing scene and represents the importance of the coral reef off the coast of the Florida Keys. The coconut measures approximately 8.5 by 6 inches. Thurmond received a tremendous amount of correspondence, gifts and more from his constituents and others seeking his assistance over the course of his 70-plus years of public life. The coconut is one of the more unusual items he received. A great deal of state, local and national history can be studied through an examination of the senator’s collection.

The Strom Thurmond Collection, 1987 (Mss-0100), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.


The predominantly African American state convict crew who cleared the land and built the first buildings at Clemson College molded more than a million bricks to construct those early buildings. This brick is from Tillman Hall (originally named Old Main when it was built). The brick, measured at 3 by 3.5 by 7 inches, shows the handprint marks of its maker, most likely a convict laborer. Special Collections and Archives has many bricks in its collections, primarily to preserve the buildings’ history but also in case of the need to recreate or match brick.

Mary Katherine Littlejohn Collection (Acc. #1993-061), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, c. 1892.


It may seem somewhat macabre today, but giving, collecting and receiving locks of hair from friends and admirers as a keepsake was a common practice in the 19th century. Often, the hair of famous people saw high demand for collecting as well. This lock of John C. Calhoun’s hair came from a collection of heirlooms from the James H. Hammond family.

Mss. 200 John C. Calhoun Collection, accession #89-224.1


This rocket-propelled grenade launcher was presented to Sen. Strom Thurmond by the 352nd Civil Affairs Command Operation Desert Storm Task Force Freedom, Kuwait City, Kuwait, on March 16, 1991. Thurmond sat on the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee and was a veteran himself. Mounted on a wooden plaque, the RPGL has been rendered unusable.

The Strom Thurmond Collection, artifact (Mss-0100), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.


Political dirty tricks are nothing new. These are seemingly legitimate voting tickets from 1872 and 1876, unless you’re familiar with the candidates, in which case you’ll realize that the candidates listed on the “Republican” ticket are Democrats and vice versa. Tickets of this type were often given to illiterate voters before voting to ensure they voted a straight-party ticket. These tickets are a kind of hoax used to deceive the unwitting into voting for the opposing party.

Fraudulent Voting Tickets (Mss-0036), 1872-1876, Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

7 | ARA Service Menu Cards (1960s to 1970s) 

These menu cards, created by the ARA Service company, provided dining service workers with the ingredients, methods and even the numbers of servings needed at different times during the day. Dining staff could see at a glance how much of each ingredient was needed and the cooking methods used. The cards detail what students, faculty and staff would have been eating at any given time during the school year at Clemson, providing insight into the typical local and regional foods that were served in the dining halls. 

Menu cards, Dining Services (Series-313), boxes 1-3, 1961-1975, Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

8 | Girls’ Cowbell & Rat Hat

Under Clemson’s military system, freshmen traditionally were called “rats.” They wore their hair shaved short and participated in a variety of activities related to school spirit and serving upperclassmen.

Once the military system ended in 1955, male rats still had to wear their orange rat caps. But now that women attended, they too had to mark their freshman status by wearing the cap. Later, female students would wear purple and orange ribbons instead of the cap. 

Though most of the Clemson community knows about the rat cap, many do not know about the “cowbell.” While not much is clear about how long women received and wore the small bell, the legend has it that female students in their first semester or two wore the bell so that male students would know a woman was approaching and to clean up their language.

Cowbell (Acc. 2022-10-17) gift, and Rat Cap, Clemson University memorabilia (acc. #2011-90.1), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

9 | Student Regulations (Rules for Women) 1964-1965

Women were admitted as undergraduates at Clemson beginning in the spring of 1955. By the time this pamphlet was published, women had been on campus for a decade. As one might expect, the 17 pages of rules applied to all students — however, an additional seven pages of rules applied only to women. Women had rules for “men callers” as well as their use of telephones (they had to “be courteous when using the telephone”). No “extremely short, tight, or low-cut dresses,” and above all, “a Clemson women is expected to conduct herself as a lady at all times.” Women could not appear “barefooted in public areas of the dormitory.” Male students had no similar regulation. These regulations would end by the mid-1970s.

“Student Regulations,” Office of Dean of Student Affairs, 1964-1965 (Series-0037), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

10 | mess hall water pitcher

This water pitcher is one of many used in the Mess (or “Chow”) Hall on the lower level of First Barracks at Clemson College. The food service provided these pitchers, placing them on each table of the Mess Hall. Students had to take turns bringing the pitcher to a water faucet and filling the pitcher, then returning it to the table so all students at the table could have water. The pitcher is made of stainless steel, making it durable and fairly heavy — once filled with water, the pitcher would require some muscle and a careful eye to avoid spilling or dropping it.

Metal water pitcher (stainless steel), Food Service T&E, Clemson College, donated by Herman Long Smith, (accession #09-10), Clemson University Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives.

You can learn about interesting tidbits, stories and history in an upcoming Special Collections podcast, “Tigers in the Archives,” hosted by Tara Wood. “Tigers in the Archives” brings to life the culture and history of Clemson University with the help of our partners — scholars, students, alumni and the wider Clemson community — by exploring fascinating, sometimes unusual, and even downright strange archival materials

 “Tigers in the Archives” can be found wherever you get your podcasts.

Special Collections is open to visitors daily from 9-noon and 1-4:30 p.m. To schedule a visit, please email or call 864-656-5176

Editor’s note: You might not be aware that Special Collections continues to receive items from alumni and friends documenting the history of the University and its people in a myriad of ways. If you have items that you would be willing to donate, please contact the archives at attention: Tara Wood. 

Tara Wood is the instruction and outreach archivist in Special Collections and Archives as well as a lecturer in the Department of History and Geography.

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  1. excellent. When were rat caps no longer required by freshmen

  2. Very nice write-up. I definitely love this website.
    Keep it up!

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