Monday, September 5, 2011

Back to Harvard: Fall, 1899

Issue from September 27, 1899.

Labor Day is upon us, and students everywhere are returning to their dorms to prepare for another year of  studying and partying. This immemorial custom was true even for the patrician students of Harvard college back in 1899, as we can see from glancing though old issues of the Harvard Crimson.


Many of the ads feature furniture and other appurtenances of the late nineteenth-century dorm room. Most of it seems pretty fancy. We are solidly in the golden oak period, and there is still quite a bit of Victorian frippery in evidence.

One often thinks of dorm furniture as miscellaneous cast-offs, with perhaps a parsons table from Ikea thrown in. Naturally, one would expect a higher standard at Harvard. Richard Bissell, in his classic You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man, quotes an 1876 letter from Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard 1880) describing his room: “The curtains, carpet, furniture—in short, everything is really beautiful; I have never seen prettier or more tasteful wall paper. When I get my pictures and books, I do not think there will be a room in College more handsome or comfortable.”

This dandy analyst’s couch would have been just the thing for budding Harvard psychoanalysts at the turn of the century.  Freud was then at his zenith, and in 1899 William James, one of the founders of modern psychology, and brother of psychological novelist Henry James, was teaching at Harvard, so there was likely a strong demand for this particular piece of furniture.
Freud's actual couch, in the Freud Museum


The above ad for carpeting features an unlikely conversation between two students. It’s just a trick of the shading, but the standing one looks like he’s wearing a monocle, adding to his supercilious bearing, and making him resemble P.G. Wodehouse’s character Psmith. He doesn’t seem to be looking at his friend, but rather at the burning cigarette without an ash receptacle in sight, leading to new-carpet anxiety. He apparently has never heard the maxim that ashes are good for rugs.

Clothing of all type was heavily featured to outfit the returning students. The Cygolf shoes above look appropriately Victorian, but the Tuttle ones below in every detail could still be sold today. How many products have a 112+ year life-span without any modification or design changes? Classics endure.

Harvard students needed to relax following all that strenuous decoration, and there were plenty of options available. They might go to see Mlle. Fifi, not a young lady, but the controversial play by Oscar Méténier, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant.

Tobacco pipes were practically the emblem of the college student back then, and fine meerschaums were none too good for the Harvard undergraduate. Luckily, they didn’t have to depend on puritan Boston tobacco, or some questionable Harvard blend, but indulged in Yale Mixture tobacco.

Billiards were yet another option. Students could amble down to Sanborn’s Billiard Parlors, or the more exclusive could purchase their own table  from J.E. Came and Co.—notice the 4-digit phone number in Boston. If you look closely, you see this is a true billiards table, with no pockets. Anyone who has seen The Music Man knows how déclassé pool and pool halls are, compared to billiards; I’m sure that pool is still beneath the notice of Harvard students.

I had always associated Stover with Yale, but apparently he needed a career after his gridiron glory days were over. I realize they were tying to demonstrate customer and staff loyalty, but somehow their testimonials seem peculiarly unappealing--their constancy seems more like addiction or mesmeric coercion. I would not base my choice of pharmacy on the sole fact that their scrubwoman (presumably Old Mother Hubbard herself) has scrubbed the floors continuously for 35 years. Note the interesting use of the archaic word “goody”.

These old ads from the Harvard Crimson are amusing because they reflect the world of the 1890’s, yet are curiously relevant over 100 years later. Oriental rugs and briar pipes are no longer de rigueur, but the basic nature of college students has not changed. College and a dorm room represent the first taste of independence, and students want their quarters to be comfortable and attractive, while proving their maturity and sophistication.


  1. Hello:
    What a fascinating and amusing look at university life of yesteryear. The old advertisements are such fun and really do give a good idea of what life must have been like and, indeed, what priorities were in place for these Harvard students of the C19.

    We particularly like the idea of a Freudian inspired 'couch' with which to furnish one's room. As you say, de rigeur for anyone reading Psychoanalysis....!!!

    Such a delightfully witty and informative post which we have greatly enjoyed.

  2. Reading your post brought back pleasant memories of my dorm days. My timing was good in that I was able to salvage oak furniture that the administration had earmarked for burning (desk, armchair and bentwood hat rack)! I brought the ancient funrniture back to my room, disposed of my bed and slept on an air mattress (which I stored daytime in the closet), and voila, I had to all appearances a private Victorian office. It had much the look of your first illustration.

  3. Hello Jane and Lance, As you say, the ads in old periodicals are often the most fun and revealing. Some of the editorial matter in these old Harvard rags is pretty interesting too, and I hope to get back to it in a future post.

  4. Hello Mark, Your college room sounds really neat. I saw very few dorm rooms that went above the standard and made some statement like yours. I did make some great curbside finds, but the idea of arranging them never entered my mind.

  5. What a delightful post!! I had no idea. They certainly lived in style. I especially loved the square bookcase. So, who had the better rooms- Havard or Yale?!


  6. Hello Joan, Perhaps that is not a fair question to ask me, but I have some old (and cool) examples of both which I hope to write on when I can get some good scans.

  7. The advertisement for Marshea Optician reminded me a lot of the Great Gatsby, of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg's billboard. This ad has a creepy, supernatural appearance, like the one in the novel.

    1. A very astute observation about the glasses ad. I like that surreal quality of the eyes looking through the glasses with the rest of the face missing. That is exactly how Fitzgerald describes the billboard, and shows how novelists incorporate their experience and their familiar world; they don't just make up everything they write.


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