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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!