The Ivy League of the Apple Orchards
Ivy League indeed. We've been in the MAC, the ECAC, and now the Centennial Conference. Ivy League, no. But also yes. Older alumni will recall a time when different species of ivy covered the most venerable buildings of the college campus-and when some of this ivy had a special provenance.
Peruse archival photos of Breidenbaugh, McKnight and Weidensall Halls, Plank Gym, Schmucker Arts Building and even Christ Chapel and you will immediately notice eclectic architecture with a common denominator: ivy crawling up the brickwork. How did it get there? Where did it all go?
"Ivy Day" appears first in Gettysburg records as part of commencement week in 1893. Planting ivy on campus-possibly in imitation of the great old schools of the east (not yet constituted as the "Ivy League")--was reported in the Gettysburgian in one of its first issues (June 1, 1897). The ivy in question, placed at the base of Brua Chapel, was perhaps a means, as one writer has noted, for each graduating class to "leave a little something at their Alma Mater that they could return and claim as their own on future visits."
The practice of planting ivy was not an immediate hit. An editorial in a 1900 issue of the Gettysburgian suggested that ivy was less attractive an option for planting than a "class tree." A Burgian editorial writer in 1904, by contrasted, called ivy planting "a very pleasing and ancient custom," well worth pursuing. The practice was revived periodically, notably in 1926, when members of that class incorporated an "ivy day" oration as part of its class day activities. But there was no ritualized ivy ceremony until the 1930s, when Gettysburg College came up with an ingenious twist to the planting of ivy.
In 1931 ivy was secured from the home of Washington Irving, renowned author of "Rip Van Winkle," among other popular works of biography and fiction. The notion of "special ivy" became part of a new custom in 1932, when the senior class voted to create "Ivy Week," a four-day celebration that culminated in the planting of an ivy sprig from a renowned location. Students also organized an "Ivy Ball" in Plank Gym.
During Ivy Week senior students would be designated "spades, bowls, or shovels." The Spades would dig the hole, the Bowels would carry the plant to the designated spot, and the Shovels would complete the work of planting. Each year a different class would designate a building for its planting, often with ivy donated by such venerable American institutions as the first church of Jamestown, Harvard University, and famous universities in Germany, Canada, Japan, and of course England. Ivy from South America and Liberia also found its way to the Gettysburg campus. In 1953 President Dwight Eisenhower presented the class of 1953 with ivy grown on his Gettysburg farm.
Gettysburg had truly gone "ivy league." But not forever.
Charles Glatfelter's authoritative college history, A Salutary Influence, is notably restrained in its conferral of significance to Ivy Day ceremonies. According to Glatfelter, the tradition's roots were too shallow to last. Graduating classes into the 1950s continued the practice of planting ivy, usually before commencement weeks, but "usually with limited interest on the part of the class members or anyone else."
By the mid-1960s, Ivy Day traditions were going the way of many of the more outlandish college "customs" associated with freshman orientation. The 1960s was a vibrant era in college history, but one thing it was not good for was traditions.
Much of the green aesthetic was evanescent. A Gettysburgian op-ed writer wondered why plaques about ivy were more visible than ivy in many parts of the campus. His theory was that the Servomation (the college caterer) was using the ivy to make coffee.
Whatever the staying power of ivy, by the 1960s it was viewed less as a proud ornament on campus and more as a pestilence. As plant scientists kept pointing out, and less trained eyes noticed, ivy was not good for brick structures. Ivy Day lost its place on the college calendar to "Senior Honors Day," and the ivy itself was gradually removed, building by building, over a period of a decade. As a tradition, planting ivy made for a more interesting campus. Its demise is a reminder of the tradeoffs involved in abandoning tradition. Safe from the debilitation wrought by a shiny green vine our built environment may be. But something there is that doesn't like a bare brick building.
Note: In preparing this essay I wish to acknowledge the research assistance of Drew Carlson, '08. I owe a debt also to Andrew Phillips' paper, "Ivy Week," which will soon be available on Musselman Library's website, under the rubric "Hidden in Plain Sight"-a series of student papers about aspects of college material culture.