History Lessons: The Block M, In Brief

The Block M’s importance to the University is relatively recent, despite its seemingly long history.
By Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10


Read time: 3 minutes

For its timelessness, ubiquity, and symbolism, the Block M’s importance to the University is relatively recent. Four years are key in the design’s journey from utilitarian sports logo to a globally recognized icon.

1888: “M” is for Michigan

1888 Football Team Photo
Photo courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library

The first football squad was formed in 1879, but photos show uniforms without any sort of logo. While the 1885 kit included a stylized “U of M” across the chest, the 1888 team (pictured) began the practice of condensing the school’s identity down to a simple “M.”

1907: “M”-blazoned on the Fandom

1908 Bleachers Students Make a Block M
Photo courtesy of the U-M Bentley Historical Library

At the turn of the 20th century, fervor for the sport increased. The Nov. 17, 1907, edition of The Michigan Daily reported the first instance of fans forming a Block M at the previous day’s game at Ferry Field.

“At a signal from the yellmaster, the black mass of humanity in the bleachers suddenly became transformed as though by magic touch, into a gigantic ‘M’ outlined against a background of blue.”

It would become a staple of home games. Demand for Block M apparel, pins, and other items began to skyrocket. University athletics widely adopted the logo, though without standardization.

1968: Taking the “M” Global

The Michigan Daily newspaper in 1970
Photo from the January 1970 Michigan Alumnus

Don Canham, ’41, MA’48, became athletic director in 1968 and worked to turn U-M athletics — and the Block M — into a household brand through prolific marketing, licensing, and merchandising, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in collegiate sports.

As the Block M signaled U-M’s worldwide recognition in sports, it still wasn’t the official mark of the University.

2013: One “M,” One Voice

Block M in 2013
Image courtesy of the U-M Office of the Vice President for Communications

Until the early 2010s, the University seal was still the de facto emblem of U-M, despite the popularity of the Block M. This changed in 2013 when, after conducting a branding survey, the University officially standardized the look and use of the Block M; the seal became reserved for official University documents and materials produced for the regents and president, academic flags, some material for the Division of Public Safety and Security, and select merchandise.

“Adopting this common identity reinforces the academic excellence that is synonymous with the University of Michigan,” President Mary Sue Coleman wrote at the time. “It pays tribute to our collective heritage, allows us to speak in one voice, and helps us move into our third century as one of the world’s greatest universities.”

Gregory Lucas-Myers, ’10, is senior assistant editor of Michigan Alumnus.

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