The Harvard TR Knew

As part of my  Six Buildings That Shaped Harvard History tour for the HAA coming up on the 15th and again on the 26th, I’ve been doing quite a bit of research on the development of Harvard’s architecture over the years. As part of this review I came across a remarkable photo, which  I wanted to share with you. It’s a view of Harvard looking south from the newly built tower of Memorial Hall, taken in 1874.

(Click on the photo to expand, then use your browser controls to zoom in even more. The photo is incredibly crisp and detailed – you can even see the masts of the cargo vessels on the Charles peeking (or peaking!) out over the rooftops. Even laundry drying in the backyard! NB: The names in parentheses indicate “future site of”.)

It takes a few minutes to get your bearings, as the landscape has so changed so dramatically, but this is almost exactly the Harvard that TR would come to know two years later. (The tree-lined street to the left is Quincy Street; the horizontal cross is Mass Ave.) What’s remarkable is how small the College remained up until that time – not terrifically different from the Colonial college of a hundred years earlier. A quaint Professors’ Row, a small Gothic Library, the odd hall and dormitory – just like many  private colleges scattered across the country even today. Interesting too is the welter of tiny frame dwellings that cluster the semi-industrial riverfront. These parcels would have to be acquired one at a time over the next forty years in order to build the Georgian River Houses we all know so well. (Not so surprisingly, it was a private Foundation of far-sighted alumni, concerned that the College would have no room to grow, who started buying up the riverfront property a decade before the Administration came to the same conclusion. The parcels were later transferred to the College at cost.) Of dear Adams, only Apthorp House suggests the structures to come. (TR’s own lodgings, in a simple white frame structure long demolished to build the I.A.B (Malkin), is one of the jumble of  frame buildings visible beneath the word “Eliot.”

What’s fascinating about all this, and what forms the basis of my tour, is how much Harvard’s architecture charts the College’s growth from tiny divinity school in the wilderness to worldwide center of learning, and how, given slightly different circumstances and the odd historical twist, Harvard might have turned out VERY differently from the one we know today.

While the tour on the 15th is sold out, the one on the 26th still has some spots, so do join us if you are in Cambridge.

Some People Read History. Others Make It.
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The Ad World

It’s been said you can tell an age by its advertising, and to the extent we possess the records, the adage seems to be true: ancient graffiti on the walls in Pompeii bring 2000-year-old elections alive like no tract from Cicero ever could;  miniature manikins – dressed in the latest crinoline and lace and sent from Paris to the Colonies as ads for the newest fashions – reveal more about 18th century costume than a whole page of pallid text.

Fortunately for us, the world of FDR’s Harvard is ripe with similar examples that give tone and timbre to the age – if you know where to look. To that end, we’ve been acquiring actual periodicals from January to June 1904 for the Suite (including, too, a spectacular bound copy of the Crimson for 1900-1901) so that a visitor might casually pick up Harpers Magazine or Colliers, and flick through the pages just as if they had popped in for a few hours in May of 04.

I wanted to show you a few of my favorites pieces from this collection, which to my mind at least, make you realize how much the world has truly changed.

This first one is a classic.

What else can I say? Papa told me so!

We tend to forget too that personal hygiene has been revolutionized in the last century. Imagine a time with no deodorants?

And, as we are blistering through another baking summer, how about a world of binding clothes and no air conditioning?

And here’s something that totally fascinated me. Throughout the Crimson pages, I found example after example of this ad:

Beyond the name, which I thought totally cool for a cigarette (Egyptian Deities was the model for an upstart American knock-off, Camels) there was the fact that many of these ads simply proclaimed “Egyptian Deities” without a single word of explanatory byline –  the brand was so famous at Harvard to need no further introduction.

(Just like another ad I found again and again in the Crimson: Harvard University Training Tables: 15 Bow Street. YOU ALL KNOW YOUNG! “No I don’t know Young,” I’m grumbling to myself, frustrated, “tell me who he is!”).

In this case however, a thought occurred:  Lapes and Frank both smoked. Surely there would have been cigarettes in the Suite. Could some of these Deities cigarettes have possibly survived from that time? If so, what a coup to track some down!

Well, a quasi-coup, as it turned out…

Sans cigarettes, but an actual 1900 Deities tin nonetheless, procured on EBay for $15, now destined for the Suite!

How’s that for divine intervention?

Or perhaps, more aptly, ad inspiration?

All brought about by folks like you.

Some People Read History. Others Make It.
Come make a little history: support the FDR Suite Foundation!

Extra, Extra! John the Orangeman, Revealed!

John the Orangeman, Harvard's Mascot, as he appeared in FDR's day. This is the picture we have in the Suite. If you look carefully in the lower left-hand corner (this image, as all the others in the piece, can be expanded by double clicking the picture) you will see another source of John's financial success: by 1900 or so, he had moved into selling copyrighted souvenir photos.

Without fail, whenever I give a tour of the FDR Suite, someone asks me who’s that bearded man with dancing eyes, merrily peering out from the frame on the mantle piece. There’s  something about the sparkle of his expression that simply captivates visitors. My inevitable reply: “That’s John the Orangeman, Harvard’s mascot. He sold fruit to the students at a time when citrus was a rarity, and become hugely popular with the undergraduates. He and his cart, pulled by a donkey named Radcliffe, were a feature of the College for over five decades.”

A thorough answer, but not a very satisfactory one. Who was this man, really, and how did he become so popular with the students? I decided to do a bit of digging in the Harvard Archives to try and find out.

Well, let me tell you: In the spirit of the soon to be demised News of the World, there seems to be more to this story than first meets the eye!

To begin with, it’s important for you to understand that John was not just popular, he was hugely popular.  The archives have more than six folders of Orangeman pictures dating back to the 1870s, many of them official photos, and a whole other file of clippings, memorabilia – even two short published biographies written by former students.  Here’s one of my favorite photos from the Archives collection, showing a parade passing through Harvard Square. (The view is looking east down Mass Ave. The low building right of middle is where Holyoke Center now stands. The tall building at center is extant and holds Leavitt and Peirce.)

This is a truly spectacular photo for many reasons. For one, the level of historical detail is amazing; notice, for example, the maze of telegraph and telephone wires almost clouding the sky. We forget that not everything in the "good old days" was quite so pretty. The picture is not captioned or dated, but judging from the bunting, the summer dress of the paraders, and the two top-hatted men marching behind the wagon each with a "9" on the front, I would guess this to be the late 1890s. (Again, click to expand; see reader's comment below for exact dating.) Courtesy, this and following photos: Harvard University Archives.

At first glance, this picture doesn’t seem to have much bearing on our story. But look again at the lower right side: just passing out of view, there are John and Radcliffe, cart and all, being hauled down the street on some sort of large wagon, the Victorian equivalent of a parade float.

So, famous indeed. Here’s the official bio:

John and his first cart, about 1881

Born John Lovett in Kenmere, County Kerry, into a farming family about 1833, John left Ireland during the famine, first for Boston, then later to Cambridge, where he took odd work. Then one day, finding himself with nothing to do, he went to “over an the Carmon to wartch the byes play barl.” (The transliteration of the brogue is from one of his student biographers.) Seeing that the players were thirsty after the game, he offered to fetch them a jug of water from his nearby flat (laced with “lemon” and “molasses”, as he put it)  for which the students were quite graceful, requesting another. He complied, and the students, wishing to thank him, passed around a hat, collecting  about two dollars, along with a suggestion that bringing fruit to their rooms later might prompt similar reward. Thus, a career was born. John began selling various small items to the students, mostly bananas and oranges. Each day he made his way into Boston to buy at the wharves. By mid-morning, basket in hand, he would be in the college yard, “depending on stray customers between the recitations and lectures; in the afternoon, if the weather was warm, he visited the ball fields; while in the evening he made his tours through the dormitories.” So grateful were the students that Class of 1881 gave him a handcart: “They warnted to give me a darnkey too but I be afraid the Farculty mek a row about havin’ ‘im in the Yard.”  At first an overzealous Yard Manager prohibited the cart from entering, but petitioned by the students, the Faculty allowed finally allow John and his cart admittance – the only person ever permitted, before or since, to sell goods in the Yard. As age advanced, so did rheumatism, and seeing John in distress, the class of 1891 bought him a donkey and cart. In winter, Radcliffe the donkey pulled a small sleigh. Soon John, with or without Radcliffe, was not only selling goods but making the round of the various football games, brought by the team to locations as far away as New York, where he cheered tirelessly for his school. (On state occasions like the Harvard-Yale game, Radcliffe was decked out with special crimson bloomers.) Fame and increasing fortune brought John a wife, plus a three-story two-family in Cambridge, which amazed student visitors with its size and comforts, given his humble occupation.  Stories about John abound, but an oft-quoted one was this:

John and Radcliffe in winter garb in front of Massachusetts Hall.

One day a visitor accosted John  in front of Hastings Hall, and wishing to draw him into conversation, pointed to the College seal on the iron gate and asked him what Veritas meant. John bowed respectfully and replied: “I’m not sure fr’ind, but I guess it means ‘to hell with Yale.’”

John Lovett died in 1906 at the ripe old age of 81.

That’s the official story… Neat, pat and tidy.

But why was he so popular? There were a host of other notable characters at FDR’s Harvard, but none quite so beloved. What was John’s secret? His biographers often cite to his jovial personality:

“You all know him, Old John, who is the first to welcome the Freshmen in the autumn, and the last to shake hands with the Seniors on Commencement and perhaps drink him God-speed from a flowing bowl of punch. He well remembers the time your father was in College; will tell you where he roomed, how he lived, who his friends were; perhaps he will even whisper in your ear of a narrow escape he had, in the early part of his Freshman years, from being asked to resign. Is there one who has not tasted and orange or banana from the little white handcart?”

John and his cart under the Washington Elm which once stood on Mass. Ave across from the Common.

Also to his integrity: “For those who know him well he is rather an interesting study, though his brogue is a trifle hard to comprehend at times. One of the best traits of his character is that he can never be induced to speak ill of anyone. Mingling as he does with the men of various sets and cliques, he necessarily hears more or less slander, but if asked his opinion about a man, his only comment is ‘Aw, he’s a good fellah, frind.'”

And on and on…

But then I came across one very curious sentence: “Who has not been comforted, when sorely pressed by creditors, by John’s ready willingness to trust him for any amount?”

Ah ha… The plot thickens. Perhaps it was more than just a juicy orange that gave John his appeal. Still, a bit of money-lending on the side couldn’t account for such lasting hail-and-well-met. I was about to give up, thwarted by the silence of the past, when just before the closing hour,  I came across this picture stuck to the back of one of the folders. Unlike other pictures of John, many of which were “official” shots reproduced again and again, this was distinctly different, and one I had never seen before:

Again, there is no caption, other than to note that the photo came as part of the estate of a member of the class of ’01. The scene’s obviously been professionally staged in some photographer’s studio, for reasons now forgotten – perhaps as a private memento (or perhaps, even more rare, as a publicity photo for Brown of Harvard, which premiered in Boston in 1906, and in which John played a bit roll as himself, just a few months before his death.)  But however clouded the origins of the picture, its subject is certainly straight-forward enough, and meant to evoke a familiar scene – at least for those in the know: a grinning student, having polished off the bottle on the table, holding a cigar large enough to choke a horse, looks gratefully at a still imbibing John the Orangeman, empty liquor bottles littering the floor and more poking from of his basket – the very one supposedly full of fruit!

Hail and well met, indeed!

So if I remind you, dear reader, that Cambridge was dry in those years, and that the only alcohol to be had was by going to Boston, does not the reason for John’s immense and continued popularity across five decades of thirsty students suddenly become crystal clear?

I’m thinking John bought more than oranges on those daily trips to the wharves, and sold more than fruit on his nightly rounds.

20-years gone but not the least forgotten: the Class of 1881 chose to feature John on its 20th Reunion Medal. Acquired just last week, the medal will hang on John's picture in the Suite.

And remember that admiring bit about John never betraying a confidence? Neither it seems, did his “byes.” In fact, the whole thing is one long inside-joke, known by all, and advertised by none, across 50 classes of Harvard men – the don’t-ask-don’t-tell of its age. If it hadn’t been for this one surviving photo, John’s open secret might be a secret still.

Of course, I can’t prove any of this.

But it fits, doesn’t it?

Can’t you just feel it?

It’s important to note that this potential revelation doesn’t at all reflect badly on John. (He wasn’t selling booze to minors. There was no drinking age in those days, and the only law he was skirting was the selling of liquor in the town of Cambridge.) Nor does this diminish in any way the genuine regard generations for Harvard men had for this beloved character. On the contrary.  In the end what we get is the image of a cunning Irish Robin Hood fighting to outwit the dastardly Sherwellian forces of the Cambridge establishment for the benefit of the (not so) poor inhabitants, and I’ll admit, if true, this vision brings me a quiet satisfaction. Often the view of our Harvard past becomes too perfect, too polished, too mannered. The memories are all noble, the deeds all gallant, the people, upright & upstanding. This little bit of Irish roguery, abetted and encouraged by grateful generations of scheming undergraduates, is just the kind of thing to add a welcome bit of humanity to the tale.

So, here’s raising a glass to you, John.

Some People Read History. Others Make It.
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For those of you who enjoy time travel stories, one of the very best is Time and Again (1970) by Jack Finney. I won’t bore you with a detailed synopsis; suffice it to say that the Federal Government discovers it’s possible to travel in time by simply willing yourself back through history. The trick is that to achieve this temporal separation, you truly have to believe yourself back in time – no mechanics are involved, simply a type of self-hypnosis. So the Government sets up several experiments in places that haven’t changed much through history – one in Paris right around Notre Dame for the Middle Ages; one in a now deserted Vermont farming village returned to its 1920s bustle; and one in the Dakota, the famous apartment building in New York City for the 1890s – all in an attempt to steep the participants in the past. The various would-be time travelers experience the life and language of the age; dress the part, eat the food – in essence they do everything in their power to make themselves believe they are inhabitants of another time. I remember reading this book when I was a child, utterly fascinated.  (It’s also an illustrated novel, which helps when a kid.) One of the passages I remember most vividly is when the main character, Simon Morley, visits the Smithsonian to view the costumes of the 1880s. The curators remove one of the ladies’ dresses from the collection, and show it to him. The material is dark brown, slightly frayed, smelling of age; he touches it, the fabric crumbles. Then suddenly, he is presented with a new version of the same dress on a mannikin:   “Martin snapped the covering from the next figure, and there stood – I won’t call it a dress but a gown of bright wine-red velvet, the nap fresh and unworn, the material magnificently draped in thick multiple folds front and back. The bead trim caught the light, glittering a clear deep red, shimmering as though the garment were moving… It was spectacular…

“Can you see an actual breathing woman Si, a girl, wearing this and looking absolutely great?” And I said: “Hell, yes: I can see her dancing!”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, we’re almost ready to dance ourselves, in the Suite. The last of the draperies arrived today: (You can click any of these photos for a larger, clearer view.)

It’s amazing the impact the fabric has had on the space: where there were formally white walls and bare doors, now riots of color compete and play – surprisingly successfully –  providing a first real sense of the opulence these rooms once possessed. The portieres (the fabric in the door frames) add a lot of character; originally used to close off the rooms for additional warmth, by FDR’s time they were entirely Victorian vestigal bits of decoration. Sara had insisted… and FDR acquiesced, though he often wished they’d been set just a bit taller for his tall frame… Just behind can be glimpsed the new drapes in FDR’s bedroom; a future president can now sleep soundly in richly muffled darkness.

Lathrop’s desk too has come alive, gleaming with brass. Can’t you just see young Lapes, his handsome brow bent over a sheet of heavy cream writing paper, answering one of his many house party invitations, as a dance card on the wall, souvenir of some now forgotten ball at the Somerset, pirouettes slowly at his elbow? The lamp on the table, by the way, originally oil, is one of the famous “Harvard Lamps,” providing “superlative light for scholars” according to an ad from a local newspaper. Lapes never cared much about that, but he has to admit it has come in quite handy for all his social correspondence.

And just behind, FDR’s desk, piled high with the loves of his life: Eleanor at left, as she looks this warm May of 1904. Less pleasant memories are next: dear, dear Alice Sohier, who’d unexspectedly spurned him. (He’d better put that picture away now…) The Half Moon II at full sail, at Campobello,with FDR at the helm, and on the wall, his father, James, shortly before his death, mounted on one of his favorite trotters. And Sara too, as always, is present; the butterfly collection she sent him smiles from the wall; plus,  an unanswered letter awaiting his reply sits tucked in one of the roll-top cubbyholes.

For a moment, here, now, you can almost feel 1904.

Do you think, perhaps, if I just concentrated hard enough…

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The Widow

“Having a good time was of major importance in those days at Harvard. Customary procedure was to study for ten days with a tutor before an examination and never open a book for the rest of the time.”          Lathrop Brown to Pare Lorentz, 1949

Over the last few weeks, as time and funds permit, I’ve been slowly framing a series of 16 prints we acquired last year, from a charming but extremely tattered 1903 volume entitled Harvard Celebrities. Written and illustrated by a classmate of FDR’s, this 30 page book parodies in picture and verse Harvard characters of the day. While some are still easily recognizable – Nathaniel Shaler, the famous naturalist, for example – others are far less so. Here’s one that I found intriguing:

Now from the text, and from Lathrop’s chance comment above, I had a general idea of who this might be, but imagine my delight when I discovered the following article from the October 1917 Independent, telling me not only who this was, but revealing a portrait of a Harvard long gone:

An Unofficial University Just Outside Harvard’s Gates

THEY call him “The Widow,” no one knows why. Whatever he is called he is, in his own single person, Harvard’s chief competitor. In moments of indiscreet candor members of the Harvard Faculty have confest that the college has tried, and tried in vain, every possible means of dislodging him—even to flattering him out of the way with the offer of a chair in the college. But he never could afford the honor. The highest paid professors in Harvard get a meagre $5000 a year. “The Widow” is reputed to enjoy an income of $20,000 a year—perhaps more. Nobody knows. [Editor’s Note: For comparison, Harvard Tuition in 1903 was $150 per year.]

So he remains what he is—president of himself. For he is in his own university, with his own staff of fifteen professors, and his own dormitories, conveniently stationed just outside the famous Harvard “Yard.” The one concession he makes to Harvard is to permit his students the use of all of Harvard’s facilities—the Bursar, the Yard, the Gym, Soldiers Field, even the classrooms if they please. Even Harvard’s degrees. All “The Widow” pretends to supply is the best known substitute for a Harvard education.

If you find that it would be pleasant to be a Bachelor of Arts but for certain annoying obstacles in the way; if you find your studies interfering with the pleasures of the theater or the athletic field; if the exams are approaching and certain to find you embarrassed how to meet them; if you are the son of a rich man, a little spoiled and unaccustomed to work—what do you do?

You visit the Widow Nolen.

AND straightway you come under the eye of a remarkable man. Two generations of Harvard men know him, by reputation if not by personal experience of his bewildering fund of knowledge and his even more bewildering gift of handing it out to you in one exquisite, highly concentrated pill of information. In the Harvard records he is William Whiting Nolen, A.B. ’84. During five more years in the Graduate School he drew down an A.M. in ’86. Then to make a thoro job of it, he put himself thru the Law School besides. No one has discovered why he slighted the Medical School, the Dental School, the Veterinary School, and the Bussey Institute of Agriculture. Except for these trifling omissions, his education is fairly complete.

But in Harvard he learned much more than Harvard teaches deliberately. He learned, besides, the peculiar psychology of the Harvard professor. He learned how the Harvard professor teaches. Most important of all, to himself at least, he learned to gage, and with an accuracy that is uncanny, precisely what questions any given Harvard professor is most apt to ask.

Suppose an exam catches you a trifle innocent of history or literature. Suppose you have never dipped into some obscure book like “Vanity Fair.” To repair this natural oversight you join one of the Widow’s famous “seminars.” It is chiefly by these seminars that the Widow’s fame and fortune live.

These meetings are organized with wonderful psychological cleverness. Fifty students will be admitted to a room in the Widow’s establishment. The room is stark naked. Not a picture is on the walls to distract your eye. Not a sound is heard, except the Widow’s voice, to break your attention. You sit in silence with a pad of paper on your knee. Naturally every man jack in the room is frightened to death for fear of flunking, and the Widow begins with that advantage to himself.

HE needs no other advantage. No one sleeps when the Widow is speaking. One reason why his patients nearly always pass the desired exam is because the Widow has a marvelous faculty for making his talks interesting. Any professor might learn from him there. In an hour he will range over an entire history course. All he pretends to do is spot in the high lights, the main events, the leading figures. But it is all a wonderfully clear and compact digest of the course to be covered. Easy as this may be to remember, and remember even beyond the day of the examination, the Widow will finish by retracing his talk in a still more wonderfully clear and condensed conclusion.

In a literature course he will outline the periods and give the substance of every book required in the course. He will give you the message, the philosophy, the teachings of every author. And all this in the space of one hour! “Around the World in Eighty Days” reduced to sixty minutes! And yet the Widow has been known to lecture for five hours on end without a break.

In a complicated course he may supply a few “keys” for the memory, for he has invented a complete system of mnemonics. With almost hypnotic effect he will hang up a chart laying bare, say, the whole secret of a course in trigonometry. Or he may make the Word “Nawb” serve as a symbol for a whole period in history. A fool word in itself, it sticks in the memory by reason of that very fact, and faithfully bobs up in the mind during the exam, to stand for the names of Napoleon, Wellington and Bluecher, and their influence on the nineteenth century.

Or suppose a student on the eve of a German exam finds that he has opened nary a one of the books required for outside reading in the course. The Widow will welcome him to a cubicle in his establishment where he will be made comfortable with cigars or cigarets. The chair is restful. Everything is provided to leave the student’s mind open to treatment. Then in comes one of the Widow’s faculty of assistants. In the course of a single evening, while the student has nothing to do but sit back and drink it in and try to remember it all, this assistant will go thru that list of books and give a nutshell account of the contents of each one.

It is a college education in capsule form.

The one fault to be laid against a Nolen degree is that this mass of information is not guaranteed to stick in the mind for longer than the three hours of the examination. It is apt to be written on the mind in vanishing ink. Still, there is nothing to prevent a student from remembering it all if he can. The Widow charges his price and offers his commodity, to be taken how you please.

His income is his own business, but he certainly drives a thriving trade. If you want a whole evening with one of his assistants he will charge you $5 for the-services rendered. To join one of his hour-long seminars costs each man of the fifty present $2.50. And during the exam period the Widow and his faculty are busy day and night. Another of his rush seasons opens when the boys from the prep schools begin to congregate for the entrance exams. For these the Widow even maintains a dormitory, a nursery, for the fatherly care of the backward. It is a prep school in itself, with a course reduced to three or four weeks. For such services the Widow charges accordingly, with his prices based on the backwardness of the case. Since his patrons come mostly from the rich, his charges are probably in proportion.

Toward his assistants, however, he is reputed to be generous enough. He picks the brightest men he can get, and pays them well. You are taxed $2.50 for an hour with one of them, and of that $2.50 the Widow collects fifty cents. The $2 goes to the assistants.

OUTSIDE his crowded hours of tutoring Mr. Nolen finds time to indulge a nice taste in old furniture and objects of art—and his rooms are thickly strewn with superb specimens. And often, out of an income ample beyond his own simple needs, he exerts himself in behalf of the poor student. More than one man has had from Mr. Nolen other aids to a Harvard degree than great gobs of information only.

Such is the familiar figure of many jibes and of more caricatures than have been aimed at any other college celebrity

“Dead or dying, drunk or sleeping,

Nolen puts you thru; But gratitude takes early wings when Nolen’s bill is due.”

So runs a famous lyric lampooning the high tax that Nolen levies on laziness. And so he daily and serenely takes his stroll along the Charles, comfortable and corpulent, carelessly drest, with the never-absent Boston terrier that is almost as familiar a figure as he.

As a final aside,  perhaps the aspect of all this I find most remarkable is that such levels of discovery are even possible. Ten years ago, before the age of the Internet search, only extreme good luck would have directed me to an Independent article a decade and a half after the fact, one citing the very book I held in my hands. But now, if you know how to frame the right question, a few staccato taps and clicks often yield the most astounding answers, from half a continent or more away.

Suddenly, the term “world-wide web” has true meaning.

I wonder what the old Widow would have thought about that…