Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell


Class organizations were a normal part of student activity, and class officers were elected from year to year practically from the moment that a student body was created. Among the class societies that endured were Tower Cross, organized as an honorary senior


society in 1897; the Ivy Society, created in 1901 for the junior class and originally christened the Ivy Leaf; and Sword and Shield, founded in 1902 to represent the sophomores. The charter members of Tower Cross, election to which was "considered one of the highest honors that can be accorded to an undergraduate," were selected by the faculty and were inducted in a formal ceremony which included the wearing of caps and gowns. The Ivy Society was intended to further the somewhat contradictory aims of "doing away with any factional feeling which may exist on the Hill, and . . . increasing of class spirit in the Junior class." One of its greatest contributions over the years has been the preparation of a "Handbook of Tufts College." This pocket-sized publication, known as the "Ivy Book," became a veritable bible for incoming students from the appearance of the first issue in 1902-3. The creation of Sword and Shield reflected the intense class rivalries of the day. It was intended to promote good fellowship and, more immediately, "the political and social interests of the Sophomore class." [23]  One of Sword and Shield's historic functions was to provide what might be called the student version of "Freshman Orientation." In later years, the society became the keeper of Tufts undergraduate customs and in the 1960's was officially known as the Sword and Shield Traditions Society.

One area of collegiate and institutional symbolism which fell to the lot of student officers and societies to determine was class and College colors. The problem of selecting the latter apparently attracted far more attention from the undergraduates (and later the alumni) than from the faculty, administrative officers, or Trustees. Not until 1960 did the Trustees officially adopt the brown and blue that the student body had selected in 1876. The original Board of Trustees had not been color-conscious; when the corporate seal was adopted on July 7, 1857, no mention was made of colors in the official description. There were no recognized colors at Tufts prior to 1875, although cherry red was informally used and occasionally displayed. This color, however, presented two difficulties: there was no standardized shade of red used, and it was too much like Harvard's crimson. Early in 1876 the undergraduates decided to


settle the question of colors by holding a special meeting to deal with the problem. There was considerable difference of opinion; the committee that had been appointed to report to the student body produced two conflicting recommendations. One faction argued for seal brown and pearl white; the other stood by seal-brown and gold. Seal brown and pearl white won by such a narrow margin that a second meeting was called at which blue was substituted for white, and brown and blue emerged as winners.[24] 

The governing body of the College remained officially silent on the subject of College colors until 1904, presumably concurring in the meanwhile with the student choice. The greatest problem that faced the users of the colors was the shade of blue. "Seal-brown" was specific, but "blue" could mean almost anything. The first yearbook bearing the name Brown and Blue, published jointly in 1878 by Zeta Psi and Theta Delta Chi, boasted a baby-blue cover and chocolate brown trimmings, but the College song, "The Brown and Blue," produced in 1888, sidestepped the issue. A student poll, in which slightly over half the undergraduates participated, was conducted in 1904. They reaffirmed the use of the two colors and requested that "an attempt be made to standardize the shades on the basis of expert opinion."[25]  The Trustees were asked to hand down a ruling, and reported that "the proper shades are those used for the lining of hoods by Cotrell and Leonard."[26]  This was the closest that the Trustees came before 1960 to making brown and blue "official." The ruling was honored as much in the breach as in the observance, for technical and practical problems, and failure to adhere to the letter if not to the spirit of the decision, resulted in a bewildering array of shades of both colors for everything from bunting to athletic uniforms.



The institution continued to live with this ambiguity for over a half-century more. The Alumni Council finally took a hand in 1959, appointed a Colors Committee, arrived at a decision, and recommended their findings to the Trustees.[27]  At long last the institution obtained an official color combination of brown and blue, in two specified shades which were selected after the most exhaustive investigations, including spectral analysis. Blue was to be the dominant color and brown was to accompany it "where appropriate." It was comparatively easy to paint a mental picture of the officially adopted "chocolate brown," but the shade of blue was still difficult to translate into the language of the layman. It has been variously described as "between a light and a middle blue" and "a dusty sky blue." The Trustees did not become involved in this problem of lay terminology for they identified the authorized shades as those listed on the standardized color scale of the Athletic Association of America as "Athletic 6" (brown) and "Athletic 40" (blue).[28]  The story of class colors and class flags (when used) at Tufts was not as complex as the one for the institutional colors in spite of the fact that they were used much earlier. Long tradition established a four-year rotation of blue and gold; red and white; blue and white; and red and black. Display of class colors was usually confined to Senior Week activities and class reunions.


[23] After Sword and Shield was organized the facetious suggestion was made that, in self-defense, the freshman class should also close ranks as the "Fist and Fender."

[24] The decision was by no means unanimous among the students, for only thirty-two of the sixty-nine students then in the regular course exercised their franchise, and those who contended for the original choice of brown and white insisted that the second decision was not binding on the student body.

[25] A further suggestion was made that the matter of an official flag for the College be considered, but there is no indication that this was ever acted on.

[26] The reference here is to the firm in Albany, New York, which became the official distributors of academic regalia to the College following a decision in 1902 that faculty, Trustees, and Overseers should appear in appropriate costume on academic occasions.

[27] The leading spirit in this enterprise was Grace Neal Trefry, Class of 1935, who served as chairman of the committee and expended some six months of research effort. She prepared a sound-slide film, "Rainbow on the Hill," to publicize the problem. She donated to the Tufts Archives the considerable body of material she collected.

[28] At the same meeting, the Trustees voted to revise the colors of the Carmichael Shield (first used in 1939) to conform to the new official Tufts colors.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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