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Our Rag Rags in Context

Grant Collier reflects on the context of our collection of Rag Rag magazines, now a digital collection

What are the ‘Rags’?

The Rags, also known as ‘Rag Week’, were a traditional week of student events that took place annually around Shrove Tuesday. Although they were initially simply a carnival of student misbehaviour, after the First World War universities such as Manchester and Glasgow began to use the event to raise money for charitable causes, and the initials ‘RAG’ came to be associated with the act of ‘Raising and Giving’. The Rags often involved a parade, fancy dress and other events aimed at raising money.

A Rag event in the Old Quad, c.1950

Rag weeks were controversial in the early twentieth century, with Rags at more elite universities such as Oxford, Cambridge and London regularly attracting media scrutiny for destruction of property and antisocial behaviour. As carnivalesque events the Rags also broke taboos and upended social norms, with cross-dressing amongst male students common. As they were associated with drunkenness and sexual activity, female students’ participation in the Rags was more heavily scrutinised and regulated. Today’s Rags are far less controversial affairs, and are popular charity events at many universities across the UK.

What were the ‘Rag Rags’?

The Rag Rags were cheap magazines sold by students to members of the public during Rag Week. They were written by a ‘Rag Committee’ made up of students and were published by the University’s Student Union. The Rag Rags were sold to raise funds for charities such as the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital and other, mainly medical, charities. Contributions were initially anonymous, but the Rags began to include details of the editors and other contributors after the 1940s. They contained jokes, advertisements, stories and cartoons, and frequently contained material that was irreverent or offensive. The first issue of the Rag Rags was released in 1924, and the last issue was published in 2003.

Cartoon from the 1965 Rag Rag showing the Rag parade

As with any printed material, the contents of the Rag Rags were shaped by their creators. The students who produced the Rag Rags were not representative of wider British society. When the Rag Rags began in 1924, only a small percentage of people went to university, mostly men from a relatively narrow middle class background. Of these, wealthier students who could afford to stay in halls of residence were more active in societies than their peers from working class or lower middle class backgrounds, who often stayed at home and commuted to campus. Although they were aimed at the student body generally, therefore, the style and content of the Rag Rags is more likely to reflect a specific group.

Why are the Rag Rags controversial?

The Rag Rags’ attempts at humour often centred on negative or demeaning representations of those considered ‘other’ by the authors and artists as a result of their nationality, race, class, gender, sexuality or abilities. This is particularly clear today in the way the Rag Rags presented people from other parts of the world and different cultures, women and the working classes. Much of the language and content has the potential to cause distress for those targeted by the material.

The Rag Rags include the following:

  • Offensive depictions and language for people of various African and Asian heritage
  • Images and narratives of women in sexualised or submissive roles
  • Derogatory colloquialisms for non-heterosexual sexual orientations or identities
  • Outdated and demeaning terms for disabled people
  • Insensitive jokes about birth defects

The use of comedy in the Rag Rags and their anonymised authorship can make them difficult historical documents to interpret and understand. The Rag Rags were, by their own definition, meant to contain throw-away cheap jokes and stories and were not meant to be retained and displayed. In some cases, the material is clearly ‘punching down’; privileged students making fun of others who they consider to be strange or inferior. In others, they are making fun of the offensive attitudes expressed. It can often be unclear whether the authors or artists are speaking ironically.

Cover of the 1941 Rag Rag, referencing wartime bombing and the Auxiliary Fire Service

Although the Rag Rags did not explicitly present a specific political viewpoint, trends in attitudes to empire, migration and sexuality can be seen in the magazines’ content. Whilst racialized portrayals of people of various African and Asian heritage can be found throughout, parodies of imperial adventure stories with orientalist tropes and stereotypes of foreign cultures are particularly common in the Rags of the 1920s and 30s. Later, as migration from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian Subcontinent increased following the Second World War, mockery of black sportsmen and ‘tribesmen’ highlights the persistence of racist attitudes. In addition, the Rags’ ‘pin-up’ style contents were clearly designed to appeal mainly to straight white males and, as female enrolment at the university increased in the 1950s and 60s, sexualised images of women become even more common. Simultaneously, as women gained greater sexual autonomy and became more active in university life, their representation in the pages of the Rags began to change, coinciding with a broader cultural shift in the way in which female students were seen by their male counterparts – from over-educated and ‘unsexed’ to more sexually active and desirable.

Why are we showcasing the Rag Rags?

The Rag Rags will be of great interest to social and cultural historians, particularly those studying student life, consumer culture, gender, race and class. The magazines cover a significant portion of the twentieth century, and provide insights into how major historical changes were interpreted by students through the lens of comedy. For example, some of the Rags reference the rise of fascism or the onset of economic depression. Others comment on post-war reconstruction or the introduction of the female contraceptive pill. Each Rag provides a snapshot of students’ attitudes and humour at different points in time. Together, they demonstrate how views and attitudes persisted or changed throughout the twentieth century.

Manchester students protesting during the Suez Crisis, 1956

The offensive nature of some content in the Rag Rags is inseparable from their value as historical documents. It serves as a record of the ideological and cultural perspectives of a particular, homogenous group of privileged young men and the broader society in which they lived. Whereas evidence of anti-racist student movements presents a progressive narrative about universities and their place in British history, the Rag Rags offer a less positive but equally important picture of student life in the twentieth century. The prevalence of racist, sexist and ableist content in the Rag Rags demonstrates how these attitudes were embedded in universities and wider society. As a diverse and inclusive institution, we believe it is our duty to acknowledge and critically reflect on all aspects of our history and heritage. Digitising the Rag Rags via Manchester Digital Collections will allow researchers, teachers and students to study these often-hidden aspects of university history.

You can find the digitised collection of Rag Rags here.

Special thanks to Dr Kerry Pimblott and Dr Emily Rutherford for their comments and contributions to this blog post.

Further Reading:

The Rag week remains a popular fundraising event for Manchester students

For more on cross-dressing during Rag Week

A report on the Manchester rag celebrations from 1962

Evidence of anti-racist student movements

More on Medium:

How colonialism affects Special Collections in libraries

Further reading on colonialism and decolonisation in our Special Collections

Related Collections:

The Bishopsgate Institute holds collections on popular protest, including anti-racist protests

The People’s History Museum holds an extensive collection of anti-racist trade union movements

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