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Tales of the True Fence
In 1888, the Corporation decided to remove the venerable Yale Fence. But souvenir-seeking students and alumni took the demolition upon themselves.

Across Yale and around the world, people still cling to aged scraps of wood that they claim are pieces of the Yale Fence: the true Yale Fence, the campus social center that once stood at College and Chapel. Like religious relics, their worth bears little relation to their intrinsic value: Pieces of the fence conjure the spirit of what is by now a very old Yale.

The tradition of the Fence began in 1833, when the picket fence fronting the Old Brick Row was replaced by a rail fence on which one could comfortably lean or perch. It soon attracted students in great numbers for the sharing of news and idle chatter.

Traditions grew up around the Fence, beginning with the pecking order of preferred seating. Only upperclassmen were permitted to sit at the corner; sophomores were obliged to sit farther back on College Street. Freshmen were not allowed to sit on any part of the Fence until after the Fence Oration ceremony was held in late spring.

Alumni looking back considered the Fence the most unifying influence of their college years. As Walter Camp described it: “Men of all tastes and modes of life were there together. They sat on the common rail, and the only mark of division was the mark of the arbitrary line of time which divided classes.”

When the enclosure of the Old Campus began with the construction of Farnam Hall in 1869, the Fence’s days were clearly numbered; it was gradually removed as buildings went up. By 1885, the Fence extended from South College—now the site of Vanderbilt Hall—on Chapel Street to Lawrance Hall on College Street. Still, Yale men were shocked three years later to hear President Dwight pronounce that the Fence would have to make way for a grand classroom building, Osborn Hall (later to be replaced by Bingham Hall). Students and alumni united in a valiant “Fight to Save the Fence,” beginning with mass meetings and culminating in the submission of a petition to the Yale Corporation signed by 2,000 students and alumni.

But it was to no avail: On May 19, the Corporation voted to remove the Fence. Two days later, three whole sections vanished without explanation, leaving nothing but the postholes. At Commencement time, more pieces disappeared as students, especially the Class of 1888, pinched pieces to keep as souvenirs. On June 29, amid the “grand jubilation” of Yale’s crew victory over Harvard, every remaining rail was torn out.

Over the years some of the pieces have returned to Yale as gifts to the memorabilia collection—some as simple relics, some mounted and framed, and others transformed into picture frames, artwork, and a gavel. The most celebrated image of the Fence is the monumental oil painting by the noted American artist Alfred Cornelius Howland. Widely reproduced as a print, the original is on permanent display in the Memorabilia Room in Sterling Memorial Library. The Fence also lives on at Yale through the later reproduction that borders the interior of the Old Campus and in the University’s long collective memory.  the end


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