Our Iowa Heritage: The Wonderful World of SUI Colors – Black & Golden.

Truth is – I’m old enough to remember when most American families moved from black-and-white television to the wonderful world of color.

You see, color makes a true difference in people’s lives. It moves us from a drab-n-gray life to one full of vibrancy, excitement and COLOR!

So it is . . . here at The University of Iowa…

While Black and White are more than OK at times, most of Iowa City is decked out in Black and Gold.

Throughout most of human history, colors are often associated with nations, states, territories, and yes, even family trees. The phrase “presenting the colors” means a “color” guard will soon march in, carrying the flag or banner of the nation that they represent. Here in the United States, for example, Red, White, and Blue represent not only the colors of our national flag, but, just the phrase alone, represents the good ‘ole USA.

If one goes back far enough into the State University of Iowa (SUI) archives, you’ll find that there hasn’t always been a true consensus on what colors actually represent our fair university. As a matter of fact, even today there is a small detail that’s often overlooked when talking U of I Black and Gold.

In 1847, when SUI was first formed, no one was talking about school colors. If you read about our history, those who were in charge of this fledgling school in those early days (1847-1860) had many more important things to worry about – like lack of funding, low numbers of students, and no buildings to call their own!

But by 1887, students at SUI were beginning to ask questions such as…

What color represents dear old SUI? Why don’t we have a school song?

An interesting article found in the May 1947 issue of Palimpsest tells us the full 1887 story…

Soon, everybody on campus was wearing a little “old gold” ribbon, and apparently, a few guys decided to be creative and wear their golden ribbons in more discreet places, at the bottom of their knickerbockers! Hail to the ‘Knights of the Garter!’

By 1894, the good citizens of Iowa City, along with the SUI students, were wearing and displaying all different shades of “gold,” which like today, makes for a bit of uncertainty when we say Iowa’s colors are Black and Gold. Did you know, for example, when it comes to the mineral we call gold, there are actually eight different shades?

So, for the next few decades (1890s-1920’s), SUI had an “official” color – Old Gold – and most colorized postcards, pennants, and other collectibles over that 30-year period reflected the golden shade called Old Gold, combined, of course, with Black highlighting.

But slowly, beginning in the 1920’s, a brighter golden hue started appearing on SUI-related items. Look at these Homecoming Badges, for example, from the 1920’s (below) and compare the gold with the color (pictured above) from the early 1900’s…

Now, look at the Homecoming Badges from the 1930’s and 40’s (below)…

Are you noticing the subtle shade differences? Now, look at the present University of Iowa logo (below) compared with a color swatch (below) that is “officially” called “old gold”…

Yup. We’ve done it again. Slowly, over a 50-year period (1920’s to 1970’s) the University of Iowa has transitioned into a different shading of gold than was originally voted upon in 1894. But, I don’t bring this up to suggest we change it back, because then, we’d look like the Purdue (P.U.) Boilermakers… yuk! What a step backwards, huh?

So, let’s celebrate Iowa’s very own Black and Gold and raise our Hawkeye banner high!


In closing, let me tell you one more Old Gold story…

If you recall, there were two questions asked by the students back in 1887. What color represents SUI? And … do we have a school song?

We’ll discuss this more in another post, but for now let’s go back to that 1947 Palimpsest article to tell you the rest of that Old Gold story…

I’m betting that many of you are not familiar with The Old Gold Hymn written in 1905. The best recording I could find comes from a 33 1/3-RPM record produced by Wayne Neuzil back in 1983 (below). (L-0088)

Click here to read about eight popular Iowa spirit-songs that have been written over the years…

(M-0120) Enjoy this version of Old Gold as recorded by The Old Gold Singers in the early 1960’s…

So, here’s the beautiful lyrics written by John C. Parish (1905), set to the traditional 18th century Irish Air known to many as “Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms”…

As we close, notice below that in 1947, the writer of this article, Cornelia M. Barnhart, not only tells us about the very first time Old Gold was sung on campus (June 1909), but her hope was that in 2047, when the University of Iowa celebrates her bicentennial, that this classic hymn will still be the centerpiece of our celebration…

Sadly, I’m here to report that in 2021, as we near the 175th anniversary of our dear Old Gold, this SUI classic has not survived like our ancestors hoped and believed that it would. Maybe we current-day Hawkeyes need to revive this “golden” oldie, bringing it back into circulation, so that by 2047 our celebrations will, once again, include Old Gold!


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Old Gold, Cornelia Mallett Barnhart, Palimpsest Volume 28 – May 1947, pp 144-149

Posting The Colors, Wikipedia

University of Iowa – Branding – Color, Brand Manual, University of Iowa

University Archives: Resource Guide to University Traditions and Songs, University of Iowa Libraries

School Songs, On Iowa, University of Iowa

Traditions, On Iowa, University of Iowa

Iowa Background, Springfield, IL Public Schools, SPS186.com

Believe Me, If All Those Endearing Young Charms, A Traditional Irish Air – 18th Century, Wikipedia

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