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Vol. 24, No. 23 May 19, 1999

What Is the Mace? A Guide to Columbia's Icons


Columbia's guests today are certain to recognize the "Pomp & Circumstance" theme, the mortar boards and the usual trimmings of a graduation ceremony. But very few visitors know the significance of Columbia's icons, which are especially prominent during Commencement. The following is a survey of some of the most enduring symbols of Columbia:

The Crown

Found on notebooks and athletic jerseys and on classroom ceilings and campus gates, the ubiquitous crown is to the University what the eagle is to the government. The crown recalls Columbia's beginnings in pre-Revolutionary New York, then a province of the British Empire. Chartered by George II in 1754, the school was named King's College and would only become Columbia (a word that would not even find its way into English, according to Webster's Dictionary, until several years after the founding of King's) 30 years later in 1784. The original crown, the model for the University symbol, was affixed to the weathervane above the college's first building on the corner of Church and Murray Streets in lower Manhattan, a few blocks north of Wall Street. It survived a revolution and a couple of moves uptown to hang at last above the fireplace mantle in the Trustees' Room of Low Library.

The Mace

During the academic procession's march on commencement day from Butler Library to the dais in front of Alma Mater and back, the item that provokes the most quizzical looks from the crowd is the University mace. Originally a medieval weapon with a spikey head used to puncture armor, the mace-or stave-was often the sidearm of choice for royal bodyguards. From that grew the significance of the mace today: as a symbol of temporal power.

The British House of Commons and the U.S. House of Representatives both have maces as do many universities and colleges here and abroad. Columbia's is an 18th-century reproduction of a mace designed in a style fashionable in England during the reign of James I (1603-1625). It is a little more than two feet long, covered in Sheffield plate with an ebony and silver handle bearing the inscription "The Mace of Columbia University-Gift of John Munro Woolsey-LL.B. 1901, LL.D. 1929-April 1933." Woolsey, who as a judge in the 1930s is remembered for lifting the U.S. ban on the sale of James Joyce's Ulysses, in the letter that accompanied the gift of the mace to president Nicholas Murray Butler, wrote: "What attracted me to it especially was the fact that it has a king's crown on its top. This seemed to me to seal its appropriateness as a gift to Columbia University as the sucessor of King's College."

Alma Mater

Seated at the top of the Low Plaza steps, Alma Mater (fostering mother) has welcomed all to Columbia since the turn-of-the-century. It is a four-ton bronze, eight feet high, sculpted by Daniel Chester French who also created the Abraham Lincoln that sits inside the memorial in Washington, John Harvard in that University's Yard and the Minuteman of Concord, Mass., among many other works. The inspiration for the statue is the school seal designed by its first president, Samuel Johnson, a rendering of which is embossed on the back of Alma Mater's chair. At its unveiling in 1903, the Columbia University Quarterly reported that "she represents [rather] the metropolitan university, symbolized by the best type of city womanhood; sane and strong, without doubt, but more conspicuously civilized, urbane, refined."

What is less conspicuous about her, to the mind as well as the eye, is the owl. Somewhere within the drapery of her clothing French carved an owl, but no one is sure why. It has nevertheless become a Columbia talisman. Sighting the owl, as Columbia lore had it in the days before co-education, would variously bring to a student either better grades on his exams or a Barnard wife. Since the College was mixed in the mid-80s, it is believed that the first student in each entering class to find the owl will four years later leave as Columbia's valedictorian.

Low Library

A succinct account of Columbia's founding is chiselled on the freize of Low. Below it is the inscription: The Library of Columbia University. Though also succinct, it is not entirely true. The building at the center of the Morningside campus and the favorite backdrop of photos and videos shot at Columbia has not been the University's main library for 65 years; that is Butler, which faces Low across the Plaza and South Field. Low Memorial Library, one of the first buildings in place when Columbia moved to Morningside Heights in 1897, has become the central administration building where the president and provost have their offices.