Campus Life

May Day at Penn State, 1914: Celebrating the long-awaited arrival of spring

The first May Day Festival at the Pennsylvania State College in 1914. Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The first week of May brings signs of warmer weather to come, and our photograph features an old Penn State student tradition that was held each year at the beginning of May — the maypole dance.

In 1914, enrollment at the Pennsylvania State College included 2,251 men — and 80 women, who decided to organize a May Day Festival to benefit the College Hospital Fund. A festival from medieval times, May Day marked the coming of spring after the long, cold winter, with dancing and merrymaking.

Eunice S. Williams, the first president of the Women's Student Government Association, crowned the first May Queen, Mildred Ride Dunlap, class of 1914, who with her medieval, Grecian-clad retinue danced and intertwined long satin ribbons around a tall maypole, among other activities. The public was invited, the Penn State Cadet Band played, and proceeds from the event were donated to the hospital fund.

May Day hoop dance at the Pennsylvania State College, circa 1914. Credit: Penn State University Archives / Penn StateCreative Commons

The first celebration was a simple affair but a tradition was born, and over the years it incorporated additional events and became increasingly elaborate in costumes, music and dance, all of which were designed and created by the participants themselves.

Discontinued temporarily due to World War I, the event resumed in 1946. After World War II, the celebration seemed frivolous to a more worldly-wise student population, and the last event was held in 1959.

Last Updated April 30, 2019