Perhaps the most famous of Vassar traditions, the annual Daisy Chain is also one of the oldest. Every year, a group of sophomore women, chosen for their leadership skills, class spirit, and eagerness to volunteer their time, are chosen by a committee of the senior class council to carry a 150-foot chain of daisies and laurel, the Daisy Chain, at Commencement. A similar group of sophomore men are chosen as well, to act as Commencement ushers. The “daisies,” as these young men and women are known, are an active campus group, assisting the senior class with Commencement week activities. The chain itself is carried on the day of Commencement by the female “daisies” dressed in identical white dresses, functioning as a flower-lined corridor to guide the graduates to the ceremony. The men, in blue blazers, white pants, and purple daisy-print ties, hand out programs and help guide relatives and other Commencement guests to their seats. To serve as a “daisy” is a great honor, for daises are responsible for carrying on a Vassar tradition that extends back to the late 1800s.
A few details of the tradition’s history are in conflict, but it is clear from the record that as far back as 1889 daisies were used to decorate the old chapel in Main for Class Day, the day before Commencement, when the senior class met together for the last time as Vassar students. The sophomore class, as the sister class to the seniors, would pick the daisies from around campus. Daisies were an easy and obvious choice: the residential quad now stands on what used to be a daisy field. Eventually, a chain of daisies was fashioned to use as rope to mark off the section of chapel seating reserved for the seniors to sit while attending Class Day exercises. At the end of exercises in 1894, as the seniors were marching from the chapel to their Class Tree, the Senior Class Marshall, Ruth Stickney, was struck with a sudden inspiration. The daisy chain was too beautiful to be left in the chapel; Ruth thought that “it was a pity not to do something with it and called to the girls in the gallery, ‘Come on down, Sophs, and carry the chain’ and they did so and carried it on their shoulders.” Thus, from the spur-of-the-moment idea of one insightful Vassar student, a tradition was born.
The tradition started small; a report from the Vassar Miscellany in 1896 indicates that six girls were handpicked to be “daisies.” But the small tradition was also a hefty one. The earliest chains were six inches in diameter and one foot in length for every member of the graduating class, and they may have required that each “daisy” shoulder nearly 100 pounds. Beginning in 1898, a local florist, W. A. Saltford, was hired to make the chain from daisies picked by the sophomore class, who would scour the campus and, in later years, all over Dutchess County for the thousands of required daisies. The first commercially-made chain was sixty-seven feet long. As the years went by, the chain became longer and successively heavier, and finding enough daises to fill it out became a difficult task. Saltford’s came to the rescue, adding mountain laurel to lighten the load and fill in the gaps. Laurel has since become an endangered species and is no longer used. The number of “daisies” grew from the original six to twenty-four, and the chain is now fixed at 150 feet in length, If the old system of determining the length were still used, modern day chains would have to be over 600 feet long.
The tradition has evolved over the years. Historically, “daisies” were chosen for both their “contribution to college life and their attractiveness,” making the early chains a kind of beauty contest, which apparently caused those not chosen much unhappiness. In an isolated rebellion against this perceived elitism, the Class of 1916 opted to have the entire sophomore class carry the chain, to prevent the “heart burnings” of the past. Soon thereafter, the First World War broke out, during which the tradition was halted. The chain would not return until 1919, after which the previous custom of having a select group of the prettiest sophomores carry the chain was restored. The daisy chain became famous as a symbol of feminine beauty, mystique and even fertility(1), and also of the elite status imputed to a “Vassar girl”: if being a Vassar student was to be amongst the cream of the crop, then to be a “daisy” was to be la crème de la crème.
After men were admitted to Vassar in 1969, the tradition was adapted to fit the school’s new coed status, with male ushers being chosen each year along with the female chain. Around this time of radical change in the culture of the school, the traditional beauty requirement faded away, as the principles of equality were being introduced to Vassar spread to all parts of campus life. Today, the seniors choose members at their discretion, based on merit and not outward appearance. The daisy chain remains today a seamless blend of tradition and the times.
- When the prospective publisher of a book on “Types of Dances,” wrote in October, 1962, asking the college for permission to use a picture of the Daisy Chain to illustrate our culture’s last vestige of the “fertility ritual,” the Assistant to the President denied the request, calling the comparison “most inappropriate.” (V.C. Archives Subject File #9.32)
Herb Saltford, F.T.D. News (Detroit: May 1, 1939)
Louise Sheppard, ’96, as quoted by Cornelia M. Raymond, Nov. 1950; Archives Subject File #9.32. VCSC
Subject File #9.32. VCSC
The Miscellany News, June 2, 1923. VCSC
The Poughkeepsie Sunday Courier,” Poughkeepsie: May 24, 1936
The Vassar Miscellany, June 1889. Vassar College Special Collections (VCSC ) Vassar College Press Releases; May, 1966, May, 1993. VCSC