Convocation 2016 is a hot, sunny day as usual, with blue skies and blue banners strung up to welcome the new, blue class of 2020. In a blue robe, Columbia College Dean James Valentini ascends the stage and congratulates the class of excited first-years on inheriting a centuries-old legacy. This legacy, of course, is the one of Pantone 292—the truest blue of Columbia Blueniversity.
Or is it?
Since Valentini first used the motif in a speech a few years ago, scandal has erupted across social media channels far and wide, as all the students under the Pantone 292 sky feuded over the specific value of the color. Rumors floated that Pantone 290, the lighter shade of blue used by Columbia’s communications department, was the truer Columbia blue. This year, Valentini addressed the ambiguity in his convocation speech. Acknowledging the hairiness of the situation, he noted that he had commissioned an historian to investigate the subject, invoking another of his favorite tropes, “beginner’s mind,” to explain his reluctance to accept 292 on its face.
Valentini’s uncertainty about Pantone 292 might seem troubling from an institutional perspective because of Columbia blue’s symbolic clout. Although technically shared between more than a few colleges and universities, Columbia blue is tied closely to the University’s identity and history. From admissions pamphlets received in the mail to caps thrown in the air at graduation, the quintessential Columbia experience is bookended by this single motif. But despite the color’s popularity, we can’t actually assign it an exact Pantone value.
Yet, in its own way, the very debate surrounding the color—a debate which is not new, spanning back over 100 years—has in itself become a symbol that defines Columbia. Though the feud surrounding Columbia blue’s definition has always been, at least in part, self-consciously ridiculous, the humorous anecdotes reveal a quintessentially Columbian story of administrative wackiness and student antics. Its continued relevance to us today reflects the eternal preoccupation that the student body, faculty, and administration have with assigning an identity to the University.
Columbia blue had its origins in simpler times, when it had no numerical Pantone equivalent: just a singular, literary association. At its inception, the color was actually so far from the University’s official image that the first reference to Columbia’s blue did not appear in official University records. Instead, the reference came from students themselves: namely, from an oft-cited 1880 Spectator article titled “College Colors,” penned by F. Benedict Herzog, Columbia College class of 1881.
According to Herzog, the blue and white of Columbia originated in the spring of 1852, when the Philolexian and Peithologian literary societies combined their colors of blue and silver and white and gold to promote tickets and badges for a schoolwide showcase of student talent. “Columbia is one of the few colleges whose colors have a literary origin,” Herzog wrote, “which is just what should be the origin of everything pertaining to college and to college life.”
While Herzog’s belief may come off as pretentious to the modern Columbia student, literary societies were mainstays of the colonial colleges and often existed as the only source of extracurricular entertainment for the 19th-century collegiate.
In fact, Columbia College graduate of 1985 Thomas Vinciguerra, who refounded the then-defunct Philolexian Society in 1985 and jokingly demanded restitution for the theft of Philolexian blue in a 1986 letter to University President Michael Sovern, tells me that the society would have been the focus “of any student [in the 19th century] who had intentions or assumptions to an undergraduate life outside the classroom.” Until 1836, when the first fraternity was founded on campus, the Philolexian and Peithologian societies may well have been the hearts of student life for generations of Columbia students.
Even years after graduation, the Philolexian blue must have remained a fond reminiscence in the memories of every alumnus. “When the time arose for the crystallization of that sentiment to be exhibited to the eyes of the college world,” wrote Columbia College class of 1899 alumnus Ernest Cardozo in a 1915 issue of Columbia Alumni News, “it is not at all astonishing that the students of those days looked to the societies for the selection and choice of college colors.”
It took the rise of college athletics in the 1870s to expand Columbia blue past these literary associations, as it took on the branding role that we are more familiar with today. Long before football became the hallmark of college athletics (and the woe of Columbia students and alumni), the growing popularity of intercollegiate crew kickstarted the University’s century-long struggles to standardize the college colors, one that extends to today.
Market pressures also contributed to the growth: Columbia College graduate of 1884 Charles Taber cited Ivy League rival Harvard University’s establishment of a true “Harvard crimson” as an additional drive for Columbia to do the same. By 1898, Columbia blue was a similar marketing titan as it is today. It was proudly displayed on every flag, every banner, heralding the son-of-knickerbocker hearts that pumped perfect Pantone 292 blue blood.
Except in all likelihood, their blood wasn’t 292, because Columbia blue, while it was in wide circulation, had not yet been actually pinpointed as a specific color. Indeed, problems of definition that plague the debate between 290 and 292 today began for the same reason as all other Columbia problems: the bureaucracy of University administrators. Over nearly 20 years in the early 20th century, important University officials tried to standardize the color, going so far as to engage in protracted debates about the difference between “baby blue” and “sky blue” or to send each other fabric swatches resembling the Columbia blue, attaching critiques of the “anemic character” of the color.
Before this correspondence, which was between University Legal Adviser John B. Pine, first Dean of Columbia College John Howard Van Amringe, University Secretary Frank D. Fackenthal, and Taber, nobody had mounted a description of the shade of Columbia blue. To this group of associates, the correct interpretation of Columbia blue proved elusive, taking decades to flesh out (and was never, like all other Columbia problems, quite resolved).
Their primary objective, wrote Taber, was to establish a differentiable shade of blue for Columbia that “may not be confused with the so-called ‘baby blue’ colour.” Because he thought that baby blue and sky blue too common to be symbols of the University, Taber instead urged the adoption of a greener shade of light blue comparable to Cambridge University’s traditional blue, which is now in fact categorized as a shade of spring green. Once the greenish blue was finally agreed upon, Taber hoped to “establish for all time, a standard shade of Columbia blue that would have the authority of the University” to be used for such official purposes as print, silk, and bunting.
Clearly, Taber’s opinions, a knife in the heart to the 290-292 range we know and love today, prevailed over the dispute, because on June 10, 1927, University Registrar Edward J. Grant sent the Textile Color Card Association of the United States a “pale blue-green” fragment from a 1908 Columbia flag as a “sample of our college colors.” The existing sample, much darker and greener than Pantone 290 or even Pantone 292, bears hardly any similarities to the Columbia blues common to the University today, and more closely resembles teal.
Here an intriguing pattern emerges: It seems the crux of the Columbia blue problem was never one of standardization, but instead one of the University administrators’ engagement and investment. A mere quarter of a century after Taber standardized tourmaline as the official color of Columbia in 1927, those in the University administration apparently disregarded the standardization altogether—or at least let the decision lapse into obscurity.
By 1950, when a managing director of the TCCA wrote a passive-aggressive note to Columbia asking them to confirm their official school colors of light blue and white, administrators were operating on an entirely different set of considerations. Instead of just branding Columbia athletics, the Public Relations Policy Group, a committee that was in charge of setting up branding campaigns at the time, needed a color that could represent the whole of the University for the bicentennial approaching in 1954.
The University administration was hard-pressed to promote the standards and themes of the university as much as possible in advance of the celebration. David Loth, director of public relations for Columbia’s bicentennial, emphasized that it was to be no “ordinary birthday celebration” but an opportunity for the University to “use this occasion and Columbia's vast resources to promote the world’s progress by emphasizing as its theme the free development of knowledge and information.”
For those very reasons, in 1954, the Policy Group opted to select a “more practical fashion color” than that which Grant had submitted to the TCCA in 1927. They chose a stylish “Bavarian blue” which, Loth speculated, could probably achieve “a considerable bit of publicity in the trade press.” This chic new blue, unlike its frumpy cousin, was fit to be paraded through catalogues and high-society salons much like Jacqueline Kennedy’s “First Lady pink.” Although the committee agreed that the color used in printing “will always be varied,” Loth recommended in a memorandum that the new Columbia blue standard be immediately communicated to “the Secretary, the Press, the Athletic Office and Development Offices.”
Three years later, choosing from an assortment of 18 blue chips with varying injections of grey, green, purple, and white, the Board of Trustees redefined Columbia blue as Martin-Senour #713, Color 240-10-4. Both these newer shades of blue, unlike the 1927 sample, are much more similar to the Pantone 292 that’s popular today.
Hoping to proselytize the new, trendy color as much as possible in anticipation of fall 1954, the Policy Group issued orders to contact fashion publicists, fashion show sponsors, and automobile manufacturers to ensure full promotion of Columbia’s colors. The bicentennial, as far as the Policy Group was concerned, was an invaluable opportunity for Columbia to market and broadcast the University’s values to the world. Unlike Taber, who was simply concerned with the selection of a color unique to Columbia’s branding (unlike the ubiquitous baby blue), the Policy Group was tasked to single out a shade that would ring well with fashionable society and lend itself easily to commercialization.
However, the new Bavarian blue and Martin-Senour #713 appear to have fallen victim to the same fate as the 1927 Columbia blue: left to the wayside. It wasn’t until another celebration 50 years later, at the 250th anniversary of the founding of King’s College in 2004, that the subject of defining an official shade of Columbia blue was revived again as a part of a powerful branding initiative facilitated by an influx of donations.
As all of us know from the Facebook links posted by every Deantini dissenter under the sun, in 2009, graphic designer for Columbia’s publications Sandy Kaufman published a visual identity guide (and an updated guide in 2011) for Columbia College, scandalously defining Columbia blue as Pantone 290 for communication purposes. However, Kaufman’s announcement diverged from the athletic department’s 1999 decision to use Pantone 292 for uniforms and memorabilia, resulting in the same confusion of and subsequent investigation into school colors today that troubled students and administrators 106 years ago.
The long, winding history of the Columbia blue, and the controversy surrounding Deantini’s speech, has motivated Paul Neshamkin, who graduated Columbia College in 1963, to conduct a major study of its development in tandem with Valentini. They will be publishing a full history of the standardization attempts and a joint statement from several departments about the future of Columbia blue in the upcoming winter issue of Columbia College Today. However, as of now, Columbia blue is all over the place. There is no uniform shade even within the various official publications issued by the University.
“If you ever just go in and try to pull out copies of all the different publications from all the different schools of the University and lay them side by side, you’ll see that there’s no standardization,” Neshamkin explains. “Even though the publications office of the University says that it should be a particular color, it isn’t.”
And yet, with each convocation, Valentini calls upon Columbia parents to welcome Pantone 292 into their hearts and their homes, suggesting they paint a room in their house the Columbia blue. Whether or not Pantone 292 becomes domesticated and standardized into oblivion, Valentini can rest assured that it—and the feuds surrounding it—have indeed lodged themselves in a special place in our hearts, if not our homes. No matter the outcome of future years of debates, our hearts will beat true for Pantone 292.