Harvard Explained

What are the meaning of the house and graduate school shields?

All the seals were designed by Pierre de Chaignon la Rose (A. B. 1695), the heraldic expert of the Committee on Arms, Seal, and Diplomas.

Adams: James Phinney Baxter, the first Master of Adams House, named the new House after John Adams and the Adams family. The House coat-of-arms is derived from the seal ring of John Quincy Adams. Master Baxter made the background gold to symbolize the Gold Coast and the five sprigs of oak leaves stand for the five buildings of Adams House. The House motto, “Alteri Seculo,” is from Cicero’s “he who plants trees labors for the benefit of a future generation.”

Cabot: Cabot is the name of a freshwater perch, characterized by a large and ugly head and spiny fins. The Cabot House shield is derived from the Cabot family seal, which is a pun on the name Cabot. The original seal, which is displayed in the Cabot House kitchen, depicts three fish, draped curtains, and a helmet on a yellow background. There is no evidence, however, that the Cabots had been involved in fishing or seafaring.

Currier: On the Currier House shield, the red field represents Harvard, while the black bar is taken from the two diagonal stripes of the Radcliffe arms. The golden tree represents the “Radcliffe apple tree,” used as a symbol in the fund drive to complete the construction of Currier House. The Currier House shield also discreetly refers to the Currier family. The term “currier” in French describes people who used a curved knife with the sharp edge on the inside to scrape the hair off animal hides to prepare leather for tanning. At either ends of the blade were wooden handles; such knives are suggested by the scallop patterns in the horizontal black bar. The symbolism of the hide scraping is multi-layered, for it can also suggest that education is “a sort of scraping and tanning of the students to make them more supple and useful for life.”

Dudley: Dudley House was named for Thomas Dudley (1576-1653), second governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Dudley House arms are based on the seal on Thomas Dudley’s will, which is on file in the Suffolk County House in Boston.

Dunster: Dunster House was named in honor of Reverend Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College. It is commonly believed that President Dunster’s family coat of arms serves as the emblem of Dunster House. In actuality, when the House Shield was being designed, the designer searched for the Dunster family arms in England, and unintentionally based the shield design on the wrong Dunster family seal.

Eliot: The Eliot House shield is based on the Eliot family coat-of-arms.

Kirkland: John Thorton Kirkland, President of Harvard from 1810-1828, used no coat of arms himself. Thus, when Kirkland House opened in 1931, Pierre de Chaignon la Rose created an entirely new shield with symbols connected to the name Kirkland. The red field refers to the University while the black cross edged with silver comes form the arms of the Dioces of Carlisle, from which the name Kirkland originated. Finally, the three silver stars represent a common feature in the arms of many families bearing the Kirkland name.

Leverett: Leverett House was named after John Leverett, who was President of Harvard from 1708 to 1724. A leverett is a hare less than one year old. It comes from the diminutive form of the French word “lievre” and also the Latin word “Lepus,” which means hare. This inspired the rabbit motif on the Leverett House shield.

Lowell: The Lowell House shield is the only one with a motto in common use. It is a quote from a poem by Macchiavelli, and it means “recognize opportunity”: in other words, the familiar saying “Seize the Day.” There is no motto on the earlier arms of the Lowell family; most likely, Reverend John Lowell of Newburyport, the first one of the Lowell family to use arms in the United States, added the motto as a part of the family seal.

Pforzheimer: Back in the days when Pfoho was called North House, it had a baroque design showing a youthful head, representing the north wind. In the spring of 1983, Woody Hastings, the Master of North House, decided that it was time for North House to have a house shield as it was the only Harvard house without one. He appointed Tim Oey to run a contest to design and choose a new house shield. From a ballot of 4 or 5 entries, the students of North House selected the winning shield. The red in the upper right represents Harvard and the black in the lower portion symbolizes Radcliffe. A black border that signifies the Radcliffe quad surrounds the field. The four squares symbolize the four Radcliffe dormitories or halls included in Pforzheimer House: Mours, Holmes, Comstock, and Wolbach.

SELECT GRADUATE SCHOOLS

Business School: The Business School shield uses the arms of its benefactor, Mr. George F. Baker, from a printed Family Genealogy.

Divinity School: The Divinity School’s shield is based on the arms of Thomas Hollis. The three sprigs of holly are presumed to refer to his last name.

School of Education: The School of Education’s seal indicates Ezekiel Cheever, the most famous schoolmaster of seventeenth-century New England, and it is based on the arms that appear on the tomb of his grandson in the Charlestown burying ground.

Extension School: President Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, who served from 1909 to 1933, initiated The Extension School as an enlargement of the Lowell Institute. Because Lowell House was already using the Lowell family arms, the Extension School designed another shield featuring two bushels of wheat, which was the fee for courses given originally by the Lowell Institute. Also, to signify learning by night, a burning lamp is shown at the base of the shield.

Law School: The seal of the law school features the arms of Isaac Royall, who founded the first professorship. His arms, as shown on his bookplate, were azure with three sheaves of gold.

Quincy: Quincy’s first master, Professor John M. Bullitt, chose the Quincy House coat-of-arms after consulting with Professor Mark DeWolfe Howe, a lineal descendent of President Josiah Quincy. The Quincy shield consists of a red background with seven mascles (lozenges) in gold. The term mascle is from Latin “maculus” meaning “spot,” which in this context means a mesh in chain-mail. The term mail is not approved by heraldic experts because it leaves some ambiguity as to whether the lozenges are hollow or filled. However, second House Master Charles W. Dunn noted that, “members of Quincy House, cheerfully undisturbed by this detail, have appropriated the term as the title of the House journal and have even used it at times in reference to members of House teams.”

Winthrop: Winthrop House was named for two Winthrops prominent in Massachusetts history—John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and his descendant John Winthrop (A.B. 1732), the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Experimental Philosophy as well as acting President of Harvard from 1773 to 1774. The house adopted as its shield the crest of the Winthrop family, a lion on a shield with three chevrons in the background.

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