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True Blue

Yale began creating its own history from the
moment its history began. "The Victorious Crew of 1859," a painting
held in Sterling Memorial Library’s Manuscripts and Archives, is prime evidence.
The rowers in the picture are enjoying their moment, but not in the way
the adult coaches in the painting would like. They are not taking themselves
too seriously. They stand casually. Their oars extend comically upwards,
dwarfing the heroes below. But the two elders flanking them understand that
history is in the making. One man is turning towards the team, in a posture
of battlefield gravity. The other man, identified as Commodore Page, holds
a flag and faces inwards as well, barely at ease. The flag he holds may
very well be the original source of Yale Blue. To most observers it is a
relic of the past, but to University Printer John Gambell the flag taunts,
"come and get me."

While the history of Yale Blue is mostly a subject of cocktail conversations
among retired alums, for Gambell it is part of his job. In one month the
Printer’s Office will make a resource available to guide the design of Yale
materials. This has forced them to ask the unthinkable: Should Yale Blue
be reevaluated? Former University Printer Greer Allen has a range of possible
blues in mind. Among them, he said, "My preference would be a color
that appears dark, rich blue, which is identifiable from black." Tom
Strong, who does graphic design for Yale, prefers a darker blue. For practical
purposes there is an official Yale Blue, Pantone 289, but the working definition
is another matter. Gambell describes it as "a strong, relatively dark
blue, neither purple nor green, though it can be somewhat gray. It should
be a color you would call blue."

If the definition of Yale Blue is vague, that is because its history is
vague. The early sons of Eli, observing the blue of today, would go red
in the face. "Old Yale forever! Ever green may she be!" said William
Maxwell Evarts in 1853. Green was Yale’s color for half a century, until
1894, when blue officially replaced it. Most responsible for the shift were
the members of the "Victorious Crew." Former University Secretary
Carl Lohmann traced Yale’s blue to an original piece: "A Commodore’s
flag, a blue silk burgee, heavily fringed with white silk … was bought
by Commodore Waite." Within the next decade the crew began to wear
pants of dark blue and dark blue handkerchiefs, and their adoring fans wore
blue to match.

The origin of Yale Blue was obscured, however, by historians’ wish for
a grander, longer tradition. In a 1918 article, Franklin Bowditch Dexter
looked to the opening days of the Collegiate School for the source of the
blue. A purchase of blue calico in 1708 and blue paint on the buildings
of the original school were his proof. But Dexter sought a convenient continuity
that never existed. His theories were debunked twenty years later.

In 1938 another painting was dedicated to the self-conscious creation of
Yale history. This time the canvas was filled entirely by its subject, Yale
Blue. Lohmann, the same man responsible for recording the 1853 appearance
of Yale Blue, wanted to settle the question once and for all. Under the
Office of the Secretary, a piece of silk was chosen to preserve Yale Blue,
and a painting made to match it. There are two competing descriptions of
the origins of this piece of silk. According to one story, the color was
selected with the cooperation of alumni and the administration under Lohmann’s
direction. In another version, President Seymour bought the silk himself
on a trip to Oxford. Given Lohmann’s other efforts to enthrone Yale Blue,
it seems likely that he is the author. But whatever the source, the color
first appeared on President Seymour’s inaugural robe. The piece of silk
now resides in a vault in Woodbridge Hall and has guided every decision
about Yale Blue since.

"Wouldn’t it be nice to say it was this Yale Blue," Gambell says
wistfully. Yet, even with the cloth in hand, he is still looking for the
elusive color. In the mid 1950s the Secretary’s Office launched a second
search for Yale Blue. The silk and painting from 1938, while adequate for
matching fabrics, were little help in matching ink. The Munsell color system,
developed in 1952, was the most convenient way to establish a new standard.
Rumor has it that when the University made its match and ordered 50 pounds
of ink mixed, the ink company replied that they already had that ink in
stock: It was the shade used by the Modess sanitary pad company. Whatever
pink was put into the cheeks of the past administration has since faded,
however, and for Gambell this is just one more lead. When all his facts
are gathered, Gambell will decide if the current Pantone 289 is the best
representation of Yale Blue, or if a more recently developed Pantone color
is a closer match.

Silks fade and color systems change and Gambell is left considering the
particulars of tradition. Which choice does better justice to Yale: keeping
the current Pantone standard, or adjusting it toward a better bluer past?
Greer Allen has had a lot of time to think about this. He has resolved that
the question, "if ever settled once and for all, would leave Yale a
bland, boring and uninteresting University. So my morning prayers regularly
include the fervent hope, ‘Dear Lord, please have the answers to the questions
surrounding Yale Blue and the Vinland Map forever elude us!"


Ellen Thompson, a senior in Ezra Stiles College, is on the staff of TNJ..

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