By Zachary Bampton ’20 with April C. Armstrong *14
On September 29, 1882, one writer for the Princetonian (then published every other week rather than daily) remarked that the Bulletin Elm was “fast filling out its days” and would soon be “a thing of the past”. Almost 140 years later, few remember the role the Bulletin Elm played in Princeton tradition. It was a physical bulletin for generations of students, and then for nearly forty years, a section of our campus newspaper bore its name. Looking back more than a century now, we hope to shine some light on this fabled tree and probe its place in our historical memory.
Before a daily newspaper was available, undergraduates needed other ways to coordinate academic and personal business. In 1850, the editors of the Nassau Literary Magazine wrote that they would not print advertisements because “Notices will have a much wider range if posted on the road to dinner, than they would obtain through our columns.” One place to nail these notices “on the road to dinner” was the Bulletin Elm. This tree was chosen because of its central location in the hub of campus life. Joseph L. Munn, Class of 1862, recalls that during his time at Princeton, “so much of the advertising” ended up on the Bulletin Elm, whose location was “quite convenient for those going to or coming of Chapel.” In our research process, however, we learned that there were, in fact, two Bulletin Elms. The first tree stood in front of the old recitation building (which stood facing what is now Morrison Hall on the other side of Nassau Hall). In 1870, after changes in the recitation rooms, “its tall companion between the Chapel and East College… usurp[ed]” the original tree’s role. Students used this second tree for eighteen years before its death in 1888. In 1884, the Daily Princetonian began running a section called “the Bulletin Elm” where the cost was “ten cents per line” to put out ads. When the tree fell in 1888, this section continued until 1922, when it disappeared at the end of the Spring semester.
There were many uses for a Bulletin Elm during its lifetime. It was a place to rally around: the first singing of Harlan Peck Page’s “Old Nassau,” which won a contest in the Nassau Lit, occurred around this tree. Like the lamp posts or bulletin boards found on campus today, undergraduates posted notices on the Bulletin Elm to organize social events, seen in example of Glee Club posters above, or to put out notices for goods and services. In the Fall of 1864, “the members of the First Nine Bantam B.B. Club” (baseball) challenged another by a written notice on the tree; later reprinted in the Nassau Quarterly Magazine, an author notes that “on account of some feelings of a personal nature” the game failed to materialize.
One surprise in the research process was the degree to which James Johnson, the long-standing janitor and later vendor at Princeton, intersected with the Bulletin Elm across fact and fiction. Often these interactions were tinged with condescending or racist attitudes. In 1876, the Nassau Literary Magazine reprinted and mocked an ad Johnson had posted asking to buy “all thay sacond handed Clothing””.The author calls the ad “at once good blank verse and a fine specimen of classic Celtic”. Evidently, Johnson spent enough time by the tree to be recognized as connected to it. In one photograph from the University Archives, we see Johnson working by the Bulletin Elm with his cart, which would have been a smart location to sell food and wares.
The Adventures of a Freshman, a novel written by Jesse Lynch Williams, supports this through a fictionalized story about Johnson and the tree. One day, the mysterious letters “C.C.” appear on a poster nailed to the tree and soon spread throughout campus; everyone, including the professors, who “began to inquire, in a dignified way, as to the meaning of those cabalistic symbols,” became invested in the meaning.In the end, students and faculty go to the Bulletin Elm and nearby Cannon Green to find that the meaning of C.C. is “College Caramels,” sweet treats sold by Johnson.
At the time of the Bulletin Elm’s death, several people wrote elegies to the tree, extolling different aspects of its character and bond with campus. One such example is a poem titled “Our Old Buliton Tree Spakes”, written in the vernacular of an uneducated black man from the perspective of the tree and attributed to the Nassau Hall janitor, a position Johnson had held early in his Princeton career.The Prince remarked “the following lines from [the janitor’s] facile pen” proved the enduring legacy of the tree.
At the end of its life, the Bulletin Elm’s branches were chopped from its trunk and its bark fell off, leaving behind a tall white stump. According to the Prince, when the tree was finally cut down in 1888, the students “seized [the remains] as souvenirs.” In fact, Mudd Library came into possession of such remnants: a small wooden block of the Bulletin Elm given as a fifth anniversary gift from Dr. Mireray to Mrs. Mireray, and a page from Charles Bostwick’s scrapbook containing a leaf from the tree. Such items, pictured below, are available for viewing in our archives. Today, with our email listservs and sprawling campus, it seems quaint to consider a tree as a hub of campus activity. Yet it was. Now, only old photos, newspaper clippings, and a small wooden block remain to preserve the memory of the Bulletin Elm.
After Thirty Years: Record of the Class of 1877. Trenton: n.p., 1909.
Historical Photograph Collection, Grounds and Buildings Series (AC111)
Memorabilia Collection (AC053)
“Old Nassau” Collection (AC051)
Papers of Princeton database
Scrapbook Collection (AC026)
Williams, Jesse Lynch. The Adventures of a Freshman. New York: C. Scribner, 1899.