“They woke me, had me sign the back of the painting, and took me downtown for breakfast with the painting seated next to me at the table,” Carbino recalled. She had just become the 17th recipient of Elsie the Cow, given to her by the painting’s two previous stewards, Ellen McCue Taylor ’61 and Josephine Deans Auchincloss ’60, who each obtained the painting in a similar manner from upperclasswomen.
Carbino, like the others, was told to display the painting in her room during her junior year, and not to tell anyone where or how she got it. The next spring, she was to pass it on to a sophomore in exactly the same way.
“I was both crestfallen that I would be living with this awful piece of artwork for the next year and honored to be chosen,” Carbino said.
Elsie the Cow, a Colby mystery only recently uncovered, was passed from woman to woman, with slight alterations in the tradition, from 1945 until 1997. What had begun as a playful prank (albeit one carried out with intense seriousness) eventually became a symbol of sisterhood and feminine power, gay rights, and multiculturalism. A ritual that centered on a simple painting came to reflect the trajectory of the culture of the country and the College.
But first, whose idea was it to choose a cow (the Williams mascot, of all creatures) for a secret Colby tradition, and why? How does a single painting change hands 50 times, adorn 50 different dorm rooms over 50 years, and remain a secret? And how did one Elsie recipient choose the next for what was by all accounts an honor?
Summer, circa 2005.
A Colby custodian is cleaning out a student trunk room in a dormitory basement. Rummaging among rugs, lamps, and bric-a-brac, he makes an unusual discovery—a seemingly mundane painting of a cow, somewhat battered and worn. This unimpressive artwork is surely destined for the trash, but the custodian dutifully checks to see if a student’s name is attached.
He finds a lengthy document taped to the back with the signatures of more than 50 students, some dating back to the 1940s. The cow painting is spared the dumpster and is delivered to a dean’s office instead.
Special Collections receives an inquiry: “Whatever happened to Elsie the Cow?” This tantalizing hint results in a detailed search of the Colbiana Collection—which reveals nothing.
A breakthrough! Paul E. Johnston, senior associate dean of students, retires. The Colbiana Collection receives a number of items from his office in the Eustis Building, including a painting of a cow that has hung there for about a decade—hiding in plain sight.The mystery bovine’s unexpected arrival in Special Collections is cause for wonder, if even more puzzlement.
An archivist’s description: Elsie the Cow. Oil on canvas, unframed, 24 inches (61 cm) by 18 inches (46 cm). Unsigned. A naturalistic portrait of a cow in a barn stall, possibly student work. Attached to the back with tape is a document with the following handwritten proclamation:
In the Spring of her junior year she shall, in turn, pass it on to the member of the next junior class whom she considers to have flat feet or other high recommendations, and who will, therefore, take undying care of Elsie and will continue the tradition.
Signed on this tenth day of June in the year of Our Lord nineteen hundred and forty-six.
There follow the signatures of 56 Colby women, from 1946 to 1996. The document, now yellowed and torn, was apparently drawn up and signed by the first three recipients at once. It was extended in 1956 to accommodate more signatures. Eight of the women listed are now deceased; two signatures are illegible. The list contains several Condon medal winners and women who would become Colby trustees and overseers, authors—including historian Doris Kearns Goodwin ’64 and Kate Bolick ’95—artists, academics, and activists. An impressive group, although most confess they had no idea why they were chosen while simultaneously stating clear reasons for choosing their successor. Leadership, academic excellence, sportsmanship, shared interests, friendship, and kindred spirits were among their reasons for selecting a recipient.
“I saw the list of names on the back and remember feeling really honored that I was given stewardship of Elsie.” —laura longsworth ’92
But why a cow, anyway? True, the early Mayflower Hill campus was little removed from cow pasture when the women took up occupancy in 1942. Up to that time, Colby women did not have any traditions they could call their own. The Borden Dairy mascot, another Elsie the cow, was already an influential figure with a popular syndicated advice column. Did they name the painting after her? Or perhaps after Elsie Love Scull ’45, who wrote articles for the Echo about campus traditions and who belonged to a short-lived women’s group at Colby in the 1940s, Gamma Omega Omega Nu, otherwise known as the GOONs.
According to Susan Lynch Henry ’48, one of the last presidents of the GOONs, the group was known for its curious spring initiation ritual. In the wee hours of the morning a group of senior GOONs would run through the women’s dorm rooms shrieking “You’re a GOON! You’re a GOON!” In the resulting hub-bub, they would choose six new members and take them out to breakfast.Considering the similarities in the two concurrent women’s traditions—unannounced, early morning awakenings in the spring followed by breakfast downtown, members chosen with no specific criteria, transfer of secretive traditions to successive classes—could there be a connection between GOONs and Elsies?
We may never know. The first three recipients of the painting are no longer living. But several of the surviving early Elsies said the tradition was something of a joke, although carried out with mock seriousness. Even when Eleanor Duckworth ’57 was awakened and asked to “moo” like a cow, she did so earnestly. For Paule French ’63, “there was a feeling of fun and camaraderie, and we tried to make it sound very important even though we didn’t feel it.”
Eight years later, Ann Miller ’71 took it more seriously, believing that the recipient “was supposed to have set a good example for others, be a good role model, caring, and thoughtful” in addition to being a good steward of the painting.
Detail of the signatures on the back of the painting.View back of painting
As time went on, the painting began to follow the arc of women’s history at Colby. It was passed between members of Colby’s first women’s ice hockey team in the mid-1970s; in the mid-80s it was stewarded by two openly gay women. “Both Susie [Talburt ’85] and I actually identified as lesbian women so we sort of got a kick out of this,” said Trustee Jane Powers ’86. “Here was this thing that was started way back when, and … this is how it was being manifested forty years later.”In the late 80s Elsie moved into other circles on campus. The painting spent time in a self-described “crunchy granola” circle of women living in Foss and Woodman halls, where it was no longer presented in secret in the early morning. Co-recipients Susan Maddock Hinebauch ’88 and Tanya Mead ’88 actually received it at an off-campus, co-ed dinner party.It didn’t take long, however, for Elsie to go back underground. By the 1990s, the secrecy of the tradition was reestablished, and respect for it had deepened. Laura Longsworth ’92 received Elsie from Margot Wood Owen ’90 in the basement suite in Treworgy Hall. “I saw the list of names on the back and remember feeling really honored that I was given stewardship of Elsie,” Longsworth wrote in an email.
Her choice for the next recipient was clear: Jennifer Alfond Seeman ’92, P’21, who recruited Longsworth to start a recycling program that found them rounding up cans and bottles from dorms in the early morning. “To me she had a clear view of what to do in the world,” Longsworth said of Seeman.
After Seeman, the remaining eight women to steward the painting ascribed a deeper, more feminist view to the tradition. Many of them were involved with a women’s group on campus, including Kate Bolick ’95, who “really liked this idea of being part of a secret society of women—a sisterhood.”
Jessica Wolk Benson ’96J chose her roommate, Sarah Muzzy ’97, because “she possessed a clear knowing of herself, brought great curiosity and heart to all her interactions, and cared a great deal about equality for women everywhere.”
This was a time when women of color were having a stronger voice amidst a turbulent multiculturalism movement on campus. Muzzy was actively involved in this movement, which included student protests and a push for a multicultural dorm on campus, leading eventually to the creation of the Pugh Center, which opened in 1996. It was in this climate that Muzzy passed Elsie to Adrienne Clay ’97 in what was a transformative moment in the painting’s history.
“We were like ‘Yes, let’s get this painting into the hands of women of color and bring these women into this sisterhood,’” said Muzzy, who suspected the painting’s former recipients were white women. “Passing the painting to a woman of color felt subversive.”
Clay, a student activist deeply involved in racial justice issues, said, “we were trying to be visible and vocal, pushing the institution … to think differently and act differently around these issues. It wasn’t always successful and it was really painful.
“It was a complicated situation to receive a piece of Colby history at that time in my relationship to Colby,” she said.
Clay, whose name is last on the back of the painting, passed Elsie on to another student. That recipient did not sign the back of the painting, and Clay declined to identify her, other than to say she was a woman of color and active on campus.
“I loved that there were no predetermined qualifications dictating who should be chosen, and that Elsie’s forward momentum was entirely contingent upon amorphous, invisible qualities like sensibility and affinity.” —Kate Bolick ’95
The painting, now fragile, will remain in the climate-controlled Special Collections section of Miller Library, preserved along with at least part of its rich history.
No matter the era, decades of women considered receiving the painting a special moment. “I am being dead serious when I say that Elsie was the honor I was most proud to earn during my time at Colby,” Bolick reflected. “I loved that there were no predetermined qualifications dictating who should be chosen, and that Elsie’s forward momentum was entirely contingent upon amorphous, invisible qualities like sensibility and affinity.”
By any standard, the tradition of Elsie the Cow was an impressive 50-year tour de force. “It never occurred to me that it would go on that long,” said Haroldene “Deanie” Whitcomb Wolf ’49, the oldest living recipient. “I think it’s amazing that something endured for that length of time.”