Whenever the Princeton football team beats Harvard and Yale in a season, tradition dictates that the University hold a gigantic bonfire on Cannon Green to celebrate. Thanks to the Tigers’ performance on the field, bonfires are far from rare. The last one took place in 2018, allowing students, faculty, staff, and locals to celebrate the twin victories together.
To celebrate the upcoming bonfire, students who attended the game were given a t-shirt with a black design on bright orange (of course). At the center of the poster design was a flaming barrel labeled “Princeton Haz-Mat Disposal” with Harvard and Yale pennants sticking out. Yale’s bulldog mascot, conscientiously wearing a mask, also occupied a place of honor within the barrel. Harvard was saved from the embarrassment of having its mascot immolated because it doesn’t have one.
To many students, the t-shirt was simply a fun piece of free gear with a clever design. But the story behind this bonfire design was years in the making and so much more interesting than any of them knew.
The task of creating bonfire gear, including t-shirts and commemorative posters, has fallen in recent years to Sean Rubin ’09, an artist and illustrator known for his work on the Redwall series as well as for writing and illustrating the children’s book Bolivar.
Rubin designed his first bonfire graphic even before he graduated from Princeton. In 2006 – when he was in his sophomore year – he was tapped by Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students Thomas Dunne to design the bonfire gear. Dunne had seen his work on the UK edition of Redwall, and had gotten him to do an illustration of the Rockefeller Dining Hall.
Since then, Rubin has created designs for every bonfire – 2012, 2013, 2018, and now 2021. He has had to come up with an imaginative number of ways for Yale’s bulldog to end up roasted somehow, and during a phone interview he rattled off a few of the methods he has used to broil Handsome Dan: on a spit over a fire; stuffed into a cannon; strapped to a barrel of TNT; attached to a rocket.
And, despite the near-universal fear of “jinxing” Princeton’s chances in the Harvard and Yale games, Rubin doesn’t worry about starting the work early. Not only do the t-shirts need to be ready by gameday, but, said Rubin, “so far as I know, every time we made a shirt and it was worn for the game, Princeton has won.” One year, he added, the University decided to wait to print the merchandise until after the game, and Princeton didn’t end up winning. “The exception proves the rule,” Rubin added proudly.
Rubin doesn’t go through the design process alone. His wife and his studio-mate, also Princeton alumni, suggest plenty of new ideas for how to make Yale hot under the collar. For this year’s t-shirt, Dean Dunne came up with the idea for the bulldog to wear a mask – in his words, “so that it would mark this particular moment in time. This year Sean and his wife … were in town so we got to workshop ideas together in front of Halo Pub – a true Princeton moment.” But, at the end of the day, Dunne added, “Virtually everything we see in the posters and t-shirts comes from his brilliant mind.”
But, he added, “There’s way more fire” than in most of his other work.
Rubin sees the bonfire work as his legacy as a cartoonist, as well as a way to stay involved with his alma mater. He has undoubtedly made his mark on Princeton over the years, giving each bonfire attendee a unique way to remember a historic occasion.
But even beyond the football team’s victories, the bonfire is meant to celebrate everything wonderful about Princeton, and especially the people who make it so. After Rubin’s father accidentally deleted the first-ever design, Dean Dunne sent him the bonfire t-shirt directly, with a note that said “I’m on your side” – Dunne still sends him a t-shirt for every bonfire to this day.