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History & Traditions

For more than 140 years, the Brearley School has stood as a testament to the power of girls' intellect. Through two world wars and 15 Heads of School, thousands of Brearley girls have gone on to champion the greater good around the world. Over that time, we have also developed a rich history of traditions that make Brearley Brearley.

Our Seal

The Brearley seal was designed in 1890 and is thought to have appeared in print for the first time on the cover of the school catalogue for 1890–1891. From 1899 though the early part of the 20th century, the seal was sometimes used in the scroll-like form in which it appears on the Brearley flag (designed by the Class of 1899) and on the portrait of James G. Croswell, the second Head of School. The round seal was slightly redesigned in 1946, and the current version, commemorating the school’s founding in 1884, was used for the first time in the 1955–1956 school year. The seal incorporates images of the lamp of truth, the book of knowledge and three beavers. Some believe the beavers have the same heraldic origin as those on the seal of the City of New York, possibly to mark the importance of the beaver fur trade to the economy of early Manhattan.

Our Founding

Samuel A. Brearley Jr. graduated from Harvard in 1871 and worked as a private tutor until 1880, when he went to study at Balliol College, Oxford. He came to New York four years later, when it was commonly thought that intellectual activity “took the bloom from ladies,” and founded a school to provide young women with an education comparable to that available to their brothers. The school opened on October 8, 1884, at 6 East 45th Street with 41 students, aged 12 to 18, in a six-year program. Mr. Brearley served as Head until his sudden death in 1886.

The Beaver

The beaver owes its role as Brearley mascot to its inclusion on the school seal. While many schools have the beaver as a mascot, few have carried on this tradition as proudly as the Brearley School. A life-sized beaver, fondly known as Bev, cheers on Brearley teams at varsity games and Homecoming, and whimsical line drawings of beavers have been featured in many Brearley publications since the 1930s.

"By Truth and Toil"

Brearley's school song, "By Truth and Toil," was written by teacher Annie Winsor Allen in 1901. It lives on today as the school's motto.

By Truth and Toil united
We strive with loyal heart
To gain life’s deepest blessing
And learn life’s nobler part

For Truth is life’s great secret
Which we, through Toil, may share
And by that Truth made wise and free

The Move to
83rd Street

The school’s original quarters were on East 45th Street, near what is now Grand Central Station. Soon outgrowing its space, it moved first to West 44th Street and then, in 1912, to Park Avenue and 61st Street, where it added a primary program. Brearley commissioned a new building on 83rd Street in 1929, and during its 95 years at this location has expanded its library, art and science facilities, added two stories to the building and built a field house on East 87th Street containing regulation-sized basketball and volleyball courts and other facilities. In 2017, Brearley began construction on its “sister” schoolhouse, at 590 East 83rd Street, which opened for the 2019–2020 school year. 

Class Mascots

Each class in the Middle and Upper School has its own mascot. The first class mascot, Jimbo the Elephant, is believed to have been purchased in 1915 and possibly named in honor of James Croswell, who had died that year after serving for 28 years as Brearley’s second Head of School. At the annual Mascot Assembly in May, a tradition that dates back to at least 1923, the senior class passes its mascot to the students in Class IV, and both classes sing about their mascot.

Mascots:

  • Theodore the Bear

  • Balthazaar the Camel

  • Fridgie the Penguin

  • Tigger the Tiger

  • Socrates the Owl

  • Olaffub the Buffalo

  • Jimbo the Elephant

Red vs. White

In 1923, Edna Carling, the head of PE for whom the Middle School athletic award is named, organized the school into two teams using the colors of the school seal. Ever since, students in Classes V to XII have been divided into the Red Team and the White Team when coming to Brearley by the PE Department. Students already with Brearley families are given their relatives’ color. The teams have friendly competitions throughout the year, none more enthusiastic than during spring’s Field Day, at which faculty and staff, also assigned a color, join in the events.

Mountain Day

Mountain Day is an annual tradition that was started in 1983 by Head of School Evelyn Halpert as part of the school's upcoming centennial celebrations. Ms. Halpert modeled it on Smith College's annual Mountain Day, in honor of Jean Fair Mitchell, Ms. Halpert's predecessor. Miss Mitchell had often mentioned Mountain Day as a great Smith College tradition, always held in the autumn, when the foliage is at its most brilliant. On this day, led by students of Class XII and the PE and Athletics Departments, Middle and Upper School students and teachers head to Bear Mountain in Rockland County, NY, for fun, games, outdoor walks and picnics.

Donut Assembly

One of Brearley’s favorite and gustatory traditions, the Doughnut Assembly brings Lower and Upper School students together to eat doughnuts and create a circle from youngest to oldest minus the middle. This special time allows for friendship, camaraderie and mentoring between the two divisions.  

Our Growing Footprint

The Field House, located at East 87th Street, was built in the 1990s and contains regulation-sized basketball and volleyball courts and other facilities. 

Brearley’s second schoolhouse, at 590 East 83rd Street, opened in fall 2019. Constructed and completed under the headship of Jane Foley Fried, the 85,000-square-foot building, designed with sustainable initiatives and in the process of being LEED-certified, houses the Lower School and features state-of-the-art science labs, a regulation-sized gymnasium and a multiuse, acoustically sound performance hall used by all the divisions. During the Covid-19 pandemic, this building allowed the school to reopen by providing enough space for all the students.

Last Day

Last Day is Brearley’s commencement ceremony. The first Last Day was held in 1899, under the headship of James Greenleaf Croswell, who led the school from 1887 to 1915. Mr. Croswell eschewed pomp and circumstance and did not allow diplomas or graduation exercises of any kind. He favored simplicity on a day that did not signal a beginning; as he’d remind students, they were never “finished” with their education.