A brief history of Washington University’s Bear

This post was originally published on the University Libraries blog by Bianca Lopez, PhD candidate in History, on June 14, 2012. 

The history of the Washington University mascot, the Bear, is colorful in its own right, and intertwined with that of its home institution. Since the Bear’s beginnings, University athletic teams, fraternities, and administration have all had a hand in shaping its appearance and function. When digging up the Bear’s past, it’s often best to look toward WashU’s own long-running publications, The Hatchet and Student Life, for photographic context and history.

The 1929 edition of The Hatchet.

The 1928 edition of The Hatchet.

The earliest mention of the current mascot dates to December 1925, when an open referendum vote was held to change the team name from the Pikers to the Eagles, the Bearcats, or the Bears. The student body voted 320-106 for the Bears, and the event coincided with the donation of a black bear cub to the University. In those days, team mascots were not simply students in costumes, but live animals, and the earliest photographs of the bear cub on the playing field can be found in the 1928 edition of The Hatchet.

As it seems, not everyone was happy with the election’s outcome. A Washington University Student Life editorial hinted at the possibility of conspiracy: “Many believe [the name change] was a cleverly prearranged affair of chicanery, especially when the city newspapers within eight hours of the vote refer to our team as the Bears. They are convinced when, within twenty-four hours, follows the announcement that a cub has been donated to the University to be used as a mascot … It does seem miraculous that thirty minutes of oratory could accomplish what years and years of agitation culminating two years ago in a decisive referendum failed to do.”

Nonetheless, the mascot stuck. In 1928, the basketball team adopted the bear for its jersey and fraternity groups began to construct bear-themed floats for the annual homecoming parade.

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The live bear cub was soon replaced by an image of a scowling bear in a sailor’s cap, also known as the Battling Bear, which could be seen on athletic banners and University identification cards.

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The Battling Bear seems to date back to the early 1960s, when football coach Dave Puddington pushed for the scowling bear, feeling that it would help raise school morale after 16 consecutive losses. In 2003, Washington University Magazine commented on the bear’s resemblance to the US Coast Guard mascot: “One question surrounding its look was why a land-locked institution such as Washington University would have its mascot wear a sailor hat (unless it symbolized freshman beanies, which were a tradition on many college campuses, including Washington University).”

Also unknown are the origins of donning a bear costume for school sporting events. One of the earliest photographic examples of this dates to 1973 and features a student in a bear suit participating in a homecoming parade. Here a bear, accompanied by cheerleaders, sits behind the homecoming king, indicating that the mascot had already been incorporated into the football cheer squad.

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The Battling Bear image endured until the late 1980s, when newfound athletic success inspired University administration to choose a new bear logo. A few attempts were made to rework the bear.

By the end of the decade, the athletic department formed a committee of faculty, alumni, and staff to create a more contemporary and aggressive image. In 1995, the mascot committee and two alumni designers, Warren Pottinger and Stacey Harris, finally settled on a new Washington University bear.

Many people, including the designer of the new bear, felt that the angry, scowling bear didn’t fit with the University’s academic image. Remarking on the updated logo, the presiding Director of Athletics, John Schael, said: “Washington U. is strong enough in its own right to develop and create its own identity. Although we all have fond ties with the old bear, it was the right time to introduce a new character.”

Today, one can find the Washington University bear at many athletic events throughout the year.

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It is unknown how long the current bear incarnation will remain in use, but it is safe to say that students, inspired by school spirit, will continue to adopt it and make it their own.

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To find out more about Washington University Bears history, see the University Libraries’ FAQ Mascot page.  And for more facts about the history of Washington University see the FAQ.

Sources: Student Life, December 23, 1925; Washington University Magazine and Alumni News, Fall 1995. Photos: WUSTL Archives and Washington University Photographic Services

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