No one is quite sure why ivy became synonymous with academia, but we know when Penn’s ivy traditions began—in 1873, the year the University moved to West Philadelphia. If early photographs are accurate, the campus looks barren and windswept and the urge to plant the evergreen vine, genus Hedera, seems inspired.
“Ivy planted by the Class of 1873” reads the simple plaque affixed to College Hall on the very first Ivy Day. The original idea was to honor a favorite professor by affixing an engraved stone near the place where he taught. In the succeeding years, that idea has been abandoned and now they are scattered everywhere across Penn’s 269 acres.
In 1875, the first design innovation was introduced—the stone itself was shaped like an ivy leaf. Since then, every stone includes the ubiquitous palmately lobed leaves of the helix (English) variety. Except for the recent spate of self-consciously “retro” looks, the stones really function as marvelous tiny time capsules of fashions in typography and iconography.
Today, the senior class board, with help from the Office of Student Life, oversees a competition to design the class stone and selects the site. On Ivy Day (the Saturday before commencement), at the conclusion of the alumni parade, the class plants ceremonial sprigs of ivy, presents its commemorative Ivy Stone and the eight honor awards recipients are announced.
The mathematicians among you may have figured that there are 130 Ivy Stones, but actually there are 168. For one year, 1885, two stones were dedicated, one for arts and one for sciences, both on the west front of College Hall. From 1926 to 1967, the men’s and women’s classes created separate stones. The distaff stones can all be found on Bennett Hall, home of the College for Women, and Hill House, the first women’s dormitory.
Much of the material for this story was taken from information at www.library.upenn.edu/exhibits/pennhistory/ivystones/ivystones.html
Originally published on January 15, 2004