150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University

By Meg Mason, University Archivist

On March 24, 1870, the Board of Trustees of Syracuse University signed the University charter and certificate of incorporation. Over the next few years, the College of Liberal Arts was founded, classes began, the first Commencement was held, the first Chancellor was inaugurated, and the University’s first building, the Hall of Languages, was constructed. All the founding pieces were now in place for the University to begin forming a legacy of traditions, many of which are documented and on display in a new University Archives exhibition, which I am proud to have curated, 150 Years of Tradition at Syracuse University.

Photograph of Syracuse University graduates, 1891 from the Syracuse University Photograph Collection.

Curating this exhibition allowed me to draw upon some of the University Archives’ most historically rich collections, including the Photograph Collection and Memorabilia Collection. These collections document so many traditions, from Commencement to mascots to the Chimemasters. I also jumped at the opportunity to show off some of our most special items. Both a number 44 football jersey worn and signed by Ernie Davis ‘62, the first African American Heisman Trophy winner, as well as the Alma Mater written in the hand of its author, Junius Stevens, Class of 1895, will be on display, though for a limited time to prevent fading. There are also other wonderful pieces, such as old photographs of graduates at Commencements long past and an impressively-sized cheerleading megaphone from the 1960s. All the photographs, printed materials, textiles, and other memorabilia are a testament to the University’s history of traditions that have inspired Orange pride, united the University community, and connected its past with its present.

Photograph of Ernie Davis, circa 1959-1962, from the Syracuse University Portrait Collection.

Syracuse University Alma Mater, handwritten by Junius Stevens, Class of 1895, circa 1893 from the Junius Woods Stevens Collection.

The tradition I found most challenging to exhibit is the origin of orange as the University’s official color. Although orange was adopted as the official color in 1890, there isn’t an official proclamation in the University Archives, and we don’t hold many materials that have color from that time. I managed to track down a student newspaper article about the impatience of the student body to change the University’s colors from pink and blue to orange. I also included the brilliantly-orange cover of an 1891 Men’s Glee Club program, which is the earliest orange item I could find.

Some of my favorite items in the University Archives are the freshman beanies. They’re just so round and delightful. While I can’t imagine feeling so delighted if I was a first-year student who had to wear one, I’m grateful to alumni who kept theirs and later donated them to the University Archives. We have a nice collection of beanies in all shades of orange (and even green!), and we managed to fit a goodly number of them in the exhibition case.

Freshman beanie, circa 1930s-1940s from the Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection.

The beanies are a great example of a tradition that has faded away. When I started curating this exhibition, I had a vague idea of tradition as something timeless and classic. But looking through what is now on display, visitors will see not only traditions that have endured but also those that have fallen by the wayside as well as fairly new ones. Those old, long-gone traditions lost their meaning, and over time the University has picked up new customs and celebrations as they have embraced values and a community that is more diverse and inclusive. So now we have Otto the Orange as our mascot instead of the Saltine Warrior thanks to the late 1970s protests of a Native American student organization, and we have annual, traditional celebrations such as the Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration and International Thanksgiving.

Photograph of the orange mascot, later known as Otto, 1982, from the Syracuse University Photograph Collection.

Please join us for the opening reception of the exhibition on Thursday, September 4, from 4:30 to 6 pm at the Special Collections Research Center on the 6th floor of Bird Library. The exhibition is open for viewing through the spring of 2020. If you’re not into the color orange (What?!), the number 44 (How could you?!) or the Alma Mater (Sacrilege!), you at least have to come see all those thoughtfully-curated beanies!

The Syracuse University Photograph Collection, the Syracuse University Portrait Collection, the Syracuse University Memorabilia Collection and the Junius Woods Stevens Collection are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s University Archives (University Archives, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).



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