“With true college zeal we had decided that we must have ‘colors,’ and finally fixed upon ‘Rose and Silver-gray’ for no reason except as a pretty combination.”
Writing as “S. M. G” in Vassar Miscellany in 1873, Sarah Mariva Glazier ‘68 recalled the early students’ choice of colors for their college. Her article, “In Memoriam,” remembered her classmate Sarah Louise Blatchley, who had died in 1872 at the age of 27. The extraordinary young woman comes alive in her friend’s eulogy, which is also the earliest
source for understanding the history of Vassar’s colors, rose and silver-gray—itself, a sometime troubled story. Unquestionably, Glazier tells us that the students—or a determined group of them—chose the college colors, not the faculty, the president, the lady principal or the only other administrative authority in 1867, the board of trustees. This view of the colors’ origin is reflected in a brief note in the June 1867 issue of the Transcript, the short-lived, first student publication. Listing some sixteen colleges and their respective colors, the journal’s editors declared: “Vassar claims the sole right to Rose and Silver-gray, if no other college can prove a previous publication of a like selection.” College authorities soon took up the idea, as a letter home dated October 11, 1868, by Ellen H. Swallow ‘70 suggests: “I send you a bit of our college colors, rose and silver gray. These shades were manufactured expressly for us, one and one half yards each we have and wear them in some form on public occasions.”
The statement by Swallow, later Ellen Swallow Richards, ran into confusion nearly 100 years later in both versions of the college’s centennial publication: The Great Experiment; A Chronicle of Vassar (1961) by Dorothy A. Plum ’22 and its successor, The Magnificent Enterprise; A Chronicle of Vassar College (1961), “Compiled by Dorothy A. Plum, Centennial Archivist and George B. Dowell, Centennial Director; Edited and Annotated with Additions by Constance Dimock Ellis; Illustrated by Julia Cuniberti.” Both volumes partially quote and then elucidate Richards’s words:
“Ellen Swallow, ’70, wrote to her mother: ‘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 dawn of women’s education, ‘the rose of sunlight breaking through the gray of women’s intellectual life.’” (Experiment)
“Ellen Swallow, ’70, wrote to her mother: ‘I send you a bit of our college colors, rose silver gray . . . One and one half yards each we have and wear in some form on public occasions.’ The colors signified the dawn of women’s education, ‘the rose of sunlight breaking through the gray of women’s intellectual life.’ Caroline Hunt, Life and Letters of Ellen H. Richards.” (Enterprise)
The quoted account of the colors’ symbolism appears, in Experiment, to be attributed to Richards, while in Enterprise the attribution could also be to the added source, Caroline Hunt’s book, published in 1912, the title of which is The Life of Ellen H. Richards. The explanatory phrase, however, appears neither in Hunt’s book nor in Dorothy Plum’s working notes for the Vassar publications, which are in Vassar’s Special Collections Library. The phrase is also absent from “College Girls,” Ellen Richards’s article about her “home letters” in Vassar Miscellany for November 1, 1907, which—although some of Plum’s excerpts from student letters aren’t in Richards’s article and vice versa—may have been Plum’s source, as the actual letter has not been located. There appears to be no authentic source for the statement about what the colors “signified.”
This idea of their significance, however, was pervasive at Vassar, as is exemplified in a short article, “College Colors,” by “F. W. T. ‘19” in Vassar Miscellany News for November 28, 1917. Citing the claim to the colors laid by the Transcript in 1869, the writer concluded: “It is interesting to know, when there have been so many theories as to the reason for choosing these colors for Vassar, that Miss McCaleb [Dean Ella McCaleb ’78] says they really were taken from the dawn to symbolize the dawn of Woman’s Education.” This is a “fancy” of the “deeper thought” which Sarah Glazier suggests in “In Memoriam” we find in her late friend’s “little poem.”
“In the unusual literary talent she possessed was a rare surprise for even her nearest friends, when they heard at the first Philalethean entertainment the exquisitely poetical and thoughtful astronomical essay, entitled ‘The Shining Ones.’ Although she steadily pursued Astronomy three years, it was because she believed in it as a disciplinary process, for she had but little natural taste for mathematics. Her course in this matter illustrates the two most prominent traits of her mind.
She would shrink from no labor in order to gain results she believed best; and yet while we ordinary plodders were painfully evolving a knowledge of ‘micrometer measurements,’ ‘collimation errors,’ and all the prose of instrumental astronomy, she delighted in ‘sweeping for comets,’ and from those lonely vigils upon the housetop would father fancies, which, woven into the web of her deeper thought, would produce a fabric whose wondrous sheen call attention to its strength as well as its beauty.
“For gradually we came to know that we had a true poet among us. The outside world heard only the ‘Alma Mater’ of Founder’s Day, ’67, but her pen was busy noting the hidden meaning which everything had for her. One little poem will serve as an illustration. With true college zeal we had decided that we must have ‘colors,’ and finally fixed upon ‘Rose and Silver-gray’ for no reason except as a pretty combination. But we readily accepted her interpretation as it appeared shortly after in the ‘Transcript’:
‘Our morning dawneth on the hills,
A great and glorious day;
We take our colors from the East,
The Rose and Silver-gray.
The twilight with its dimming stars
Transfigured by his ray,
Brightens before the rising sun
To Rose and Silver-gray.
The old, the darkened skies of night,
Our night, are passed away,
And ‘gainst their gloomy background gleam
The Rose and Silver-gray.
So, fair dawns morning on the hills
And bright shall be the day;
We take our colors from the East.
The Rose and Silver-gray.’”
Caroline Hunt, The Life of Ellen H. Richards, Whitcomb and Barrows, Boston, 1912.
Sarah Mariva Glazier, “In Memoriam,” Vassar Miscellany, vol. II, no. 4, July 1, 1873
Ellen Richards, “College Girls,” Vassar Miscellany, vol. XXXVII, no.2, November 1, 1907.
“F.W.T ’19, ”College Colors”, Vassar Miscellany News, vol. II, no. 18, 26 November 28, 1917.
Vassar College Special Collections