Not to give our neighbors in the castle too much credit, but there is some interesting history to be learned from period pages of the HarvardLampoon, especially when it comes to determining the mores of FDR’s Harvard. Take the image below, for example, one that is particularly relevant for today as it mirrors a problem soon to be faced by the new Smith Center that the University is building in Holyoke Center. The Harvard Union was the first attempt to establish a place where alumni and students could co-mingle, and it was a hugely expensive flop, for the very reason depicted below: it, like all of Cambridge, was dry. The only liquor available was at private clubs, which is one of the main reasons that final clubs were (and are) popular today: they served booze.
Click on this and any of the other images to enlarge.
The next image took me a while to figure out. The key is that the proctor from the floor below is the same character entering the door of the piano-playing student in the first panel. He’s playing, piano dolce, “Babbie Waltzes.” (Hear the tune HERE on a wax-cylinder recording.) Also note the time. Apparently 10PM was the cut-off for loud noise in individual suites, so to take revenge on the proctor for reprimanding him him the night before, the next day “Sporter” arranges for a little concert with his friends. The music starts with “Honey, Don’t Get Me Wrong” a forgotten ragtime tune of the day, and ends with “Up the Street,” a march still played by the University Band. What caught my eye was the gas lamp on the proctor’s desk. These lamps were attached by rubber “extension tubes” to either a wall or ceiling gas outlet. Frankly, it’s amazing that the whole place didn’t burn down — or explode — many times over. While electricity was available in certain deluxe suites like FDR’s, electrical outlets wouldn’t be invented for several more years.
What’s interesting about the next panel is not the joke —it’s a play on grub (food) and grub (caterpillar) — but rather something that is almost forgotten today. Those lines above the Square aren’t meant to indicate clouds, they are telegraph, telephone and electrical lines. In 1900, competing companies ran their own wire to each client, so a single large building might have hundreds of wires running to it from all directions. This tangle persisted until the 1930s, when individual concerns were absorbed into larger entities and regulation of utilities became the norm.
Here’s a photographic view, looking the other way, that better reveals this crazy-maze of wires. That’s John the Orangeman on the cart, btw, heading for a Harvard rally. (If you don’t know about John, by all means click the previous link as he is critical to the FDR Suite story.)
The panel below explains the grub joke: it shows the interior of Memorial Hall, where most of the undergraduates ate. Notice the gawking guests in the balcony, which was open to the public and used as a viewing gallery by the locals — a perfect spot for a chaperoned young lady to get an overview of prospective suitors to invite to her next “at home” day.
This last is one of my favorites, not just because of the great drawing style of S. A. Weldon, a classmate of FDR’s, but rather as it shows just how luxurious life in the Gold Coast actually was. No smelly gas lamps here. There is an electric desk lamp (which had to be plugged into the overhead fixture each time it was turned on, which meant gas or kerosene was still the norm) as well an assortment of comfortable furniture, walls and shelves chock-a-block with personal mementos, even velvet portieres on the door. And of course our boy under the desk has just come up from a dip in Claverly’s “tank,” the first of what would be a succession of ever larger private swimming baths on the Gold Coast. Considering how little we knew about this period in Harvard’s history when we started, it’s always reassuring when pictures like this come along that show many of the very same objects in the FDR Suite today — a gratifying indication that our representation of Gilded Age life at Harvard is reasonably on track.
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Tradition holds that as the defeated British soldiers retired off the field at Yorktown, their regimental band struck up an ancient march, The World Turned Upside Down:
If buttercups buzz’d after the bee If boats were on land, churches on sea If ponies rode men and if grass ate the cows And cats should be chased into holes by the mouse If the mamas sold their babies To the Gypsies for half a crown If summer were spring And the other way ’round Then all the world would be upside down!
I was reminded of these verses the other day, when looking through our collection of historical Harvard student room photos in preparation for a project we’re sponsoring, the Adams Room Catalog, which will allow occupants new and old to see who has lived in a particular suite before them. One of my favorite images has always been the one below. Simply put, it is precisely what you imagine when you think: Victorian room.
This particular picture has also been very important for us in terms of guiding acquisitions for the Suite. It is so clearly photographed that we can use digital enhancement to pick out the finest details. In particular, this photo led us to discover the wire carte de visite hangers we see again and again in the various period room photos. Here’s a closeup:
Eventually, after much searching we managed to find two of these extremely rare wire holders – at considerable cost. Here’s one of ours, above FDR’s desk:
But ours doesn’t look quite the same, does it? Rather bare in fact. Well, the reason is that the cards have mysteriously been dropping off the hanger. The slightly breeze or touch, and they fall like leaves off an autumn tree. There’s probably at least a good dozen on the floor behind the desk as I write. The solution however, is finally at hand: it seems I had hung the holders upside down: the Victorian hangers don’t clamp the pictures as modern refrigerator holders do, but rather support them in a wire loop from below – something you can clearly see in the period enlargement above, and which I saw, oh wise curator that I am, for the first time the other day. I wonder what other little jokes from the past await my discovery… The world turned upside down indeed.
And speaking of the future: Today’s article in the Wall Street Journal notes that with the potential change in tax laws for 2013, now is a particularly good time to consider year-end charitable giving, stating that “Under current law, donations of assets that have risen in value, such as shares of stock, often qualify for a deduction at the full market price, enabling donors to skip paying capital-gains tax on the appreciation.”
As a registered 501(c) 3 public charity, the Foundation stands more than ready to accept your charitable donation, and we can certainly use your support to fund our upcoming scholarship and educational programs.
Some people read history, others make it. Support the FDR Suite Foundation
I was at the Suite yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, beginning what’s going to be a three-month intensive effort to catalog the objects in the collection for inclusion in our new Internet museum. I was working away contentedly at Lathrops’ desk for an hour or so, when just before twilight, I realized that for the last few minutes I had been idly eyeing the room. Perhaps it was Thanksgiving-dinner-post-partum, or else simply the distraction of the hour; whichever, I noticed that the late afternoon light was casting lovely patterns of sun and shadow about the room, and so decided my time might be better spent with a camera.
It’s been a while since we’ve taken still photos for the blog, and I think you’ll agree this was indeed the golden hour.
Above: craftsman Lary Shaffer’s latest and second-to-last last creation for the Suite, the new daybed, takes pride of place in the study. (Double click on any image to expand; these are but thumbnails.) Lary and I reverse-engineered this piece from a tiny, grainy photo over a period of six months, and I’ll be doing a future post on how this magnificent creation came together. In the meantime, it’s easy to appreciate how the rich walnut and plush fabrics add to the Victorian elegance (not mention comfort!) of the room – especially when you compare these views to those taken in April 2010.
Above: On the smoking table, young Frank at Groton, 1899, next to “Uncle Ned’s dog tobacco jar” and our collection of pipes.
The Atlantic of 1903, record-holder extraordinaire, looking ready to sail at a moment’s notice.
Our exceedingly rare John the Orangeman mug caught in a golden beam on the mantle. Immediately behind is a recently acquired etching of Harvard Yard in the 1840s.
FDR’s desk glowing in the sunlight. When this inventory project is finished, you’ll be able to click on any of the above objects to learn their individual history, and how that particular piece relates to other pieces in the collections, as well as to the history of the Suite as a whole. For instance, that large volume sitting on top the revolving bookcase? That’s not just any book, it’s the 1900-01 bound edition of the Harvard Crimson, where FDR’s soon to become a reporter. And that young lady next to Eleanor, why that Alice Sohier and of course you know how that affair went… Ah, and then there’s the elegant Half Moon II… How fortunate to have your own yacht in the harbor… Given that there are currently well over one thousand objects to classify and digitalize, this isn’t going to be the quickest project in the world, and we will require substantial help – in fact, thanks to a recent pledge of support, we’ve already hired two student researchers half-time during Harvard’s new Winter Session. But given how far we’ve come, I have no doubt we’ll get there, especially with help from viewers like you!
Come Make A Little History. Support the FDR Suite Foundation!
Well I don’t need to tell you how warm it’s been in Cambridge, because chances are you’ve been as warm or warmer. Still, despite the heat and the bang-bang-booms coming from the Quincy House renovations next door, we’ve been quietly (or perhaps, more precisely, less-noisily) pursuing our own projects in the Suite:
For one, we’re under construction again in the bathroom, this time to retro-fit some very inconspicuous museum-style recessed lighting into ceiling. Those who have stayed in the Suite overnight have commented that it’s darker than Hades with only one 30-watt Edison bulb as your companion, and it’s true – which is precisely why gentlemen in FDR’s time shaved & dressed in their rooms, where there was better natural light. This concession to modern living – which can be turned on, or not, according to whim – will also allow us to showcase a small collection of patent medicine bottles and other personal products of dubious efficacy from the turn of the century that we’ve been assembling. It’s amazing the wild variety of nonsense that was marketed for health and beauty in FDR’s youth, and this collection, once proudly installed on the bathroom wall shelf, will elucidate this thankfully-passed aspect of late-Victorian life.
In the study, two complex projects are underway. Master craftsman Lary Shaffer and I are in the process of reverse engineering a period daybed we discovered (or rather, several, in photographs), to make a version for the Suite. Ours has to have several novel features: it needs the look and feel of an authentic period piece, yet it has to disassemble for easy movement when we film the New Fireside Chats – not to mention be both durable and comfortable for visitor use. At left, the very, very beginning of our efforts, as we start to think about how to construct the spindle back that will link the two rear lyre-shaped legs. As usual, this has turned into quite an adventure, one that I’ll be detailing in future posts. We’re hopeful that we’ll have the piece designed, assembled and outfitted for the study by the fall.
Also, thanks to major funding from the Lillian Goldman Charitable Trust (and of course, viewers like you), we’ve been able to engage the services of the prestigious Pewabic Pottery in Michigan to produce a period-accurate set of tiles for the fireplace surround. Somewhere in time, no one is quite sure when or why, the tiles were ripped out from all but one of the fireplace surrounds in Westmorly, most likely as part of a general rebuilding of the fireboxes or flues. Fortunately, we still have the intact fireplace in the old porter’s lodge at the base of B-entry, which we’ll be using for a model. This, too, I’ll be documenting as the project unfolds.
Finally, we hoping to complete renovations to the hall outside the Suite to install a small FDR timeline-museum, which will help visitors place the Suite in the context of FDR’s life and presidency. With the assistance of the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, we’ve selected the images for the timeline, and will be mounting them on the wall outside the Suite, along with improved lighting and seating.
See, we have been busy!
Finally, we’ve some new acquisitions to show you. Obviously as the physical restoration of the Suite winds down and we switch over to our educational and philanthropic activities (for more on that important mission, see here) the new items we acquire become fewer and fewer. Still, we’re on the active hunt for rare pieces that either have a direct Harvard/FDR connection, or that help elucidate life at FDR’s Harvard – and how very different that life is from today’s. Here are four great items we’ve recently discovered:
OK, any guess as to what this is?
Hint: it’s glass, exactly the size of a cigar, and missing a small cork on the left end…
If you guessed cigar flask – which I’m sure you didn’t! – you’d be correct. This type of small novelty flask was very common in the late Victorian era. Drinking hard liquor in mixed company was frowned upon, but at the same time, such alcohol was de rigueur at most social events, so what to do? Why, carry this tiny little flask in your vest pocket, that’s what, which to all the world looks like a cigar; then when the ladies aren’t looking, bottoms up!
Here’s a wonderful piece that came to us as a gift from Dr. Cynthia Koch, Past Director the FDR Presidential Library, and her husband Eliot. Though many people think of Stetsons as big floppy western hats, that was only one – albeit the most famous – of their products. Founded in 1865, the John B. Stetson Company began when its eponymous founder headed west and created the original hat of the frontier, the “Boss of the Plains.” Stetson eventually became the world’s largest hat maker, producing more than 3.3 million hats a year in a factory spread over 9 acres in Philadelphia. This particular hat, in its absolutely brilliant red box, is known as a boater, and was common apparel for young men in the warmer months from the FDR’s Harvard days well into the 20s. As it turns out, “our” hat was simply predestined to be in the Suite: I first saw this Stetson in an antiques store in Hudson, New York, and was immediately interested. The seller however named a price I thought unreasonable, and refused to haggle, which is just not “the way” in these kinds of deals – I was put off, and left. Almost a year later, Dr. Koch spied this same hat, still on the shelf in the same store, and thought it would be perfect for us. She immediately called me, and began to describe the “wonderful hat I found, in a well-preserved red period box…” I interrupted, completely amazed: “Don’t tell me you’re at such and such antique store in Hudson!!?” And the rest, as they say is history. Dr. Koch however, proved no better bargainer than I, for the seller again refused to budge and she was forced to pay full price. I take some rather perverse satisfaction in the fact both stubborn seller and store are now gone, but not before we got our hat. Thanks again, Cynthia and Eliot!
Considering the large number of objects in the Suite – heading towards two thousand, if you can believe it – one of the things we’re strangely lacking is period books. The reason is twofold: the first is, simply, the cost of good volumes. FDR, as you probably know by now, was an avid bibliophile who began collecting books while at Harvard. He was on the library committee for the Harvard Union, and also served as the librarian for the Fly Club. (Club libraries, though diminishing in importance by FDR’s time, were still much valued as a source of more popular, less serious reading material than was found in Harvard’s library.) Given a rather refined taste, and a hefty budget supplied by Sara, FDR proved a discriminating buyer, and we find ourselves hard-pressed financially to duplicate his acquisitions. Secondly, we’re constrained to pre-1904 volumes that reflect FDR & Lathrop’s taste and interests – not something that pops up too often at the local used-book seller. But here’s a slim little volume that meets both criteria: Two Addresses by Col H. L. Higginson (1902). Higginson was one of Harvard’s most enthusiastic benefactors, giving both the money for Soldiers Field, as well as the funds for the Harvard Union. This book contains the text of Higginson’s two dedication addresses, and is particularly appropriate for the Suite as FDR was in the audience for the Union dedication in October, 1901. This is a volume he certainly knew of, most likely owned, and most certainly helped acquire for the new Union Library, which would function as Harvard’s main undergraduate library until the opening of Lamont in 1947.
What a stunner! This is a very rare piece, both because of size (it’s 11″ tall by 6″ wide) and function: a heavy ceramic water pitcher. It came out of an estate in California, and is exactly of the period. How do we know that? Well in this case the pitcher is labelled on the bottom: “Royal China Pottery, England,” which sets parameters for the date. But even if it weren’t, the style and typography of the Harvard pennant would give it away. After 1910 or so, the flag font and shape changes, (and continues an every-decade-or-so metamorphosis right until the present day), giving the practiced eye a pretty precise measurement of age.
(It’s amazing the strange talents you acquire when putting together a project like this!)
Well, that’s all for now. I’ll be back in touch as the weather cools down with news on our fall events, including the FDR Memorial Lecture, and our plans for the Big Game.
Until then, please remember that none of this gets done without your continuing help.
Some People Read History. Others Make It.
Come make a little history: support the FDR Suite Foundation!
Who said you couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty back together again? Several day’s worth of hard work later, the Suite has emerged with its new coat of paper, remarkably transformed, looking for the first time in over a century very nearly like a Victorian room:
The study looking south
Our piano, festooned with period tunes. That's Johnny the bobcat, by the way, our mascot; beneath his sharp claws poor old Eli the quail is down for the count
The study looking north; FDR's bedroom on the left, Lathrop's center. You can just glimpse "George," Lathrop's eight-point buck through the door, named by Judith Palfrey, our master, after our Foundation's dear Father George. "The white collar says it all." Amen to that.
FDR slept here...
Lest we forget: the Suite this past February, and the same view this afternoon, August 6, 2010.
What’s next? Window treatments, and – hopefully – more generous contributions from our friends and supporters, as our coffers are again growing bare…