Banner’s back, baby

Another organization, snatched back into the hands of the students from the cruel yoke of Yale’s administration! Sounds like a fight for freedom, but in the case of “The Banner,” it may just be a story about tough financial times and the college yearbook.

In 1995, “The Yale Banner” was placed under the control of the Association for Yale Alumni. The move was basically a bailout.

“‘The Banner’ staff decided to invest in $150,000 of technical equipment they weren’t able to pay for and didn’t know how to use.” said Greta Carlson ‘10, co-Editor in Chief. “Someone needed to be supervising.”

Computers: forward-thinking. But not thought through. In debt, “The Banner” ceased to be a student organization, its staff reduced to a few salaried undergraduates. Now, money problems are biting on the other end. With the AYA shaking out its pockets, “The Banner” was first to go. What will happen now that it is — poorer, perhaps — but free?

HISTORY

“The Banner” spent its first year as a controversial pamphlet, before switching over to a 168-year run in its current form. In 1841, a student newspaper called “The Banner” was distributed in response to a violent riot that pitted Yale students against New Haven firemen (fair contest?). The next year, no riot took place. So, “The Banner” gave itself a new, milder purpose—to publish a single broadside list of society memberships and academic honors.

So what has been added, what’s been taken away? Society lists are out; adverts from the J.F. Riddell Oil Company are out; happy for all, photos from the Mohican Club with its Yalie squaws and braves (members include Big Chief “Hebe” Alsop…from Hotchkiss) are out. Color, quotes, and congrats ads from doting parents are in.

“The Banner” has a swank office under the dome of Woolsey, with its own adjoining dark room. At its peak, the space accommodated a staff of more than 40 people. Now it’s just Faye Zhao ‘10 and Greta Carlson and a few stragglers, and they don’t even use the office. Most of their work can be done on a computer from a dorm room.

An 1896 New York Times ran a story with the headline, “The Yale Banner Issued: Fifty-fifth Volume of the Publication Full of Interest to Students.” Sounds like a slow news day in Manhattan. But the question’s valid, is “The Banner” still “full of interest” to us all?

Says graduate Tom Schmidt of his yearbook, “I don’t know where mine is now. It certainly wasn’t, like a high school yearbook, filled with hasty and clumsy inscriptions from classmates, composed in friendship or desire or dissimulation. Maybe as we age our nostalgias need less and less to fasten onto something tangible…”

INSIDE THE BANNER

Flipping through a stack of Banners, I might posit a tonal arc: from stodgy (it’s 1842, they were trying their hardest!) to fresh and funny to the current book…again, a tad stodgy. A sense of humor found and lost …possibly under the AYA? Let’s examine.

1937 Banner: Called “ The Yale Banner and Potpourri.” The editors express a conflict of interest: spice things up or keep things old-school? In their words: “maintain our task of picturing tradition” or “enliven the necessarily stereotyped contents of an annual.” The first seems to win out. Posed men in fancy dress, for pages.

1950 Banner: Now, the editors are starting to make jokes. Sample: “Senior Arnie Blackmur faces the acid test of Yale stamina—Friday lunch.” Another sample: A photo of a lap lane, “as seen from staff helicopter.” Ho-ho! There’s a lot more text in this book—mini-essays describing each college, etc. Polls are introduced at this point, and we get some fun stats: 25% of undergraduates are married; 80% do not consider themselves “white shoe” men; 58% of the class would be willing to pay two more dollars per week for better food. Ads are puzzling (“Duofold Health Underwear,” for instance).

This book is looser, and Yale itself might have a different character now, with many of its recent students veterans of the Second World War. Case in point, The Aviation Society, which notes in The Banner: “During the weekends when no club activities took place, many of the members flew the planes on personal trips to places within a few hundred miles.

1983 Banner: This yearbook opens and reads horizontal. And it really reads. There’s a section publishing literary essays on the Yale experience that run a thousands words or longer. Clubs write witty little bits about themselves. Take this painfully honest transition sentence from the YSSSJ: “Unfortunately, the year was not nearly so good for Soviet Jews as it was for the Yale Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry.”

The book showcases, among other things, how weird kids decorate their dorm rooms. The best caption: “Some people collect coins or stamps. Some people collect old wines or Hungarian glass sculptures. Some collect bottle caps or stocks and some collect art. But I don’t.” Pictured above is a young man standing over a Silliman fireplace where he has mounted an astonishing array of revolvers, bayonets, and swords.

In 1983, you know that the cool kids weren’t making “The Banner,” but at least these are the people once-removed. The book is pretty smart.

Enter the 2008 Banner, made under the AYA.

“It’s pretty traditional,” Carlson said.

And it is. There are new elements—color photos, notes of congratulations. Student groups don’t get essays, but students get quotes (try to do better than the ’08 grad who chose “siiicklaxtoads.”) There are cute polls, sports pages, but the book is basic and the writing’s rather formal.

The 2008 Banner states, “The Levin years have brought to Yale an urgency for physical restoration whose equal has never yet been seen…to an entire generation of Yalies ubiquitous blue fencing will be as embedded in their memories” Are we back in 1937?

Yearbooks are dated as soon as they go to print. Take this survey response from 2008: “Now do you really expect anyone to fit even a watered down answer to this question in just 150 characters?” (baby days of Twitter, duh). But if we pack a little personality into our memorabilia, the honesty is lasting.

CHANGES?

It’s all projection, but “The Banner” might be at a point of transition. Before Zhao and Carlson graduate, they’re moving the yearbook back under the dome at Woolsey. They’re spending the summer cleaning it out, sprucing it up. And they’re recruiting new people.

“We’re waiting for that Type A go-getter person who is really excited about taking this to a different place next year,” Faye said.

Well, if she’s looking to find that kid, Yale might be the right place.

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