Vassar Myths & Legends

Jane Fonda Rides Motorcycle Through Main Building

Rumor has it that when Jane Fonda was a student at Vassar, she arrived to tea one day improperly dressed. She was sent to her room and told to come back wearing the requisite gloves and pearls. When Ms. Fonda reappeared, she was wearing only the aforementioned gloves and pearls. Other versions of the tale include Ms. Fonda riding a motorcycle through the halls of Main Building in this outfit as revenge. Alas, this story has no basis in reality.

Matthew Vassar Builds Main for Beer Storage

Admissions tour guides like to suggest that the reason that Matthew Vassar ordered such a large building to be built for his college (for six months the largest building in the U.S.) was his fear of the college failing--in which case, he planned to use Main as a back-up storage depot for his extra kegs of beer. Vassar, however, already had a very large brewery located on the Hudson, and the campus was located too far from the river to be convenient for storage. The real reason that Main was built so large and with such wide hallways was so that the girls could exercise inside during inclement weather in their hoopskirts. The circuit around the building is 1/12 mile long.

Edna St. Vincent Millay Attempts Dramatic Suicide from Jewett Roof

The story goes that the famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay attempted to throw herself to her death from an upper floor of her dormitory, Jewett House (then called North), but landed in a tree which broke her fall. While Millay did tend toward histrionics and tended to get into more trouble in her four years here than anyone before (and few after) her, there is no evidence that she attempted to commit suicide in this manner. This story probably grew out of her poem, "The Suicide."

Vassar Student Invents Fudge

A Vassar student from the 1890s with a sweet tooth is rumored to have invented this chocolatey confection. The Office of Media Relations says this is a fable, while Historian Elizabeth Daniels avers it is the truth. The real truth probably lies in between these two answers--Emelyn Battersby Hartridge '92 made fudge for the senior class auction, but attributed the recipe to a classmate's cousin. Still, her letter discussing the auction is the first instance of documentation for the existence of this sweet treat.

Squirrels are the Ghosts of English Majors

Legends say that the slightly deranged squirrels living on campus are the returned souls of English majors who couldn't find jobs after graduation. College psychics are hard at work to determine the veracity of this story.

Vassar Is an All-Girls' College

Not since the fall of 1969, when Vassar opened her doors to men. A group of veterans were educated at Vassar after WWII on the GI Bill.

Vassar Was the First Women's College in the United States

Yes and no. Mt. Holyoke Seminary and Elmira College opened their doors before Vassar, but Vassar was accredited as a college first.

Vassar Cheats Guinness

For many years, Vassar College was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records for the London Plane tree on the library lawn, which sported the longest unsupported branch in the world. The record was held until one year when the Guinness representative showed up early, and noticed that the college had failed to remove the wire support attaching the branch to the tree trunk, as they had done in previous years. This legend is unconfirmed.

School Colors Changed at Request of New Male Students

In the early seventies, around the time that men were first admitted to the college, Vassar changed its school colors from "the rose light of the dawn of women's education breaking through the grey of former years" to a darker maroon and grey. The story goes that a group of male athletes, feeling too effeminate wearing pink athletic gear, circulated a petition to change the color, and the administration caved. Colton Johnson, Dean of Studies at the time of the switch, maintains that the colors were changed because of budget cuts; ordering custom-made pink uniforms was much more costly than the readily-available maroon, and so the school made the switch.

Related Articles: Coeducation

Beastie Boy Throws Keg, Gets Expelled

Unconfirmed rumor has it that Beastie Boy Mike D. had been attending Vassar for six months when he threw a keg from the ninth floor of Jewett and was subsequently expelled.

Ex-President Goes on to Sell Peanut Butter

In a conversation about the school's disgraced first president, most Vassar trivia buffs will note that after his departure from the college, Milo P. Jewett went on to become a peanut butter salesman. The truth is that Jewett moved to Milwaukee and co-founded Jewett & Sherman, a coffee and spice wholesaler. In the 1920s, decades after the ex-president's death, the firm (later called Holsum Foods) invented chunky peanut butter.

Related Articles: Milo P. Jewett

Founder Dies Mid-Speech

Matthew Vassar, age 76, was nearly finished with his speech announcing his retirement to the Board of Trustees on June 23, 1868, when he clutched his chest, fell back in his chair, and perished. After a suitable adjournment, Secretary Cyrus Swan finished the founder's speech, which had stopped just before the prophetic last paragraph:

And now, gentlemen, in closing these remarks, I would humbly and solemnly implore the Divine Goodness to continue his smiles and favor on your institution, and bestow upon all hearts connected therewith his love and blessings, having peculiarly protected us by his providence through all our college trials for three consecutive years, without a single death in our Board or serious illness or death of one of our pupils within its walls. Wishing you, gentlemen, a continuance of health and happiness, I bid you a cordial and final farewell, thanking you kindly for your official attentions and services, not expecting, from my advanced years and increasing infirmities, to meet with you officially again, and imploring the Divine Goodness to guide and direct you aright in all your counsels and social business relations,

Yours truly, etc., etc.,

M. VASSAR.

Related Articles: XI. June 23, 1868

"Getting Tanked" Starts at Vassar

For two decades after the First World War, an armored tank sat on Joss Beach, a gift from the French government in thanks for the college's assistance during the war. As both Prohibition and college parietal laws were in effect at the time, it was difficult for young ladies to find a place to indulge in their vices. Supposedly, girls would meet inside the tank to smoke and drink liquor--which they referred to as "getting tanked." Apparently, though, other schools have similar legends, and the term probably originated before this time.

Related Articles: The French Tank.

Students Bring Maids to Vassar

One explanation for the alternating placement of large and small rooms in some of the dorms is that in the early days of the college, students were allowed to bring maids with them; these smaller rooms were for the maids. The truth is that Vassar did have live-in maids for many years, but they were employed by the college, not the students. The Old Laundry Building, which currently houses the computer science department and other offices was originally built, as the name suggests, as a laundry. The college hired maids to wash not only the students' clothes, but bedding and dining linen, and, until coeducation and the advent of central dining, to cook and serve the meals in the dorms. The women hired for these jobs were usually young, single, and had little access to transportation, and therefore, providing housing for them was a necessity. The maids lived in the areas of the dorms today known as SQs, or servants' quarters. In the Fire of 1918, 75 maids were displaced from their rooms in Main Building.

Related Articles: Fire of 1918

Ghost Haunts on Campus

Main fifth floor, Main third floor, Pratt House, Alumnae House, Davison fifth floor, Old Observatory.

Many people have reported feelings of "a presence" watching them in these places. According to legend, Main is the refuge of the spirits of suicidal students and deceased employees. Pratt House is inhabited by a ghost who is friendly to Vassar folk, but often disturbs those not officially affiliated with the college.

Related Articles: Matthew Vassar


JLD 2006