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UAI 15.250

Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829: an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: UAI 15.250
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Harvard University.
Title: Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829 (inclusive)
Date(s): 1686-1829 (inclusive)
Quantity: 0.46 cubic feet (3 flat boxes)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: Following the English tradition, students at Harvard College dined in commons, eating at least one daily meal together in a dining hall along with the tutors and graduate students. This practice continued at Harvard into the middle of the 19th century. The Harvard Commons Records document the maintenance and development of commons at Harvard College in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the Steward's role in overseeing those commons. They also document a rebellion by the students in 1807 over unsatisfactory food served in the commons.

Acquisition Information:

The documents in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business.

Processing Information:

The material was first classified and described in a Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. The material was re-processed in 2011. Re-processing involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid. A list of superceded call numbers is available at the end of the finding aid.
This finding aid was created by Juliana Kuipers in January 2011.
Preservation and description of the Harvard Commons Records was supported, in part, by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Researcher Access:

The Harvard Commons Records are open for research. Access to fragile original documents may be restricted. Please consult the Public Services staff for further details.

Copying Restriction:

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.

Online access:

All of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Preferred Citation:

Harvard University. Harvard Commons Records, 1686-1829. UAI 15.250, Harvard University Archives.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

In the Harvard University Archives, regarding the student rebellion of 1807

In the Harvard University Archives, regarding student protests

Historical note

Following the English tradition, students at Harvard College dined in commons, eating at least one daily meal together in a dining hall along with the tutors and graduate students. This practice continued at Harvard into the middle of the 19th century. The original College Hall, as well as both of the Harvard Halls that replaced it (constructed in 1679 and 1766 respectively), contained a dining hall. The proposed regulations for the diet of the scholars at the College, approved by the faculty in October 1765, noted "that all the scholars living in College shall without exception breakfast dine and sup in the College Hall; saving, in case of sickness." The regulations also described the fare students could expect at those three meals: "That there always be 2 Dishes for Dinner; a Pudding of some sort to be one of them, except on Saturdays Salt Fish alone & not to have the same Dish ordinarily above twice in a Week, Puddings excepted; That there always be Chocolate, Tea & Coffee for Breakfast with Bread or Biscuit & Butter; and Bread & Milk, or something equivalent for Supper."
The Corporation consistently tried to main economic efficiency in commons, keeping their costs low (and portions small). A committee appointed by the Corporation "to consider what regulations may be proper to be established respecting the economy of the College," advised on April 6, 1778, that "the allowance to each person in commons shall not be more at each meal than one quarter of a loaf of bread weighing twenty ounces. Not more than one pint of milk or of chocolate shall be served for breakfast for each person. Not more than six ounces of chocolate shall be allowed to eight pints; and not more than one ounce of sugar be allowed to each pint. Not more than one pound of meat with a sufficient quantity of vegetables or roots be served to each person for dinner. And not more than one pint of milk for supper." Before the regulations went into effect, one week of commons cost 36 shillings and 2 ¾ pence; the next quarter, the cost of commons had decreased to 30 shillings and 9 ¾ pence, with the Corporation saving more than £212. By 1780, the College was facing the additional problem of inflation and the rising price of goods after the Revolutionary War.
Students, however, frequently protested against the quality of the food they were served. Rancid butter served by Steward Jonathan Hastings prompted the "Butter Rebellion" in 1766. A lesser known rebellion, but one that is extensively documented in this collection, occurred in 1807. The students' petition to the Corporation on March 20, 1807 explained that not only was their butter bad but their biscuits were bad, their coffee bitter, their sugar dirty, and the cups and saucers not washed. After the Corporation failed to take any action, the students walked out of Commons on March 30, 1807. In response, the Corporation closed Commons for a week and threatened to expel students unless they signed a confession. Twenty-three students were expelled in April (eight of these were re-admitted in September after confessing); the College also lost a number of students who withdrew in sympathy. In his analysis of the rebellion, James McGovern identified a number of causes, citing the state of commons to be a "symbolic, not real cause." In his view, severe punishments, an ineffective President Webber, an inflexible Corporation, and a required Hebrew language course were more to blame for the student unrest that began in the fall of 1806 and continued until 1808.
Due perhaps to the less than satisfactory nature of the food served, students increasingly preferred to board elsewhere, despite College laws forbidding them from doing so. In 1825, pressure on the College administration to allow students to dine outside the college had grown so strong the laws were finally changed. As a result, by 1849 very few students were dining in commons, and the practice was abandoned. Dining in commons did not start again until the creation of the Harvard Dining Association in 1874, following the successful experiment of the Thayer Club, an independent and voluntary dining association that provided board at cost to about 150 undergraduate students. The Harvard Dining Association, housed in Memorial Hall, existed until 1925. Until dining halls were opened in the new student houses, built in the 1930s, the only campus dining option for upper class students was the Harvard Union. Regular student dining did not resume in Memorial Hall until 1994, when, after extensive renovations, the dining hall, renamed Annenberg Hall, was opened as the freshman dining hall.



The records are arranged in chronological order.

Scope and Content

The collection documents the maintenance and development of commons at Harvard College in the 18th and early 19th centuries and the Steward's role in overseeing those commons. Records chiefly consist of reports of the committee appointed by the Corporation to examine the Steward's accounts; these quarterly reports were used to calculate the per person cost of commons. The reports frequently list the supplies the Steward had on hand, giving at least a partial indication of the food students regularly consumed. Some of the items regularly appearing on the reports include chocolate, sugar, flour, pickles, potatoes, turnips, beef, mutton, malt, hops, and salt. The records also document special events, including Commencement dinners and dinners for the Overseers and the Corporation. The latter in particular provide interesting contrast against the students' usual fare, since they typically featured several different types of meat with sauce, as well as delicacies such as cheese and asparagus.
Other documents in the collection reflect the tensions between the administration's efforts to maintain economical efficiency and the students' complaints about the quality of the food they were served. The 1807 student rebellion, when students walked out of commons, is particularly well documented through student petitions and Corporation Committee reports. A letter from Steward Caleb Gannett, written to the Corporation in defense of the quality of food served, provides excellent descriptions of the usual fare provided and the habits of the kitchen staff.
In addition to documenting these aspects of Harvard history, the Commons Records provide insight into the lives of other members of the community, including women and African Americans. The records document the wages paid to kitchen staff and laundresses, often describing the work performed and listing the workers by name. Material culture is heavily represented in the collection, particularly through lists of utensils purchased or owned by the College.


This document last updated 2015 March 11.

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