In his latest column, John Cross ’76 explains the early history of collegiate mascots and the adoption of the polar bear as Bowdoin’s, which occured 100 years ago this year.
January of 2013 marked the 100th anniversary of an official connection between polar bears and the College. As part of the celebration the Bowdoin polar bear was sighted around New York, on NBC’s “The Today Show,” and on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” where Fortune magazine editor Andy Serwer ’81 tried to reassure one of the show’s hosts—and Williams College alumna—Mika Brzezinski that the bear was friendly.
In the Winter 1979 issue of the alumni magazine, the late Professor Ernst Helmreich recounted some relevant history. Inspired by Robert Peary’s attainment of the North Pole in 1909 and the beginning of a new chapter in the history of athletics at Bowdoin with the opening of Sargent Gymnasium in early January of 1913, the Bowdoin College Athletic Council voted on January 18th to make the polar bear the “official animal” of the College, in the same way that Yale’s bulldog and Princeton’s tiger had come to represent those universities. The Council’s decision was announced in The Orient and the story was picked up by The Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers. A year later, on January 30, 1914, at a dinner of the Bowdoin Alumni Association of New York at the Hotel Breslin, both the announcement that the polar bear was an official emblem of the College and a performance by two acrobats inside a polar bear skin were “gleefully received.”
The first intercollegiate athletic contests in the United States were held in the years immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War. Ribbons of different colors sewn onto uniforms distinguished teammates from opponents. Colors, not mascots, identified teams; Princeton’s orange and black ribbons led to the tiger nickname, not the other way around. Thus Dartmouth became the green, Harvard was known as the crimson, Williams was the purple, Wesleyan was cardinal red and black (replacing lavender in 1884), and Bowdoin was the white, decades before any official mascots were adopted. According to the Oxford Online dictionary, a mascot is “…a person or thing that is supposed to bring good luck, especially one linked to a particular organization or event.” The word has its origins in the 19th-century French word mascotte (“witch charm”), and entered the English lexicon in 1881, following a performance of Edmond Audran’s 1880 comic operetta “La Mascotte.”
Individual teams established their own superstitions and traditions. In 1888 Harvard’s football team began bringing Irish immigrant pushcart vendor John Lovett (also known as “John the Orange-Man”) to games for good luck. Not to be outdone, Yale’s football team adopted an English bulldog, Handsome Dan, as its mascot in 1889. The dog was trained to go into a barking frenzy when told to “speak to Harvard.” The Yale bulldog is widely recognized as the first college or university mascot, and Handsome Dan XVII still prowls the sidelines at the Yale Bowl. A growing popular interest in collegiate and professional athletics nationally was tied to the development of sports journalism. Seeking to avoid the staleness of accounts that were limited to proper name or color references (e.g., Bowdoin, Boston, the crimson), sportswriters suggested nicknames to enliven headlines and copy. Some nicknames were adopted and many were not, just as some official mascots have never quite caught on. Harvard’s official mascot is John Harvard; I don’t mean to imply that the figure of a 17th-century clergyman can’t fire up a 21st-century team and inspire raucous fan support, but…
While the idea of a polar bear mascot was appealing to Bowdoin students and alumni, a physical symbol was also desirable. Dr. Frank Whittier (a member of the Class of 1885, the faculty, and the Athletic Council) wrote in May of 1913 to Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan of the Class of 1898, “… the only thing that we will need to complete our trophy room will be a fine, stuffed polar bear skin. I hope you will be in the way of helping us to get that.” MacMillan was about to embark on a two-year expedition to Crocker Land—an island viewed at a distance several years earlier by Robert Peary that MacMillan subsequently demonstrated was a mirage. MacMillan’s expedition became a four-year ordeal when relief ships couldn’t get through sea ice to the rendezvous point until 1917. MacMillan returned with several polar bear skins for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). He persuaded officials at the Museum to give him the largest skin for Bowdoin. The bear was shot near Etah in northern Greenland on May 13, 1915, after it had killed five of MacMillan’s dogs. James L. Clark of the AMNH, and one of the foremost taxidermists of the 20th century, prepared the mount of the polar bear that now stands in the lobby of Morrell Gymnasium.
May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics but of every Bowdoin [person].
Bowdoin’s other iconic bear is the Frederick G. R. Roth sculpture that stands guard outside Sargent Gym. It was the 25th Reunion gift of the Class of 1912, whose members were freshmen when Peary reached the North Pole in April of 1909. A strike at the Westerly, Rhode Island, quarry delayed completion of the statue until 1938. Frank Camolli, a master carver worked for two months on a 20-ton block of exceptionally fine-grained granite before turning it over to Roth for the finishing work. The granite’s comparative imperviousness to liquids has been a boon over the years, as it has been splashed by Colby blue and Bates maroon paint on occasion.
Bowdoin is not alone in having a polar bear for a mascot, although it was the first college to do so. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks have been the Nanooks (the Inuit word for “polar bear”) since 1917; Ohio Northern University switched mascots from the goat to the polar bear in 1923; the College of the North Atlantic, serving communities in Newfoundland and Labrador, adopted the polar bear in 2001; and the Northern Lights of the Montana State University-Northern have been cheered on by male and female polar bear mascots since 2008.
Since 1971 Bowdoin has competed in the 11-team New England Small College Athletic Conference against Amherst Lord Jeffs, Bates Bobcats, Colby White Mules, Connecticut College Camels, Hamilton Continentals, Middlebury Panthers, Trinity Bantams, Tufts Jumbos, Wesleyan Cardinals, and Williams Ephs (for founder and namesake Ephraim Williams). There is a fascinating origin story and colorful history behind the selection of each of these mascots. According to the college’s web site, Colby adopted the white mule as the antithesis of “a dark horse” that was unlikely to win a race. Who might have made the leap from an “Eph” to a graphic image of what might be described politely as the south end of a northwest-trending purple cow? Who knew that Tufts Trustee P.T. Barnum donated the skin of Jumbo to the university in 1889 after the elephant’s unfortunate encounter with a train in Ontario? In the menageries and pantheons of historical figures that populate the world of college and university mascots Bowdoin’s polar bear, like Roth’s sculpture, stands atop the world. Donald MacMillan’s words at the dedication of the polar bear in 1918 have been prophetic: “May his spirit be the Guardian Spirit not only of Bowdoin Athletics but of every Bowdoin [person].”
With best wishes,
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations