An Overview of Vassar Traditions
In her inaugural speech, president Sarah Gibson Blanding (1946-1964) observed that one time-honored Vassar tradition is “the tradition of changing with the changing times.”
Very few of the original college traditions are still practiced today, and none are practiced in the same manner. Founder’s Day, for example, the oldest Vassar tradition, was first celebrated in April of 1866, the spring of the college’s first year. Planned as a surprise birthday party for Matthew Vassar, it “began with the escorting of the pleasantly surprised Matthew Vassar through a line of handkerchief waving girls to Main parlor where speeches expressing everyone’s gratitude were given,” according to an unsigned article in The Vassar Chronicle in 1956. After Vassar’s death, in 1868, and for years to follow, the tone of Founder’s Day events was “both gay and solemn,” beginning with a chapel service and a trip to the Founder’s grave in the morning, followed by various poetry recitations, lectures, and musical performances in the afternoon and a cotillion in the evening. A century later the event has morphed into what we call Founder’s Day today—a Saturday celebration, on the weekend closest to Vassar’s birthday (April 29), which kicks off with a toast in the brewer’s memory, and then quickly escalates into an afternoon of full-blown revelry, with carnival rides, cotton candy, lots of beer—in 1992, on the bicentenary of his birth, the beer was brewed from a recipe similar to his own—and concludes with fireworks.
Other notable traditions that have their origins in 19th-century Vassar and are still upheld in some way, shape, or form include the Daisy Chain, the Class Tree, Trig Ceremonies, Salve Night, Dome parties, and Serenading—a descendant of ‘step-singing,’ where, starting early in the twentieth century, the classes would salute each other in song from the steps of their residences.
Some traditions have become legends—the Lantern Festival, the Senior Parlor, trips to Lake Mohonk and Slabsides, boat rides on the Hudson, the Hall plays, Class Day, and Sporting the Oak. Some of these were still listed in the Student Handbook through 2010, even though nobody at Vassar did them. “Dear Robert Lewis Stevenson,” said the 2004-05 handbook, is “the traditional way of remembering the quad dorms by first letters—Davison, Raymond, Lathrop, and Strong.” Current Vassar students seem to have no difficulty remembering the names of the quad dorms, so this “tradition” has fallen into disuse. Likewise, has anyone on campus witnessed something called “Sporting the Oak”?
Certain traditions are more recent, such as “Tea in the Rose Parlor,” which sounds delightfully Victorian, but isn’t—having descended, sometime in the 1970s from “Faculty Tea,” which was served in the Faculty Parlor in Main until the advent of departmental lounges. And then there’s “Primal Scream,” which sounds exactly like what it is.
Traditions serve a purpose. They strengthen the ties between members of the group, whether the group is the Vassar class of 1933, or the post-WWII generation, or the tens of thousands of living alumnae/i. Whether a particular tradition survives and thrives is always up to whoever comes next. “A tradition is not something you just repeat by rote,” said president Henry Noble MacCracken, “but something you re-interpret, giving new patterns, new meanings, new beauties within the old framework. You can have fun and dignity too.”
From the early days of the college, Vassar graduates have had a profound impact on the growth and development of the institution. The Alumnae Association was organized in 1871 “to promote the interests of Vassar College and to maintain a spirit of fellowship among its graduates.” Nowhere is the spirit of fellowship more evident than in the annual reunion of alumnae/i in June, the highlight of which is the colorful Alumnae/i Parade of Classes. In 2010, 1,600 alumnae/i and their guests marched in the parade, carrying their banners and wearing their class colors.
Each reunion class plans its own activities and organizes its members for the parade. In years gone by, reunion classes wore elaborate (and sometimes hilarious) costumes, carried signs declaring their accomplishments, and marched in formation. While today’s parades are typically less fanciful, they are an equally festive display of alumnae/i loyalty and solidarity.
The largest building in the country when it was completed in 1865, Main was set on an open, treeless plain, the site of a former racetrack. The class of 1868 planted the first tree, a swamp white oak, in front of Main, thereby initiating the tradition of the Class Tree.
By the late 19th century, the Tree Ceremony had become a sophomore event, accompanied by increasingly elaborate “secret rites.” In 1905, for example: “The entire class of about 250 dressed in sheets like ghosts, and 10 very tall girls of the class wore black skeletons…. The procession marched in a slow line around the campus until it came to a sickly little tree.” Then one of the characters blew a horn “to call together all the fairies of the realm. After a few notes had been blown, the fairies began to come. All calling and answering each other, they flitted through the trees, surrounding the circle, and danced to the tree. About half of them were dressed in green and carried tiny lights, which they waved in their hands. The rest were all in pale colors with long flowing sleeves and robes. Their hair was wound with tinsel, and they had little sparkling wings on their shoulders.”
Almost every class since 1968 has either planted or adopted a tree, making a significant contribution to the development of the campus arboretum. A Class Tree can be recognized by a marker placed at the base, identifying the class to whom it belongs.
COLLEGE COLORS – ROSE AND GRAY
The first documented mention of Vassar’s colors was in a letter from Ellen Swallow Richards, class of 1870, to her mother, dated October 11, 1868. “I send you a bit of our college colors, rose and silver gray…. One and one-half yards each we have and wear in some form on public occasions.” The colors signified “the rose of sunlight breaking through the gray of women’s intellectual life.”
With the move to coeducation in 1969, the “rose” part of the equation became an embarrassment, especially to Vassar’s male athletes. “Legend has it that when the men’s rugby team, suited in their pink and grey striped jerseys, stepped out onto the field to face Army, the game was over before it even started.” (Lillian Reuman, The Miscellany News, September 16, 2009) The pink gradually darkened to maroon, at least for athletic uniforms.
But in modern and more liberated times, Vassar’s male athletes themselves have revived the pink. The men’s cycling team, for example, call themselves the “Men in Pink.” The team’s hot pink kit found the limelight when Peter Horn ’07 won the Boston Beanpot (twice in a row!) and had his picture plastered across sports pages nationwide.
Each fall, the college community gathers in the chapel to hear from the president of the college, the president of the Vassar Student Association, and a special speaker who is usually a member of the faculty. The faculty and seniors dress in their academic robes. Convocation is the official opening of the academic year at Vassar, followed by taking a photograph of the First-Year Class.
As far back as 1889, daisies were used to decorate the chapel for Class Day, the day before Commencement The sophomore class, “sister” class to the seniors, picked the daisies (from the field where the residential quad now stands) and wove them into a chain to mark off the section of the chapel reserved for the seniors. In 1894 as the seniors were marching from the chapel to their class tree, Ruth Stickney, the senior class marshal, had a sudden inspiration. “Come on down, Sophs, and carry the chain,” she called to the girls in the gallery. They did so, and a tradition was born.
- According to the Vassar Miscellany in 1896, six girls were handpicked to be Daisies, and the length of the chain was determined by the number of graduates—a foot for each. Today, there are 24 Daisies, and the length of the chain is fixed at 150 feet.
- Beginning in 1898, a local florist was hired to make the chain, but the daisies were still picked by the sophomores, who would scour the campus and beyond for the thousands of daisies required. These days, the chain arrives on the morning of Commencement in a florist’s truck.
- After Class Day exercises were discontinued in 1954, the daisy chain became a Commencement tradition. After Vassar went coed in 1969, male ushers joined the Daisies.
- One of Vassar’s newest traditions (begun in 1992), the African Violets are first- and second-year women-of-color who assist the ALANA Senior Council (formerly the Council of Black Seniors.) Beginning in 2006, the Violets joined the Daisies in the Commencement procession.
DEAR ROBERT LEWIS STEVENSON
The traditional way of remembering the quad dorms by first letters: Davison, Raymond, Lathrop, and Strong.
One of the most anticipated events in the life of the college in its early years was astronomy professor Maria Mitchell’s annual “dome party.” Her niece, Phebe Mitchell Kendall, described it thus:
“This ‘dome party’ requires a few words of explanation, because it was unique among all the Vassar festivities. The week before commencement, Miss Mitchell’s pupils would be informed of the approaching gathering by a notice like the following:
The annual dome party will be held at the observatory on Saturday, the 19th, at 6 P.M. You are cordially invited to be present.
[As this gathering is highly intellectual, you are invited to bring poems.]
It was, at first, held in the evening, but during the last years was a breakfast party, its character in other respects remaining the same. Little tables were spread under the dome, around the big telescope; the flowers were roses from Miss Mitchell’s own garden. The ‘poems’ were nonsense rhymes, in the writing of which Miss Mitchell was an adept. Each student would have a few verses of a more or less personal character, written by Miss Mitchell, and there were others written by the girls themselves; some were impromptu; others were set to music, and sung by a selected glee-club.”
The Astronomy Department today continues the tradition of the end-of-the-year dome party (minus the rhymes).
On a rather cold, rainy November 9, 1895, Vassar became the first women’s college in the United States to hold a field day. The contestants wore their gym suits with sweaters: it seems that these Victorian garments constrained their performance. As one onlooker commented, “The performance in the high jump was better than it appears on paper, for, owing to the fact that the competitors wear bloomers of the most ample kind, the bar has to be cleared some four inches to allow for the sweep of these nether garments. In the future some ingenious athlete will reduce her bloomer circumference by two or three inches and the Vassar record for the high jump will be broken.”
On the occasion of the tenth field day, an article entitled, “The Vassar Girl in Athletics,” noted the increase in both the number and quality of participants from the first few years of competition. However, its focus is on one particular athlete: “This year’s annual field day at Vassar College… proved that man could no longer pose as the superior being on the cinder track in almost any athletic sports.” The student who had apparently destroyed this particular myth, Alice H. Belding, “a freshman of the city, forever silenced those male cynics who are fond of saying that a woman cannot throw anything, by throwing a baseball 195 feet 3 inches.”
Today, Vassar fields 27 varsity teams (NCAA, Division III).
Founder’s Day, the oldest Vassar tradition, was first celebrated in April of 1866, the spring of the college’s first year. Planned as a surprise birthday party for the Founder, it “began with the escorting of the pleasantly surprised Matthew Vassar through a line of handkerchief waving girls to Main parlor where speeches expressing everyone’s gratitude were given,” according to an unsigned article in The Vassar Chronicle in 1956.
After Vassar’s death, in 1868, and for years to follow, the tone of Founder’s Day events was “both gay and solemn,” beginning with a chapel service and a trip to the Founder’s grave in the morning, followed by various poetry recitations, lectures, and musical performances in the afternoon and a cotillion in the evening. A century later the event has morphed into what we call Founder’s Day today—a Saturday celebration, on the weekend closest to Vassar’s birthday (April 29), which kicks off with a toast in the brewer’s memory, and then quickly escalates into an afternoon of full-blown revelry, with carnival rides, cotton candy, lots of beer—in 1992, on the bicentenary of his birth, the beer was brewed from a recipe similar to his own—and concludes with fireworks.
GO TO THE SOURCE
“Go to the source” is the pedagogical tradition without which Vassar wouldn’t be Vassar. It began with renowned astronomer Maria Mitchell, the first person appointed to the Vassar faculty. Mitchell was famous for asking her students, “Did you read that in a book, or did you observe it yourself?” Mitchell insisted, as Vassar faculty insist today, on original work and independence of thought. In 1869 and again in 1878, she took students across the country by train to observe a solar eclipse—not just to experience it, but to observe it scientifically, record their observations, and submit them for publication.
Appointed in 1887, Vassar’s first history professor, Lucy Maynard Salmon, was equally famous for challenging “received wisdom” and training students to become active investigators and observers. She pioneered the use of artifacts from everyday life – laundry lists, advertisements, diaries, bulletin-board notices, architectural plans, ledgers, packing slips – in historical research and in the teaching of history. One year, for a final exam, she handed out copies of a railway timetable and asked students to write an essay on what they could deduce from it.
When asked by the editors of the Vassar Chronicle to name the Vassar tradition she considered the most important, Florence Clothier ’26 wrote: “The traditional insistence that the individual student learns to observe, to discover, to think and to evaluate independently seems to me the most cherished experience of my undergraduate life.”
“‘Vassar has always been stagestruck….In the heyday of the theatre, Vassar had at least a play a week. Philaletheis, with a huge budget, produced three Hall Plays and two ‘minor Halls.’ Each House put on its own ‘one-acters.’ Each department of language put on at least one play, while English classes chose scenes from Shakespeare….Classes in Dramatic Production acted at least three plays a year…’ This was the dramatic tradition at Vassar, as described by Prexy MacCracken in his book of reminiscences, The Hickory Limb.”
The oldest student organization at Vassar, Philaletheis began as a debating society in 1865 but evolved into a dramatic society, which was apparently plagued by in-fighting during its early history. It divided itself into three chapters that competed in each presenting a play in Society Hall (the old stage in Avery). By 1898, the chapters had settled their differences and merged to present four “Hall” plays a year. By 1915, the number of Halls had been reduced to three, with II Hall being a freshman production, and III Hall, Shakespeare.
Philaletheis is still the primary student theater organization at Vassar, but by no means the only (six troupes at last count). While “Hall Plays” are a thing of the past, there are theatrical performances nearly every weekend in the Shiva Theater, a performance space devoted exclusively to extracurricular student theater.
A new student officially becomes a member of the student body when he or she pledges to uphold the standards of Vassar College by signing the Book of Matriculation at freshman registration.
Primal Scream is the ghostly sound of hundreds of voices screaming in unison in the Quad at midnight on the eve of final exams. The Scream now unofficially marks the beginning of exam week.
In 1956, the editors of the Vassar Chronicle described Salve Night thus: “Salve Night, which the juniors live for, and the underclassmen live through, is the most explosive tradition of the year. Preceded by the gavel ceremony, there follows a night of picnicking, beer drinking, hand clapping, bell ringing and ear plugging, and generally unorthodox goings-on which leaves its mark on even the poorest of alumnae memories.”
Salve—which means “hail” in Latin, pronounced sal-VAY—was traditionally celebrated on the Wednesday of the last week of classes in the spring semester. It was preceded by the Gavel Ceremony in the Chapel, in which the officers of the out-going student government handed down the gavel to the newly elected officers, and the juniors were hailed as the new seniors. The final step to senior-dom was to ring the bell atop Main Building.
Today, few students refer to this occasion as Salve Night, but the handing down of the gavel still takes place, and the newly minted seniors throng the fifth floor of Main, waiting, as so many generations of Vassar students have waited before them, to take their turns at ringing the bell.
In the early years of the college, it was called “step-singing.” The 1933/34 Student Handbook described it thus: “Step-singing is a custom followed by all classes. 1935 will sing to 1937, on the steps of Strong, while the seniors and sophomores gather on the steps of Rocky. Monday evening after dinner will be the first step-singing. The juniors on the steps sing to the freshmen standing below. They will be waiting for the original songs 1937 will soon add to the odd class ones which are ‘handed down’ to them. When the singing is over, the juniors march to Main, singing their marching song, while the freshmen, taking hands, ‘trail’ along on either side in single lines. Throughout the fall and spring there is step-singing, usually two evenings a week.”
In recent years, it has devolved into more of a food fight than a song fest—a free-for-all involving ketchup and chocolate sauce, to such an unpalatable degree that college administrators recently imposed a “water only” restriction on the event. There is still some singing—sophomores, juniors, and seniors march through campus, singing their class songs, and stopping at each house, where the first-year students emerge and sing the song they’ve composed for the occasion. The entire student body then gathers, and each class and each house sing their songs for a group of administrators. The senior class officers pick the winners.
SPORTING THE OAK
How this tradition caught on at Vassar is anyone’s guess. At Oxford and Cambridge in the 19th century, to “sport the oak” meant to close your door as a sign that you didn’t wish to be disturbed, and it was considered very bad form to disregard the occupant’s wishes. At Vassar, students received the emblem of an acorn to display on their doors when they were engaged in serious study.
The custom was apparently discontinued and then revived in 1938. On December 8, 1938, the Misc reported that “the health committee in distributing these signs wishes to make emphatic the need to take them seriously. They are an effort to combat noise in the halls, which is considered detrimental to the health of the community.”
Recent generations of Vassar students probably have no idea what this arcane symbol means. But as noise in the residence halls is a perennial problem, maybe it should be revived again.
TEA IN THE ROSE PARLOR
One of the newest traditions at Vassar. According to College Historian Elizabeth Adams Daniels ’41, the custom started in the mid-1970s after dining moved from the dorms to ACDC. It does have its roots, however, in a custom of daily tea for faculty (no longer served), which started in 1925, and in the coffee served in the parlors after dinner. Tea is served every weekday at 3:00 p.m.
TRIPS TO MOHONK
In the late 19th century, one of the most cherished annual events was the excursion to Mohonk Mountain House, a magnificent rustic resort in the nearby Shawangunk Mountains. The tradition began in 1872 when “Uncle Fred” (trustee and beloved benefactor Frederick Thompson) treated the whole college to a weekend at Mohonk. There were so many students that the plan had to be carried out over two weekends. First-hand accounts report that Uncle Fred hired every available conveyance within miles of Poughkeepsie to get them there. It must have been a logistical nightmare!
In the years that followed, the Mohonk trip was reduced to a more manageable affair—just the seniors went, and only for the day. They rose at the crack of dawn and boarded “barges” (farm wagons) which were ferried across the river. They spent the day exploring the Maze and ascending through the Crevice to Sky Top, returning to Vassar with the stars overhead, singing the whole way.
Uncle Fred continued to fund the trip during his lifetime, and his widow continued the tradition well into the 20th century. The Mountain House today is a bit pricey for the average Vassar student, but many find their way to the Mohonk Preserve, and some are daring enough to scale the famous Shawangunk cliffs.
A rich ice cream and cake concoction which is a traditional specialty of the college. No one should graduate without having one of these.
The Vassar Chronicle, “Flourishing For Founder Takes Fluctuating Forms,” May 5, 1956
Student Handbook, Vassar College