The House That E-bay Built

Every morning I find a reminder from E-Bay in my mailbox. “X (being a number) NEW: Harvard!” And sure enough, one click reveals previously unseen items of Harvard memorabilia. Most of the offerings don’t interest me, but occasionally something pops up that either completes the Suite’s collection, or is a better example of an item we already possess. Some days, when my box is particularly full or I’m in a rush, I’m tempted to just delete this email and move on. But I normally don’t, because in the end, The FDR Suite is in fact the house that E-bay built.

Now, granted, there are items in the Suite that didn’t arrive on-line. The furniture, for example was either custom-built for us or found in New England antique shops. The rugs too are local; the draperies were hand-sewn to period designs; the piano arrived by a circuitous 100-year route from Newburyport. However, the majority of the other 2000-odd moving parts in the Suite possess separate provinces, each having arrived at our door via post from places as far away as Hong Kong and originating in more than a dozen countries. It’s really amazing to think about: 20 years ago there is no way that the Suite’s collection of early 20th century antiques and Harvard ephemera could have been assembled in a few short years. It would have taken a lifetime of searching through yard sales and antique shops to find a mere fraction of it. This is truly the power of the Internet — allowing users to find, sift and triage information — and for those of us who remember a day without it, it is an awesome power indeed.

Recent developments in scanning techniques have aided our efforts immensely as well. We have been able to reproduce a large number of original personal pictures both from the FDR Collection at Hyde Park, and from the family albums of FDR’s Harvard roommate Lathrop Brown, that rival the originals and in some instances vastly improve them. And then there is the case of things we simply can’t afford, yet can still possess through the marvels of modern technology. This wonderful signed postcard is a perfect example, sent from the Suite by FDR in his sophomore year. It recently sold at auction for over $1000, but the auction house was kind enough to share a high resolution scan with us before the sale, which we then duplicated for the Suite. A bit of a parlor trick, you object? Not really, because our purpose at the FDR Suite is to interpret, not slavishly duplicate, the Gilded Age at Harvard, which means that the real importance of this card to us is not the authenticity of the signature itself, but rather what it can explain to our visiting guests.

In itself the postcard is a clever Victorian design showing the front page of the Crimson, but what’s really interesting is that these cards were in fact the e-mail of FDR’s Harvard. The post was delivered and taken from the Suite three times a day, and such postcards were the communication life-blood of the University. Club notices, concert announcements, athletic event schedules, even a dreaded summons to the Dean’s office all arrived by postcard, which if mailed by 9PM had every expectation of arriving to its destination the next morning. This rapid movement of the post was considered one of the wonders of the day, and had as transformative an effect on 19th century society as the Internet has on ours today. Given the remove in a mere hundred years of paper post cards manually carried from place to place to electrons zipping through fiber optics then magically reassembled a world away, no doubt tomorrow will bring equally vast changes… What’s next? Perhaps a halo-FDR Suite that can be toured by anyone, anywhere, anytime… Now wouldn’t that be something! (But wait, wouldn’t that make me superfluous? A halo-Suite with a halo-Michael…. Hmmmm. Let’s reconsider that…)

In the meantime though, I remain immensely grateful for E-Bay!

Michael Weishan

Founder and Executive Director

The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation