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T’s for the Times: The Bookstore Shirts

By
September 25, 2008

They are stacked in small cubes at the very back of the bookstore next to Kathleen Grace’s office. She leaves her door open to listen to customer’s reactions. “That one’s so obnoxious,” she sometimes hears, “but I really like that one”.

Photogallery: Bookstore shirts
Anywhere Else It Would Be An A and Guilt Without Sex have become classic Swarthmore mottoes. No one remembers their origin, but Larry Schall, president of Oglethorpe University and former director of Swarthmore’s bookstore, said graduating classes traditionally created humorous t-shirts. Subsequent shirts reiterate the theme that Swarthmore is a rigorously academic and intellectual institution.

Grace, the current bookstore director, was hesitant to keep the shirts when she arrived at Swarthmore.

“I was especially skeptical about the “Guilt Without Sex” t-shirt because, as a non-Swattie, I honestly didn’t understand it. And I thought the “Anywhere Else” t-shirt was okay but I wasn’t convinced it had lasting appeal,” she wrote in an email.

Even though the message Guilt Without Sex may be equally confusing to Swatties, both shirts sold successfully. Since then, the line has expanded to 10 t-shirts and the bookstore sells over sixty shirts of each design each semester.

Few college bookstores have a comparable collection. Bryn Mawr and Haverford have only one specialty shirt and the University of Pennsylvania has none. According to Steve Goldberg, Swarthmore’s representative at apparel supplier Russell Apparel, most institutions have tight restrictions on design ideas. Princeton University designs are developed and approved by an outsource resource or committee and restricted by licensing. The typical theme is a variation on the college’s name.

“After you buy a couple, why would you buy any more?” said Goldberg, referring to Princeton’s designs. “As merchandizing opportunities, Swarthmore has always done…a greater variety of designs ideas.”

Grace is the mastermind behind most designs. Her inspiration stems from the misery-poker culture of Swarthmore, iconic symbols, and sometimes other people. Bill Cosby, for example, designed one of the most popular shirts.

Behind each design is a story. But there are also hidden stories behind the retired, forgotten shirts.

The Revived

While some t-shirts were permanently discontinued, Contents Under Pressure made a comeback fifty years later.

The shirt was revived ten years ago after a garnet sage requested it from the bookstore. Since the bookstore didn’t archive old designs, she re-created the image based on the alum’s description. “It was hard to get Parrish’s dome to blow off,” said Grace.

One student wears it for every Organic Chemistry II exam. But Professor Paley said he hadn’t noticed that shirt in particular, or “maybe I have but they kind of blur together after a while.”

The t-shirts occasionally experience a brush with extinction when the bookstore chooses not to reorder them. But people always request them back.

When I asked a sophomore why she bought Anywhere Else It Would Be An A, she said “It simply makes me feel better when I get bad grades.” It’s a sentiment every Swat students shares in moments.

Quintessentially Swarthmore

The key to a popular shirt is its ability to represent a piece of Swarthmore. “I try to find things that are unique to Swarthmore and play around with that idea,” Grace said. Although all of the shirts fulfill this role, both the “sustainability” and “peace” shirts in particular reflect Swarthmore’s values without the padding of humor.

Similarly, Swarthmore Academics attests to the institution’s focus on academics, “compared to a large state university where athletics have a lot of the attention,” by parodying academics on the word athletics, explained Grace. “It’s funny because people see athletics because that’s what their mind expects to see,” she said.

It was Bill Cosby’s idea. Cosby worked with the college on projects in Chester. “He just called one day and asked if we had a “Swarthmore Academics” shirt instead of the traditional “Athletics” shirt,” she said in an email. It has been a best seller since.

The root of The People’s Republic of Swarthmore, with the hammer and sickle symbol to boot, is similarly successful by facetiously capturing the college’s liberal environment.

“From the moment we got that in, it has been popular,” said Grace. “I think in many ways, Swarthmore tries to create an even playing field that people may consider socialist, and that maybe the tie-in [to its popularity].”

One Hit Wonder

The big chair, black bookstore dogs, Bob Gross’ face, are among representative icons emblazoned on the shirts. The lives of these shirts are short-lived, however, given the constant change in the student body and consequently, their experiences.

“The chair to students and alums, [is something] you identify with Swarthmore,” said Grace. “There are a number of different styles, but ours is a specific style… we wanted it to look like our chair, not a generic chair.”

Unfortunately, the big white chair on Parrish died last semester, but Home Away From Home still survives if the three white chairs can represent its small imitations currently dotting the Beach.

Up until this semester, it was common to see two large, black Labradors splayed out on the floor of the bookstore. Their images are similarly spread across the shirt Bookstore Dogs – a shirt that Grace will withdraw given the death of Ally this summer.

Bob Gross is an unfamiliar face to current students because he retired in 2006. His shirt commemorated his popular tenure as a Dean of the college and was retired a year later.

Retired and Removed

Extreme Education, All Work and No Play, and Just Read It (image not available) speak for themselves, rehashing the theme of Swarthmore’s intellectual rigor. But Grace remembered the life of another shirt that was dismissed despite its popularity.

“We had one shirt that got us in trouble that was selling really well,” said Grace. “It was the year that Swarthmore was the #1 [liberal arts] college in America.”

The shirt was modeled on an athletics shirt from a state university with a highly-ranked football team. It read, “We’re not snobs,” on the front and “We’re just #1,” on the back.

While Grace said she found it “too funny,” one customer complained that the shirts were obnoxious and the bookstore stopped production.

The boundaries of humor change with each generation of Swatties, but over a decade later, the t-shirt collection persists. Its popularity is a testament to our ability, or maybe need, to find creative ways to describe the Swarthmore experience.

4 Responses to T’s for the Times: The Bookstore Shirts

  1. Maurice

    September 25, 2008 at 8:08 am

    The Agnewesque “Kremlin on the Crum” from the 60′s might account for the hammer and sickle “Peoples Republic of Swarthmore.”
    Maurice

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  2. oops

    September 25, 2008 at 11:52 am

    Sorry, just a correction: Ally (the bookstore dog) still frequents the bookstore, while Bear is the gone but far from forgotten one.
    Thanks!

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  3. Greg

    September 25, 2008 at 10:36 pm

    I’m a fan of “The Book Was Better.”

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  4. jeff n

    September 26, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    Wait, are you saying there was a “Contents Under Pressure” tee shirt in 1948? That puts Swat in the running for oldest (non-military) printed tee shirt on record.

    I mean, forward-thinking, sure, but the timeline is sort of confusing as it is in this article. Can you clarify when things happened some more?

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