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Repository: Harvard University Archives
Call No.: HUB 3790.2
Title: Documents related to the Harvard College Plate, 1736-1923
Quantity: .11 cubic feet (1 legal half document box)
Abstract: The Harvard College Plate originated with the donation of the first major piece in the collection, the Great Salt, by Richard Harris, in 1644. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Harvard Corporation received silver as gifts from prominent alumni and donors, and from students seeking elevated status as "fellow commoners." The Plate includes several vessels created by New England silversmith John Coney, notably the Stoughton Cup, donated by acting Massachusetts Governor William Stoughton in 1701. This collection contains original and transcribed correspondence, inventories, and research materials that document the history of the Harvard College Plate, dating from 1736 to 1923. Correspondents include Harvard Presidents Edward Everett and John Thornton Kirkland, Harvard tutor Charles Stearns, University Librarian Thaddeus William Harris, and Harvard Corporation member and benefactor Oliver Wendell.
This document last updated 2016 February 18.
Collections in the Harvard University Archives:
- General information about silver tableware related to Harvard (HUB 3790)
- General information about silver tableware related to Harvard [Photographs of silver spoon and silver buckles] (HUB 3790.5)
- Harvard University. Corporation. College Books, 1636-1827 (UAI 5.5): http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.ARCH:hua53010
- Harvard University. Corporation. Corporation records: minutes, 1643-1933 (UAI 5.30): http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.ARCH:hua51010
- Harvard University. Corporation. Harvard College Papers, 2nd series, 1826-1869 (UAI 5.125): http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.ARCH:hua12002
- Sparks, Jared, 1789-1866. Papers of Jared Sparks (UAI 15.886): http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.ARCH:hua13005
This collection is arranged in four series:
IntroductionThe Harvard College Plate originated with the donation of the first major piece in the collection, the Great Salt, by Richard Harris, in 1644. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Harvard Corporation received silver as gifts from prominent alumni and donors, and from students seeking elevated status as "fellow commoners." The Plate includes several vessels created by New England silversmith John Coney, notably the Stoughton Cup, donated by acting Massachusetts Governor William Stoughton in 1701.The College Plate has served both practical and symbolic functions. It was used during Commencement dinners in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. In the seventeenth century, certain pieces of the collection also adorned the head table in the Commons Hall during meals. In the eighteenth century, Harvard often dispersed the Plate among faculty members and officers of the school on loan. Since the twentieth century, the collection generally has been used only in ceremonies of significance, such as the installation of Harvard presidents.The Plate originally consisted of three categories of silver: corporate, fellow commoner, and tutorial. Corporate silver was donated or bequeathed to the College by alumni and other benefactors. Fellow commoner silver refers to objects offered to the College as extra tuition from undergraduates seeking elevated rank; fellow commoners were permitted to sit at the head table with Fellows during meals and were exempted from certain duties. Tutorial plate was traditionally presented to instructors by their graduating classes.Harvard also acquired gifts of silver for ecclesiastic purposes, such as a christening basin commissioned through a gift by Oliver Wendell, as well as silver associated with past presidents, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.The vessels that now comprise the Harvard ceremonial silver are the Great Salt, the Stoughton Cup, the Browne Cup, the Holyoke Caudle Cup, the John Vassal Tankard, the William Vassal Tankard, the Dunster Tankard, and the Hedge Tankard.The Great SaltThe Great Salt was originally owned by the Revered Jose Glover and his wife Elizabeth Harris, who sailed to America from England in 1638. Reverend Glover died on the journey, and Elizabeth remarried Reverend Henry Dunster (1609-1659?), the first president of Harvard from 1640 to 1654. When she died, the saltcellar was bequeathed to her brother, Richard Harris. Upon his death in 1644, the Great Salt was gifted to Harvard. Harris also donated a smaller trencher salt.At the time they were presented to the College, the Great Salt, the Stoughton Cup, and the Browne Cup, were inscribed with initials or the family coat of arms; for example, the Great Salt was engraved with the letters “G I E” for Jose and Elizabeth Glover. But in 1847, the College added engravings with the full donor names. The inscription on the Great Salt is upside-down, reflecting confusion over the function of its three knops, which were thought to be legs; the knops were designed to support a plate of fruit.The Stoughton CupThe Stoughton Cup was created by New England silversmith John Coney in 1701 and presented to the College the same year by acting Massachusetts Governor William Stoughton (1632-1701; Harvard AB 1650), immediately preceding his death. The two-handled cup was used as a drinking vessel in a ritual that occurred at the end of Commencement dinner, in which it was passed among members of the Corporation, graduates, and guests.The Browne CupThe Browne Cup, created by John Burt (1691-1745), was commissioned with a bequest from Salem merchant Samuel Browne in 1731. Browne was not a Harvard graduate, but his family had a history of donating to the school, and in 1727, he offered a piece of plate to the College to obtain fellow commoner status for his son.The Holyoke Caudle CupThe Holyoke Caudle Cup was created by John Coney in circa 1690. It was owned by Edward Holyoke (1689-1769; Harvard AB 1705, AM 1708), who served as Harvard president from 1737 to 1769, and was passed down through his family. Charlotte A. Hedge, Holyoke’s great-great-granddaughter, donated the cup to Harvard in 1903.The Vassal TankardsCreated by Boston silversmith Joseph Kneeland (1700-1740) in circa 1729, these tankards were donated to the College by brothers John Vassal (Harvard AB 1732) and William Vassal (Harvard AB 1733) in exchange for fellow commoner status.The Dunster TankardThe Dunster Tankard was created by Ephraim Cobb (1708-1775) in circa 1760. It was donated to the College by Nathan Smith, of Pembroke, Mass., in 1853. The tankard is engraved with the initials “H.D.,” which led to the belief that it had belonged to Henry Dunster, although Dunster died in 1659.The Hedge TankardCreated in circa 1700 by Edward Winslow (1669-1753), the tankard is not engraved with either family arms or the name of its original owner, and it most likely was given to Harvard from a fellow commoner, possibly John Winthrop (1681-1747; Harvard AB 1700). It came into the possession of Levi Hedge (1766-1844; Harvard AB 1792, AM 1795), the husband of Edward Holyoke’s daughter Elizabeth, when he became a tutor in 1795. Hedge was a professor at Harvard from 1810 to 1832, after which time he apparently transferred the tankard back to the College.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1936.
- Skerry, Janine. Silver at Harvard College from Its Founding to the Revolution, 2004.
This collection contains original and transcribed correspondence, inventories, and research materials that document the history of the Harvard College Plate, dating from 1736 to 1923. Correspondents include Harvard Presidents Edward Everett and John Thornton Kirkland, Harvard tutor Charles Stearns, University Librarian Thaddeus William Harris, and Harvard Corporation member and benefactor Oliver Wendell. Several letters provide biographical information about Richard Harris, donor of the Great Salt, as well as historical information about the vessel. There is also correspondence regarding the loan of a silver tankard to Charles Stearns, reflecting an eighteenth century practice of dispersing the plate amongst faculty members. Additional materials include a letter from Oliver Wendell offering a donation for the College to acquire a christening basin, and a memorandum with provenance information about the Holyoke Caudle Cup. There are also original and transcribed inventories of silver dating from 1736 to 1886, which document the growth of the collection and how it was distributed. A file of research materials used in William C. Lane's article, "Early Silver Belonging to Harvard College," includes transcriptions of letters and College records related to the Plate. In some cases, folders include typed notes indicating where the materials were found at Harvard, or describing the contents of the folders.