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Bryn Mawr College Lantern Collection

Identifier: BMC-lantern

Scope and Contents

The Lantern Collection houses student lanterns designed and owned by Bryn Mawr College undergraduate students. This collection, which dates from c. 1889 to c. 2018, consists of hand-held candle-lit lanterns of varying designs, colors, and sizes, evidencing the practice of initiation ceremonies in Bryn Mawr College undergraduate student life. The collection is not a full run of lanterns from every academic year but contains a small sampling of lanterns representing design trends and metalwork techniques from the late 19th century through the early 21st century. Each lantern is dated for the class year that designed and owned it, meaning that the date of production was approximately four years earlier than the class year. The collection contains lanterns of all four undergraduate class colors—dark blue, green, light blue, and red—as well as purple, the color for McBride Scholars. Graduate students from the School of Arts and Sciences and from the School of Social Work and Social Research have their own lantern color, yellow, but as the tradition of lanterns among graduate students is quite recent (fall 2017), a yellow lantern is not yet part of the collection. Undergraduate classes previously designed their own lanterns until 1937 when the design was standardized. The collection contains lanterns from both pre-1937 and post-1937. The Lantern Collection displays the creative spirit and community-oriented nature of Bryn Mawr College undergraduate students across the history of the college. This collection only has one series, which contains the entire collection of lanterns in the College Archive. Researchers interested in Bryn Mawr College’s undergraduate traditions, the traditions of women’s colleges, the history of the Seven Sisters, products of student self-governance, and undergraduate student life may find this collection to be a valuable resource.


  • Creation: circa 1889-2018

Biographical / Historical

Today, traditions at Bryn Mawr fall into two categories: major and minor. Major traditions consist of four regularly scheduled events throughout the academic year that end in group singing known as Step Sing. Minor traditions can be enacted at any point during the academic year and do not necessitate a group. Lantern Night, clearly, falls under the former category. The major traditions, in order, are Parade Night, Lantern Night, Hell Week, and May Day. Parade Night happens the Friday of the first week of classes each fall. Lantern Night is a Sunday evening in late October or early November. Hell Week is the second week in February, usually coinciding with Valentine’s Day. May Day is the first Sunday in May after the last week of classes in the spring semester. The minor traditions consist of a number of different activities and customs. They include, but are not limited to: class colors, May Day gifting, walking through the Friendship Poles, honoring the Senior Steps, May Hoop Racing, using class color tote bags, Rockefeller Dorm door window painting, honoring Senior Row, making offerings to Athena, celebrating sister classes, mailbox sticker decorating, rules for sitting on the Moon Bench, the installation of dorm room plaques, rushing the Senior Steps, facilitating Goodnights, the making and wearing of May Day crowns, telling stories of the dorm ghosts, the distribution of lizard keychains, Rockefeller Arch kissing rules, clotheslines of bras in Pembroke Arch and adjacent trees, senior bell ringing, stripping during Step Sings, Alumnae Mugging, skinny-dipping in the Cloisters fountain, and chanting the “Anass.”

The Lantern Night ceremony takes place on a Sunday night in late October or early November in the Cloisters of College Hall. The four wings of the building enclose a large, square garden with a fountain in the center. An arched walkway runs along the north, south, and west sides of the garden. The ceremony is a ticketed event; alumnae, current students, faculty, and staff can watch from the roof of the Cloisters or from within the arched walkway.

Planning for Lantern Night begins in early September at Dorm Meetings where sophomores, juniors, and seniors in each dorm volunteer to be Traditions Representatives for the academic year. Traditions Representatives facilitate the Lantern Night ceremony as well as activities during other traditions. By agreeing to be a Traditions Representative, students are signing up to participate actively within the Lantern Night ceremony. Planning begins early to ensure that there are enough Traditions Representatives of each class year to complete Lantern Night successfully.

There are three major roles for students during Lantern Night. First-years and other new students play the role of the Freshman—the uninitiated student receiving her lantern and becoming a Mawrter. Sophomores play the role of the Runner—the most recently initiated who brings lanterns to the new students. Juniors and seniors play the role of the Swinger—the eldest student setting the tone by singing and swinging her lantern from a distance. The responsibilities of these roles will be described further in the explanation of the ceremony.

The Saturday and Sunday before Lantern Night, the Traditions Mistresses and Senior Songs Mistress run rehearsals for student participants. First-years practice with the Traditions Mistresses how they will move through College Hall and the Cloisters during the ceremony. They also practice singing their song, “Sophias,” with the Senior Songs Mistresses. Sophomore, junior, and senior participants practice their roles in the ceremony with the Traditions Mistresses. The upperclassmen participants also rehearse “Sophias” and “Pallas Athena,” the two songs they will sing.

The Saturday before Lantern Night, Traditions Representatives move boxes of lanterns into a classroom within College Hall. They then attach a chain of small notes of congratulations (called a Lizard) to each lantern. These notes are typically made by student organizations and students in positions of authority, such as the SGA, the Traditions Mistresses, and various campus clubs and groups. Then, candles are wrapped in aluminum foil at their base and placed in every lantern. The lanterns are left in a classroom until Sunday night.

About thirty minutes before the ceremony is set to begin, Traditions Representatives arrive with their own lanterns in tow, which they received on Lantern Night in their freshman year. They then check out black academic gowns from a temporary booth in The Great Hall of College Hall. All Lantern Night participants must don academic robes, as established from the combination of Lantern Night and Cap and Gown Night discussed earlier. Once dressed, Traditions Representatives move the boxes of lanterns in the Cloisters and line them up in two rows beginning at the garden entrance in the western walkway and extending outwards into both the northern and southern walkways. They then start lighting the candles in every lantern. This process takes some time and patience as late autumn wind often blows the candles out. During the lighting of the lanterns, audience members file into the cloisters showing their tickets to robed students stationed at each entrance to the Cloisters. Around 7:00 pm first-years begin gathering outside the main entrance of College Hall wearing the robes they picked up in The Great Hall. They organize themselves in two lines extending down the pathway between College Hall and Taylor Hall. Once all of the participants are in place, all the lanterns are lit, and the audience has settled in, the lights in College Hall are turned off by a member of the College’s Facilities Services and a sudden hush falls over the crowd.

It is in this darkness and silence that the first-years, led by the Traditions Mistresses, begin walking into College Hall. The two lines peel apart and enter through small side doors on either side of the front of the building. Students walk through the dark interior corridors, which are lit only by the lanterns of upperclassmen. The first-years enter the Cloisters at the northern and southern doors closest to the eastern wall. As they enter the garden, they begin snaking back and forth creating two sections of neat rows parallel to the eastern wall of the garden.

Once all the first-years are lined up, the sophomore, junior, and senior Songs Mistresses enter the garden through the western arch and stand around the fountain. The sophomore Songs Mistress stands at the southern wall of the fountain, the junior Songs Mistress stands at the northern wall, and the senior Songs Mistress stands at the western wall. Once they are in place, the freshmen Songs Mistress steps out from the lines of first-years and stands at the eastern edge of the fountain. The fact that the freshman Songs Mistress is the last to take her place reinforces the focus of the ceremony onto the first-years.

Next, the sophomore, junior, and senior Songs Mistresses step up onto the fountain on their respective sides. This signals the junior and senior Swingers to step up into the many archways that encircle the Cloisters. There is one junior and one senior Swinger assigned to each arch. The placement of junior and senior Swingers creates am alternating pattern of lit lantern colors. The Songs Mistresses then begin lifting their lanterns up and down—a ritual action referred to as “swinging” their lanterns—to keep the tempo while students begin singing. Once the Songs Mistresses have established the beat, they turn to face the Swingers in the arches. The Swingers begin swinging their own lanterns in time to the rhythm established by the Songs Mistresses and then all the Swingers and upperclassmen Songs Mistresses begin singing “Pallas Athena.”

When the singing begins, sophomore Runners, who have been waiting in between the lines of lanterns in the western walkway, start their job. Two at a time, Runners pick up one lantern in each hand and run from the western garden entrance around the fountain and then, beginning with the farthest line of first-years, they place the lanterns behind the right ankle of each first-year. Once a Runner has placed both of the lanterns she carries, she reenters the walkway at the northern and southern arches, respectively, and gets in line to repeat the task. This is continued until every first-year has a lantern placed behind her. Swingers then finish the verse of “Pallas Athena” they are on and then step down from the archways. The upperclassmen Songs Mistresses do the same.

At this point, the freshmen Songs Mistress, standing at the eastern wall of the fountain, reaches behind her and kneels down to pick up her lantern. This signals the rest of the first-years to pick up their own lanterns. According to tradition, they are not allowed to look behind them when picking up their lanterns for the first time or else they will not graduate. Once all the lanterns have been lifted, the first-years, led by their Songs Mistress, sing “Sophias” once.

At this moment in the ceremony, the first-years can be seen as joining the ranks of Mawrters. With the lantern as a symbol for Mawrterdom, once the first-years pick up their lanterns, they can be considered fully initiated into the community. It is important to note that at this moment the first-years are singing “Sophias.” “Sophias,” of course, means wisdom in Greek, marking the moment as the initiation into the Bryn Mawr community but also the initiation into the life of the scholar and a lifelong pursuit of knowledge. The association between the lanterns and “Sophias” strengthens the metaphor of the Lantern Night ceremony, which will be discussed further in the next section. Once the first-years have finished singing “Sophias,” the upperclassmen Songs Mistresses step onto the fountain and the Swingers step back up into their respective arches. They then sing “Sophias” back to the first-years. This repetition of “Sophias” is important. It shows that the first-years have been accepted into the community and recognizes their presence.

The echo of “Sophias” marks the moment for first-years to leave the Cloisters the same way they entered. Once all of the first-years have exited the cloisters, the upperclassmen Songs Mistresses and Swingers stop singing and wait. When all the first-years have left College Hall and are outside in front of the main entrance, a senior begins the college cheer, known as the “Anass.” Everyone in the Cloisters then joins in, making sure that the first-years can hear the cheer even from outside College Hall, marking the end of the ceremony.

About forty-five minutes after Lantern Night ends, a Step Sing begins. Step Sing is the traditional gathering of students around the Senior Steps of Taylor Hall to celebrate the end of a tradition with singing. As Lantern Night is the second tradition in the academic year, first-years have previously participated with glow sticks as a replacement for their lanterns, making the Step Sing after Lantern Night particularly significant.

Lantern Night is designed around one key metaphor that explains the importance of the tradition. The lantern can be seen as a symbol for the sharing of knowledge and guidance as well as a need to care for and transfer that knowledge to new community members. More poetically, the lantern stands for the light of knowledge.

That gift of knowledge is passed on from the sophomores to the first-years, as the role of Runner is always filled by sophomores. This transfer of knowledge is meant to be a welcoming gesture. It makes sense, then, that the sophomores pass on this gift because they have most recently gone through the transition to Bryn Mawr and have just risen from the lowest rung in the student hierarchy. While traditions often put sophomores in an adversarial role in relation to the first-years, this dynamic is seen as playful; it operates as a way to encourage participation and learning. The juniors and seniors participate from more of a distance in the ceremony, acting as experienced community members who are responsible for setting the atmosphere and running the events. The juniors and seniors are also responsible for the majority of the singing—entirely in Greek—that occurs during the Lantern Night ceremony.

During the Lantern Night ceremony the sophomore, junior, and senior participants wear master’s gowns while first-years wear bachelor’s gowns—the key differences are the sleeve shape and shoulder setting. Bachelor's gowns have flowing, pointed sleeves. The master's gown has oblong sleeves, open at the wrist. The rear part of this oblong shape is a square cut and the front part has an arc cut-away. This stipulation in robe type is a small aspect of Lantern Night that aligns closely with the symbolic nature of lantern gifting.

The donning of both master’s and bachelor’s gowns visually reinforces the idea that older, experienced students are giving the gift of knowledge to the first years. It takes on another layer of meaning when one considers the fact that Bryn Mawr’s undergraduate college and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences were both founded in 1885. This intentional coupling of an undergraduate and graduate program within a women’s college was meant to inspire college community members to aspire to higher levels of education. With this in mind, the inclusion of master’s robes in the Lantern Night ceremony can be seen as an allusion to Bryn Mawr’s early history and an attempt to showcase the ambitious nature and academically oriented goals of Bryn Mawr students.

Lanterns are also integral to Step Sings. Step Sings are special events that occur after the four major Bryn Mawr traditions. At around 8pm after each tradition (except for Hell Week, which lasts only four days and does not have a regular Step Sing), students gather with their lanterns around the Senior Steps of Taylor Tower (the exterior staircase directly underneath the clock tower) and sit according to class year. The senior class sits on the Senior Steps. The sophomore class sits directly across from the seniors on the walkway of College Hall. The freshmen sit on the road parallel to Taylor Hall closer to Senior Row and the juniors sit on that same road just closer to Pembroke Arch. The Songsmistresses stand at the axis of this arrangement to lead the Step Sing and lead the classes through the songs for the evening. Candles are handed out for lanterns and songbooks are handed out to students. Typically, each class sings their class song and the senior class sings “Bread and Roses.” Light from student’s lanterns illuminate the Step Sing, creating a bright haze of candle light that acts as an insulating barrier for participants against the darkness that surrounds them.


42 items

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This finding aid was published as part of an Independent Study course in the History of Art Department, spring 2018

Cassandra Paul (BMC 2018)
2018 April 26
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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