Jay (Fleming) Peterson’s Maypole Dancing Artwork, 1940

Updated: Friday, May 11, 2012, 6:30 a.m.  See end of this post for some additional information provided by the University of Rochester Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections.

As mentioned in my Jay Peterson (1920-1976) post, May 4, 2012, I have a scrapbook that contains my mother’s artwork (from about 1936 to 1954).  One of my favourite items in this scrapbook is her drawing of people dancing around a maypole.

The Wiktionary definition for maypole is a “pole, garlanded with streamers held by people who dance around it to celebrate May Day” (April 12, 2012).  May Day is the “first day of May, a spring festival, a celebration of the beginning of spring” (Wiktionary, May 1, 2012).  The Wikipedia “Maypole” article says it “has been a recorded practice in many parts of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, although [it] became less popular in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Today the tradition is still observed in some parts of Europe and amongst European communities in North America” (May 9, 2012).

The Book of Festivals (1937), by Dorothy Gladys Spicer, says that May Day celebrations, including use of the maypole, were “transplanted to the United States from British soil.”  On May 1, 1628, the Puritans at Ma-re Mount held a May Day celebration, replete with dancers romping hand in hand around a pole made from an 80-foot “goodly pine.”  Spicer also says that in the Americas, the custom of “merrymaking and gladness” on this day “has persisted through the years.”  Perhaps this was true at the time Spicer wrote the book, but I suspect the practice is not as prevalent today.

My mother attended the University of Rochester from 1937 to 1941, culminating in her getting her B.A. in Art History from there (degree conferred June 16, 1941).  Here is a photo of her degree certificate, showing her maiden name: Jessie Royce Fleming (Royce was one of her first names).

And here is a scan of the card that she drew.  As you can see, she included the words “Stephen Foster Hall, Munro Hall, May 18, 1940.”  I do not know why the event took place on May 18, instead of the customary May 1.  I did some research on the University of Rochester website; there is a Stephen Foster Hall and a Munro Hall at this institution, so I am almost positive she did the artwork while enrolled there.

Inside the card, as you can see in this scan, are numbers from one to 12, with the names of couples added in to nine of them.  I am wondering if the card was given to the dancers so they would know where they were supposed to be in the circle around the maypole.

The gold-coloured tassel that is wrapped around the spine is still in remarkably good shape.  There is an opening in the part of the tassel that extends above the spine, which is big enough for a hand to get through.  Did the dancers wear the cards around their wrists?

That is my mother on the right in the photo, creating some kind of snow sculpture.  Do not know who the woman on the left is.

This morning I sent an email, with the images in this post attached, to the University of Rochester Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation.  I asked if they could provide any additional information about maypole dancing at their institution in 1940, and am waiting to hear back.  The department receives many inquiries so it may take a while to get a response.  If I learn anything more, I will post it here.

Updated, Friday, May 11, 2012, 6:30 a.m.: Yesterday I got an email from Eileen L. Fay, Archives Assistant, Dept. of Rare Books & Special Collections, University of Rochester.  She sent me a link to a book written by Prof. Arthur J. May (1899-1968), entitled History of the University of Rochester (1968).  Chapter 16 of this book, entitled “Men and Women,” provides a history of women’s activities, e.g., they were first enrolled in 1900.  May Day Festivals, including a “May pole dance,” became part of the women’s “extracurriculum” starting in 1908.  Link to Chapter 16 is below:


Thanks to Eileen L. Fay for providing this additional information.