Dartmouth Winter Carnival Posters
The real and legendary images and perceptions of Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival have become linked in imagination and memory during the past century. The first manifestation of an organized competition of skiing ability, ski jumping, cross-country ski races, and snowshoe races at Dartmouth began in 1910. Two years later, the name “Winter Carnival” took hold. What began as a Dartmouth intramural event shortly became a major intercollegiate competition that has since become international. Although winter sports competition always was central to Winter Carnival, the social aspect of Carnival assured its sustained place in the life and lore of Dartmouth. For what was then an all-male undergraduate institution, the introduction of women as part of Winter Carnival framed the future of the event as the Mardi Gras of the North.
A description of the process of identifying the “Queen of the Snows” in a February 1952 article in New Hampshire Profiles by Clifford Jordan gives some sense of the early role of women in Winter Carnival:
The lucky Queen is selected in this manner from the galaxy of beautiful girls who come to Carnival: Early in the day, 15 selected Dartmouth students roam the campus to select 45 of the most pulchritudinous young ladies on hand for the Carnival. Gathered in the gymnasium just before the Outdoor Ice Show, the chosen group passes before a critical panel of five judges, made up of three student leaders, a professional photographer, and a visiting dignitary. Their choice is always a difficult one, but the charm, grace, and photogenic qualities of previous queens is positive proof that the girl who receives the crown will be worthy of it.
The selection process clearly changed over the years, and crowning a queen ended when Dartmouth became co-educational in 1973. Other “traditions” associated with Winter Carnival have come and gone, only to be replaced by new ones. The Dartmouth Library has been able to document and preserve these transitions in its collections.
The role of Special Collections and the College Archives, housed in Rauner Library, is to acquire, make accessible, and preserve unique materials that serve as the basis for discovery, reflection, and new scholarship. Rauner has collected hundreds of items pertaining to Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, including newspaper accounts, articles, programs, plays, films, songs, and even the crown that adorned the reigning Queen of the Snows. Among the most compelling artifacts associated with Winter Carnival are the posters that advertised the event on the campus. These posters became souvenirs of the weekends, and, in time, have become valuable to collectors. The images reproduced in this book illuminate the shifts in the broader cultural setting, as well as in graphic design history. Rauner Library has acquired (often through generous donations) as complete a set of Winter Carnival posters as is believed to exist. The originals are available for study, and serve as points of departure for exploring their quality as artistic objects and as cultural and historical documents.
This book includes essays by Steven Heller, editor of Voice: AIGA Journal of Design and chair of the MFA Design Department at the School of Visual Arts in New York, on the graphic design of the posters; Gina Barreca, Dartmouth alumna and faculty member at the University of Connecticut, on the students and the posters; and Jay Satterfield, Rauner’s Special Collections Librarian, and Peter Carini, the Dartmouth College Archivist, on Budd Schulberg’s papers, and in particular, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s infamous 1939 Carnival weekend with Schulberg. Each essay describes some part of the Winter Carnival experience, real or imagined. Finally, the descriptive documentation of the Winter Carnival posters in the Rauner Library collection, prepared by Kellen Haak, provides important documentation of the posters themselves.
Many individuals contributed to bringing this book to reality. Phyllis Gilbert and Joshua Shaw, both of the Rauner Library staff, provided valuable assistance in overseeing the digital photography of the posters and the scanning of other related documents. Richard Pult, acquisitions editor of the University Press of New England, was instrumental in coordinating the research and helping to shape the project. The entire staff of Rauner Library contributed in countless ways in revealing the rich collections of Winter Carnival materials. Special thanks should be given to Richard Thorner, Dartmouth Class of 1986 and chair of the Friends of the Dartmouth College Library, for his leadership and support of this publication on behalf of the Friends. And equal thanks to Barry P. Scherr and Carol L. Folt, former and current Provosts of Dartmouth College, for their ongoing support of the Dartmouth College Library and the University Press of New England in our collaborative endeavors. Finally, we are particularly grateful to the Manton Foundation for its generous support of Dartmouth and, in this instance, for producing the digital photography of the entire collection of Dartmouth Winter Carnival posters in Rauner Library.
Dartmouth is proud of its Winter Carnival tradition, one that continues to evolve and bears ongoing celebration, reflection, and documentation.
The Disenchanted in Hanover
|F. Scott Fitzgerald's note to Budd Schulberg.|
Pasted into Budd Schulberg’s first-edition copy of Tender Is the Night, now housed in Dartmouth College’s Rauner Special Collections Library, is an unassuming note scrawled on Hanover Inn stationery. It reads, “Bud (sic): Am upstairs doing a sort of creative brood, Scott.” Then, added below is, “Changed – gone out with Walter.”
The “Walter” referred to is Walter Wanger, Dartmouth Class of 1915, the Hollywood producer of over sixty movies, including Coconuts, Tarnished Lady, The Long Journey Home, Cleopatra, and the lesser-known Winter Carnival (1939). “Scott,” of course, is none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald, the voice of the lost generation and giant of twentieth-century literature. The “sort of creative brood” was, in truth, the continuation of a drunken bender started two days earlier that Malcolm Cowley described as Fitzgerald’s “biggest, saddest, and most desperate spree.”
In 1939, Walter Wanger Productions decided to use Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival as the backdrop for a college romance story. By 1938, Carnival had become so famous that it attracted winter sports enthusiasts from the universities of Oslo and Munich as well as about 5,000 students, guests, and visitors from all over the United States. In fact, there was discussion following the 1939 Carnival as to “whether [Dartmouth’s] largest social event of the year should be curtailed.” Wanger hired recent Dartmouth graduate Budd Schulberg, just three years out of college, to write the script. To assist the young writer, he secured the more experienced F. Scott Fitzgerald. Schulberg, upon learning that he would be working with Fitzgerald, exclaimed, “My God, isn’t Scott Fitzgerald dead?” The unflappable Wanger responded, “On the contrary, he’s in the next office reading your script.”
|"Keg O' Rum tickets, one bearing Walter Wanger Production's blanket consent to film the carnival participants.|
Fitzgerald and Schulberg spent five days in Hollywood failing to make headway on the project. Instead, they discussed literature, college life, and Hollywood itself. Schulberg was a tremendous fan of Fitzgerald’s writing, and the older writer, who had made only a pittance the past year on his royalties, was surprised. “I didn’t think anyone your age read any of those books,” he told Schulberg. Schulberg later admitted that he lied to Fitzgerald, telling him that his friends read him as well, when, in fact, “Most of my radical, communist-oriented peers looked on him as a relic.” After an unproductive week, Wanger insisted that the pair attend the upcoming Winter Carnival for inspiration and research. Fitzgerald protested (he said he remembered Carnival well enough from his Princeton days), but he needed the work and could not refuse his producer’s demand.
The subsequent cross-country tale of drunken pathos has become legendary. Schulberg’s father, a major Hollywood producer, was thrilled that his son would be working with Fitzgerald, whom he admired. To send them off in style, he presented his son with two bottles of champagne for the eighteenhour flight from Los Angeles to New York. Schulberg, completely unaware of the extent of Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, persuaded him to toast the ensuing trip. When the bottles were empty, Fitzgerald was off the wagon and in no shape to write the script they had been hired to complete.
In New York, Schulberg left Fitzgerald in the hotel, where Scott planned to take a bath and work out some ideas for the script. When Schulberg returned, he found an unpunctuated note from Fitzgerald: “Pal you shouldn’t have left me Pal because I went down to the bar Pal and then I came back and looked for you Pal and then I went down to the bar again Pal and I’ll be waiting for you there Pal when you get back Pal.”
Schulberg dragged him from a bar three doors down and the two tried to get serious about their work, but neither was in any condition to get anything done. Matters only got worse when they boarded the “Carnival Train” from New York to Hanover. The train was a weekend special devoted to transporting young women and other revelers to the College’s famous party. Fitzgerald easily obtained a bottle of gin and proceeded to get drunker, then the pair detrained at a scheduled stop for a late-night snack and returned just in time to watch the train leave the station. After finding a ride in a Model T without heat (they kept toasty by sipping applejack in the backseat under a blanket), they finally made it back on board the train and on to Hanover. There they discovered that they were without a room at the Hanover Inn and had to make do with a storage space in the attic furnished only with a metal bunk bed. Over the course of the alcohol-clouded weekend of “research,” they never once worked seriously on the script.
|Snow sculpture of Eleazar Wheelock on the Green||Dorothy Gardner 1939 Winter Carnival Queen, with Nat Sample, Delta Tau Delta '40, in front of snow sculpture.|
The pair stumbled right into a classic Dartmouth Winter Carnival. The weekend kicked off on Friday with comic ice skaters Russ Jones and Vera Hruba in the “Keg O’ Rum” program elaborately staged on a frozen artificial pond on the golf course. A giant snow sculpture of Dartmouth’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock, stood on the Green, three-foot beer stein in hand, while fraternities and dorms erected smaller sculptures across campus, including Ferdinand the Bull, several depictions of Wheelock in various states of revelry, and “The God of Winter” based on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.
|"Queen of the Snows" Dorothy Gardner, held aloft by her subjects.|
Future environmental activist J. Willcox Brown ’37 created a scare with a campus-wide hoax about stolen liquor permits (blaming Harvard, naturally). But most important of all, judging by the headlines in the student paper, the all-male student body welcomed 1,044 “girls” to campus in what The Dartmouth described as a bewildering “female blizzard.” On Friday night, a committee that included a faculty member, a visiting dignitary, and three students roamed the crowds to select a group of women for the Queen’s Court, from which Dorothy Gardner, a senior from Smith up for her weekend date, was selected Queen of the Snows: “I feel a little throb-throb about the whole thing … of course it’s wonderful,” she was heard to say. Apparently, winter sports were also part of the festivities. All the while, Wanger’s production team was organizing shoots across campus to create “atmosphere” for a film without a script.
Schulberg, exhausted by the trip and its excesses, and well aware that his scanty continuity script was going nowhere, tried to sound confident in his assessment of the project when he sat down with Julian Koenig of The Dartmouth. Despite his neophyte status, Schulberg tried to sound worldly by casually mentioning, “it’s not too easy, you know, to cram the whole of this ‘Dartmouth Spirit’ into a Carnival story and really grasp it. It’s a whole year’s job … and there’s plenty of headaches.” He then tossed off frustrations with his admission, “We’ve torn up a couple of ideas already … and this morning we threw out the entire script we just completed. The Hollywood way of doing things, you know.” Never mentioning Schulberg’s co-writer, or the trials of the weekend, the article notes that the young writer did “not enjoy his stay overly,” because it was “professional,” not a “holiday.” Still, The D reported that Schulberg “has what it takes to make it.”
|F. Scott Fitzgerald and Walter Wanger at Dartmouth.|
Wanger, anxious to show his old school that he had made it, paraded Fitzgerald through a series of social events, where the drunken writer was humiliated by the snobbery of Dartmouth professors, who treated him as an out-of-print has-been, no longer relevant in American letters. Wanger and Fitzgerald sat down for an interview with Dartmouth reporter John Hess ’39 (who later would become lead writer for the soap opera Love of Life and contributor to hit shows like One Day at a Time, The Rockford Files, and M*A*S*H). Hess focused on the still-relevant movie producer and barely noted Fitzgerald’s presence at the interview. After a lead paragraph on Wanger, he added:
In a chair directly across from Mr. Wanger was Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, who looked and talked as if he had long since become tired of being known as the spokesman of that unfortunate generation of the 1920’s. Mr. Fitzgerald is working on the script of Mr. Wanger’s picture, “Winter Carnival.”
The humiliation drove Fitzgerald to drink more feverishly: Schulberg recalls trying to force a nearly comatose, hallucinating Fitzgerald to bed on Saturday night, then going back out to find “a friendly fraternity bar.” He was shocked when Fitzgerald soon tracked him down, and the two continued to drink the night away. Stumbling back to the Hanover Inn, they found Wanger waiting for them. He summarily fired both writers, who immediately boarded a train to escape the “arctic hell” they had made for themselves. Finding that no hotel in New York would take them in their condition, Fitzgerald asked Schulberg to check him into Doctor’s Hospital and to divert a visit that he had arranged with his daughter, then a student at Vassar.
Schulberg’s knowledge of the college scene was essential to the project, and he was quickly rehired by Wanger with two other writers, Lester Cole and fellow Dartmouth graduate Maurice Rapf ’35 to complete the script.
|Maurice Rapf, Charles Reisner, and Budd Schulberg, from a Walter Wanger Productions publicicty shot for Winter Carnival.|
Even though he was no longer on the payroll, an apologetic Fitzgerald sent several letters and notes to Schulberg with ideas for the script and observations he had made about the culture of the Ivy League and Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival. In one letter, now preserved as part of the Budd Schulberg Papers in Rauner Special Collections Library, Fitzgerald suggested an opening that would evoke Dartmouth’s beginnings: A throng of squaws on snowshoes were to burst in on “Ebenezer” [Dartmouth’s founder, Eleazer Wheelock] busily engaged in educating a group of Native American men. The scene would turn to wild dancing then fade to the modern-day train station full of young Dartmouth students awaiting the arrival of their Carnival dates. Still, Schulberg was impressed by Fitzgerald’s insights:
I was amazed at the deadly accuracy with which he dissected a campus he had not revisited in years, and in his criticism of an educational system that tends (with certain notable exceptions) to make men conform rather than challenge established ideas.
|Supporting players Helen Parrish and James Corner in Winter Carnival.|
Eighteen months later, Fitzgerald was dead at age forty-two, destroyed by alcoholism and perceived by most at the time as the voice of an unimportant and utterly irrelevant generation — a failure. The interview with The Dartmouth during Carnival Weekend was the last he ever granted. It took almost a decade for his works to come back into print; now, of course, he is required reading on syllabi across the country, including at Dartmouth. Schulberg’s trajectory was quite different: The author of the best-selling What Makes Sammy Run went on to win an Oscar for his script for On the Waterfront. While his fateful weeks with Fitzgerald may not have produced a masterpiece, they helped to shape his career and inspired his novel The Disenchanted.
The film Winter Carnival went on to be produced (without Fitzgerald’s opening scene), and was a minor success for Wanger. It is revived each year at Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival with a campy glee that looks past the tragedy it helped to create for one of America’s foremost literary figures. Schulberg reflected on the film’s cult status at Dartmouth, “it’s become a tradition at Winter Carnival. They show it at midnight on Saturday night, and the kids just absolutely flip out, I mean, it beats the Marx Brothers for comedy. They just scream with laughter and fall out of their seats. I’ve sat there with them and thought, ‘Oh, if they only knew. If they only knew …’”
 The story of Fitzgerald’s Carnival weekend has been told many times. Budd Schulberg has recounted it numerous times, most notably in his “Old Scott,” Esquire (January 1961): 97–101, and fictionalized in his novel, The Disenchanted (New York: Random House, 1950). Aaron Latham thoroughly lays out the entire weekend in Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood (New York: Viking Press, 1971): 216–26. Unless otherwise noted, the details that follow are taken from “Old Scott” and Crazy Sundays. The Cowley quotation is from Latham, Crazy Sundays.
 For a rundown of all of the events, including the winter sports, see The Dartmouth, 17 January 1939; 7 February 1939; 8 February 1939; 9 February 1939; 10 February 1939; 11 February 1939; 13 February 1939.
 Julian Koenig, “Budd Schulberg ’36 Writes Scenario for Wanger Movie,” The Dartmouth, 14 February 1939. By the time this article appeared in The Dartmouth, Schulberg and Fitzgerald had been fired from the project.
One Student's View
Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival posters offer the observer an exhilarating flipbook of a century’s worth of history. Presented as a series of rapturous moments, each poster reflects an inimitable perspective on the life of Dartmouth College and on the mindset of its students. Viewed in sequence, the power of the images is multiplied, and the College’s defining social, cultural, and athletic traditions are shown as they develop and change along with the idea of Winter Carnival itself.
A welcome antidote to the idea that an Ivy League institution is a place where fun goes to die, Dartmouth’s three-day Winter Carnival has always been a whirlwind of intense experience ungoverned by the ordinary boundaries and tasks that shape conventionally acceptable behavior. During any carnival, from medieval days onward, the world is turned upside down and the usual order of things reversed; during Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, not only do the good times roll – they ski jump and skate.
Part of the legacy of being a Dartmouth student is to embrace the fact that its students play as hard as they work, and to know, first-hand, that they work very hard. Dartmouth students were never as faux-cosmopolitan or speciously sophisticated as those whose schools were not planted firmly in the woods, and Winter Carnival was not a venue for those who preferred raccoon coats and sports cars. Instead, it offered cheer to those with sweaters and a passion for informality. Even if you didn’t have the granite of New Hampshire in your muscles and your brains, you felt yourself to be a true Dartmouth student during that one weekend in February.
I, for one, rarely ventured outdoors during my time on campus. Nevertheless, I eagerly anticipated Winter Carnival.
Winter Carnival was founded by Fred Harris of the Outing Club as a way for Dartmouth students to exercise something other than their intellects during the long frozen months of winter in New Hampshire. The 1911 poster shows a skier hanging in midair between the name “Dartmouth” and the phrase “Winter Sports”; the word “carnival” does not appear (page 34). By 1935, however, another skier – dressed in an ensemble as hip in 2010 as it was 75 years earlier – is placed directly above the announcement of “Dartmouth Carnival” (page 35). The imprimatur was in place.
In 1936, the central figure on one of two posters is a woman: Head flung back, arms outstretched, long legs gracefully scissored, wearing a tiny skating skirt, and sporting a wide smile, she’s clearly happy to be in Hanover (page 36). And she wasn’t the only one; Winter Carnival very quickly became a way for the sons of Dartmouth to meet like-minded sisters from other schools. A few years later, The Dartmouth was cheering that “Hanover is set back on its collective heels as girls, girls, girls pour in.” If the handsome couple filling the frame in 1939 is any indication, not many were eager to get back on their collective toes (page 42).
Whether we’re admiring the muscular figures of lone skiers poised against fierce, white backgrounds from 1911 (page 34), 1935 (page 35), and 1965 (page 69), arching our eyebrows at the sexual suggestiveness of posters from 1948 (page 51), 1969 (page 73), and 1970 (page 76), or grinning at the self-aware, practically winking posters from 1962 (“North Side Story,” page 65), 1966 (“Winter Wanderlust,” page 70), and 1971 (“Fun for the Whole Family,” page 77), each image rewards the viewer with an important glimpse of the cultural and aesthetic idiosyncrasies of its generation. And yet they are all centered on one event.
A hundred years of community, camaraderie, riotous conviviality, and profound memory-making are represented in this compilation of images. Each poster is patterned as elegantly and individually – and yet as ideally suited to the whole – as an ice-crystal that is part of a snowflake.
And some of these snowflakes have lasted nearly a century.
Interestingly, many of the posters don’t offer any details concerning events whatsoever, but instead rely on the strength of evocation or association: We have snow, ice, winds, bears, wolves, and more snow – or Baker Tower, or Dartmouth Hall, or a Ted Geisel character. These, it seems, are sufficient. For a hundred years, students have placed the posters adorned with these images on their dormitory walls, noticed them on bulletin boards along myriad corridors, and enjoyed them in passing.
Only now, in this unique collection, do the Dartmouth Winter Carnival posters come into their own – and therefore into our line of sight – with their power not only intact, but multiplied. Each offers evidence of its own generation’s particular aesthetic sense, while celebrating the College’s essential continuity.
Whether focused on the inevitable (and enviably athletic) Nordic blondes in posters from 1936 to 1939 (pages 36, 37, 38, 39, 40 ,41, 42, & 43), or filled to the frame with cartoon figures in posters from 1970 and 1991 (pages 76 and 97), these images represent both tradition and originality. Placed shoulder to shoulder as they are in this volume, they parade before us like versions of ourselves from the mythically halcyon days of youth. Whether opulent and charming, like the posters from 1997 or 2000 (pages 103 and 106), or iconic and severe like the ones from 1956 and 1962 (pages 59 and 66), they generously permit us to recover an intimacy with a place, a time, and a world we once loved, even if we never actually experienced it except in our imaginations.
How much, after all, do our fondest memories need to be fact-checked? We should be able to check reality at the door like a bulky overcoat. How much does it matter if anyone ever really skied like that, snowshoed like that, skated like that, danced like that, or drank like that? Of course, yes, of course, we did; each of us looking at these pages was one of those lucky few. Let’s stick to that story. Art, as represented by these works, is not designed to reveal facts, but instead to revel in the irrepressible. Carnivals historically and notoriously are based on fantasy and delight in beauty, pleasure, and the shattering of rules.
Is it shocking that posters from earlier days, before co-education, focus on the then-rare sight of women? No. Is it surprising that the posters from the late 1970s and early 1980s center on images of gold? No. Are we shocked to discover that, as the College becomes more diverse, and indeed as Winter Carnival itself focuses less on sports alone but comes to include all manner of entertainment, that the posters become increasingly theatrical and fantastic? Of course not.
We should remember that the Dartmouth students for whom and by whom these documents were created have always been very young. The quintessential Winter Carnival celebrant is a matriculated undergrad who has four years of Carnival to define the experience, and to be defined by it. If some of the images appear idiosyncratic or representative of the fads, colors, designs, and politics of their own time, we should not be surprised.
We should be more surprised to discover that most of these posters can somehow speak to us in a universally intelligible language. This is because they proceed from a single, vital premise – the announcement of a real-life moment – and refer to a common inheritance: a ritualized celebration of optimism during the dark days of winter. The images collected here literally illustrate the prevailing aesthetic of their day, as they must, and yet they also are constructed as part of a tradition, a custom, and as such reveal an awareness of the traditions of Dartmouth Winter Carnival – an awareness of custom reflected either in its observance or in its breach by each individual artist.
These are indelible events; as a Dartmouth student, you remember your Carnivals the way you remember your roommates and your favorite professors. You remember, if you graduated after 1939, that F. Scott Fitzgerald was fired as a screenwriter for the film Winter Carnival (and remains uncredited) because he and Budd Schulberg (’36) spent their time in Hanover drinking instead of writing; you watched the movie – shown as it was every year – and mocked the beautiful Ann Sheridan without appreciating the scenes in which she outshone the campus. You remember waiting in line – sometimes pulling all-nighters in the snow – to get tickets for bands whose names you might or might not remember. For better or worse, you remember your dates; you remember the weather, the atmosphere, the parties; and you remember the posters.
The posters during your years in Hanover represent one version of your time at Dartmouth.
Images from the new millennium reflect a preference for cartooning over more traditional graphic illustration. There’s an emphasis on the particular “theme” of that year’s Carnival – often a nod to a written work, and that work quite often a fantasy – so that whether they celebrate Dr. Seuss, acknowledge J. R. R. Tolkien, or wave in the direction of Lewis Carroll, the new century’s works have a vivid and fantastical sense of their own.
Except for one: The poster from 2001’s Carnival is uncanny, offering a preternaturally stark vision of a tall, straight building rising into the sky in conscious homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, while simultaneously and inadvertently anticipating the fall of the World Trade Center later that year. The resonance of that clear, cold, architectural image is impossible to ignore.
It seems safe to assume, however, that the posters were designed to appeal to popular tastes and not with an eye toward the scrutiny of a perhaps ungenerous posterity. If certain of these posters belong more specifically to a blinkered time in the College’s vision, then they are useful in terms of discovering how Dartmouth once saw itself – and reflecting on how radically that perception has developed, expanded, and shifted. That’s no small accomplishment for what some might consider pieces of ephemera. A combination of illustrated memorandum and oversized menu, the posters were designed to inform and entertain, but only briefly; they were not monuments to be enshrined, but temporary notices to be plastered on bulletin boards.
For example, the 1941 poster of a smiling young woman (page 46) in what must be the world’s worst sunglasses (are they actually made from fabric?) frightens me nearly as much as the poster from 1963, which features a cartoon Indian, butt in the snow, wearing only earrings, a bead necklace, a feather in his hair, and a D on his chest, and making eyes at a snow bunny in a manner that can only be regarded as unnatural (page 67). Just as any college is an institution defined by and dependent upon adaptation as much as upon tradition, so do these posters reflect the fluctuating sensibilities of their own times. Not every moment of our individual or collective heritage is pretty.
And yet our heritage converges to make us what we are today. To put all these images in sequence is to give them a context. To acknowledge the College’s past, even the parts that might now make us cringe, is useful when constructing its future.
Clearly these posters were not meant to “sell” Winter Carnival – they didn’t need to – or even, after the first few years, to offer any detailed information about the weekend calendar. Instead, the posters act as showcases for the soul of the college. They synthesize their own contemporary sources and incorporate an understanding of the College’s influence. Each year offered the fresh reconception of an ever more legendary weekend festival. Whether coolly avant-garde (as is my favorite poster, from my birth year, 1957, page 60) or rustically nostalgic (as was the poster from my junior year, 1978, page 84), the distinctively, ineffably Dartmouth-centered nature of these materials is only part of what makes them enduring as well as alluring.
The posters have something apart from the functions of utility or decoration; they can communicate to the careful viewer a genuinely native view of a transitory tribe. Youth rarely paints a portrait of its own perishable community without making faces or dressing up as if for an interview and thereby falsifying itself. This sequence of posters permits a rare excursion into what a transient population considers to be the essential imagery of its own moment. The student of that day is communicating to the student of that day, and always speaking in the present tense. “This is how we’re celebrating,” the posters announce. “This is who we are, right now.” Say he’s a fly caught in amber; say she’s crystallized in a frozen moment. Remember: whether it’s 1936 or 2006, he’s always just come of age and she’s always barely twenty-one.
And they refuse to hibernate, these students. That’s what the posters remind us. These students insist on playing in the snow. The posters collected in this volume show us Dartmouth College not as it is, but as it appears, or once appeared, in the creative imagination of a century of students. They show us, in bold lines, bright colors, and enchanted settings, not ourselves as we are, but ourselves as we once were. That might well be cause enough for celebration.
Winter Carnival springs eternal!
The Perfect Poster Storm
Like clothing, posters are fairly accurate indicators of time and place. Just as hemlines go up and down and lapels become narrower or wider, certain graphic styles go in and out of fashion, marking moments in social and cultural history and their points of origin. Unless the work is a convincing pastiche, it is easy to distinguish a poster made in the 1930s from one made in the 1950s or a poster made in the 1950s from one made in the 1960s and so on. And despite the continual return of old fashions as new, subtle and not so subtle nuances typically reveal the original era during which a poster was created. The collection of Dartmouth Winter Carnival Posters at Rauner Library supports this idea of historical specificity in the most vivid way possible. This is the perfect storm of poster art, not because every poster is perfect – some, in fact, are amateurish, while others are exquisite – but rather because it is extremely rare to find a collection focused on a single theme spanning such a broad period of time.
That the Dartmouth Winter Carnival was promoted and commemorated so completely through posters is quite an achievement. Parsing the history of posters, it is possible to find certain institutions, organizations, and events well represented, but few with such consistency as this. Any graphic design “archeologist” would find this “dig” a remarkable resource, if only to learn how dominant certain styles have been. Yet at the risk of sounding critical, the individual works in this collection are indeed dedicated followers – certainly not instigators – of fashion.
So what can be learned from these offerings? In 1911 (the earliest poster), a style of graphics introduced in the late nineteenth century is apparent: reduction of forms toward abstraction (page 34). The stiffly rendered chiaroscuro image in the 1911 poster mimics the style of the day. While it captures the action of the figure, however, it does so in an inelegant manner. By contrast, the 1935 poster is decidedly more confident in terms of form, concept, and action (page 35). (Note that the collection includes no posters from the years 1912 through 1934.) While skiing posters characteristically follow the same basic conventions (that is, they illustrate skiers zooming down slopes or flying up snow banks), how the designer or illustrator renders the action is key to making a cliché soar or fall. One of the 1938 posters, showing a wooden ski that appears about to fly out of the frame into the viewer’s face, is a powerfully expressive and decidedly mnemonic image (page 40). It is also a perfect stylistic copy of work by the Austrian posterist Joseph Binder (known for removing all detail from the human figure, leaving just the salient features) and Otis Shepard (Binder’s primary acolyte, famously known for his Wrigley’s Doublemint gum posters that placed a focused emphasis on the pearly white teeth).
Although I had never heard of the Dartmouth Carnival poster artists before, those who worked in the 1930s and 1940s were clearly very skilled exponents of what was called “streamline” or “art moderne” design. The most popular tools of that time were the airbrush and litho crayon, which reveal themselves throughout the collection. One of my favorite images, from 1940, is not simply representational but is a conceptual tour de force that layers various messages while retaining a sublime simplicity (page 45). And it is colorful, too.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s (after a brief hiatus for World War II), the posters continue to show the patina of the gradually fading moderne approach (pages 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 43, 44, 45, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, & 52). By 1951, a kind of faux Bauhaus Constructivism is introduced, exemplified by the diagonal type treatment and schematic illustration (page 54). Unlike the pre-war avant garde that influenced it, however, this poster is kitsch (observe the excessive use of snowflakes). By 1953, kitsch imposes itself even more. For instance, the lettering that spells out “Winter Carnival” on that year’s poster, influenced by Italian Futurism, is made silly by the inclusion of polar ice caps, not unlike the lettering common on ice machines (page 56). I call this sort of styling “typography parlant,” because it speaks to the purpose of the word or phrase. Not until 1957 does the old-fashioned or retro style give way to a somewhat contemporary design scheme. While the Dartmouth headline is typical of varsity lettering, the skiing figure is rooted in the jazzy idioms of the day, popularized in movie titles by Saul Bass (page 60). If the designer had removed the headline, the poster would have represented a radical stylistic shift. Instead, it is like a modern building with a classical façade, suggesting compromise and lack of confidence.
By the 1961 poster, graphics change radically for the worse. The Winter Carnival flapper, an energetic drawing, is overpowered by the lettering and the inexplicable black vortex behind the dancing figure (page 64). The clever parody of West Side Story in the 1962 “North Side Story” poster is a nice try at echoing the original musical’s emblematic poster, which features linear, high-contrast fire escapes attached to the lettering (page 65). However, the typography here seems an afterthought. A number of attempts at developing new graphic idioms appear in subsequent posters, but only a few come close to success. The extra-large snowflake from 1968 echoes the Swiss or International School design aesthetic of that era, with a little added humor to prove it’s not an exact copy (page 72). The vibrating color poster of 1969 echoes the Psychedelic sensibility without copying the originals too much (page 73).
Curiously, the overall quality of the posters declines markedly in the 1980s and 1990s, as styles tend to blend into one another (pages 86, 87, 88, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 99, 100, 101, 102, 103, 104, & 105). Perhaps this can be attributed to the decline of mass commercial graphic styles in the era of “deconstruction,” an experimental approach to typography that demanded an insider’s connoisseurship of graphic design. The poster artists pull from many sources (a characteristic of postmodern design at the time) but seem to be directionless. Some designers use satire (such as the 1986 parody of Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, page 92) and others employ classicism (including the 1988 discus thrower, page 94).
This critique is not intended to demean these posters, but rather to place them in context. The historical continuum they represent is amazing. Even more valuable is the fact that they have been preserved not just as nostalgic souvenirs, but as a body of work, representative of an era in which the poster – a form that is gradually dying in the online, virtual world – was a major means of mass communication.