Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Granting Department

American Studies

Major Professor

Robert E. Snyder, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Daniel Belgrad, Ph.D.

Committee Member

James Cavendish, Ph.D.


Iconography, Religion, Culture, Democracy, Education


This thesis will focus on the popular culture iconography of the Pennsylvania State University: the Nittany Lion-as a symbol and apolitical mascot; Happy Valley, the geographic area in which the university is located, as a kind of sacred place and utopia in the Keystone State; football-its hallowed shrines, legendary coaches, and heroic players; regional foods and delicacies-from the unique offerings of the area's diners to the University Creamery (where patrons yearly consume more than 750,000 ice cream cones); and Lion Shrine and the adjacent Nittany Lion Inn-where the faithful have made pilgrimages since the early-twentieth century. The sum of these parts contributes to the pastoral image of Happy Valley-an image that is a constant reality in the mind of the Penn Stater.

The Happy Valley myth is perpetuated by socio-cultural activities indigenous to "Lion Country." Certain activities are mandatory to be a real Penn Stater: sitting on the Nittany Lion Statue, going to a football game, buying a sticky bun at the College Diner, eating an ice cream cone from the University Creamery, and staying the night at the Nittany Lion Inn.

Sociological texts, such as Emile Durkheim's The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, are central to the theme of the thesis. Durkheim's work explains how symbols or totems represent the force of the group, thereby giving religious meaning to secular institutions. Moreover, anthropological theories of Clifford Geertz-taken from The Interpretations of Culture-are indispensable in realizing how integral the use of signs and symbols are to that of the group's fundamental understanding of its own worldview.

These cultural phenomena occupy a large part in the mindset and mentality of students, alumni, locals, and fans alike. Furthermore, the sacred iconic image of the Nittany Lion permeates the local psyche, media, and overall reality of the area. Ultimately, this constant reinforcement of local cultural values contributes to the bucolic image of Happy Valley as a kind of utopia, where the problems of urban life dissipate into the mountain air.