The following article describing Harvard traditions was written especially for the Crimson by W. C. Abbott, Francis Lee Higginson Professor of History
In the animated discussions to which the establishment of the new "houses" in Harvard has given rise, there has emerged at times the question of their resemblance to the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. By some that resemblance has been welcomed by others it has been condemned. There have been more or less--generally less--weighty arguments adduced for and against a "High table", and similar entertaining but not wholly essential details as to costume and behavior at those functions connected with the problem of combining social converse, "atmosphere" and food into a harmonious whole which shall contribute to the intellectual training of our youth.
Ritual of Dining in Hall
To one who has taken no part in that discussion; who has but little interest in it, save as it may be related to the real purposes of the university and no predilections one way or the other in the matter; it seems unfortunate that at least one consideration has been overlooked in the discussion of the ways and means of conducting those more or less solemn rituals around which these discussions and--presumably, if one may judge from them--our intellectual processes are henceforth in some fashion to revolve that is to say the meals. It is that, for nearly 300 years, the students of Harvard College have, in fact, had the curious custom of eating together in one fashion or another. With the otherwise wholly admirable shifting of the center of college life nearer the river that fashion has in recent years greatly altered, and many believe for the worse. Yet it is fair to remember that if we are to turn to another system, there was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, even in the earlier years of the nineteenth century, a custom or habit, even in some sort a ritual of dining in hall. This though less ancient than that in some of the English colleges and in some measure derived from theirs, (as theirs, it must be remembered was in turn derived from still older sources) has the advantage of tradition as "authentic" as the English tradition.
A Heritage from the Past
Thanks to the great knowledge, the industry and the kindness of Mr. Albert Matthews, who has edited the Records of Harvard College with such skill and sympathy, it is possible to quote from his answer to an inquiry
in regard to the system in vogue at Harvard in past generations.
"That there was at 'set form of dining in hall' is, I am confident, certain, though the meagerness of the records does not enable us to say what the precise details were. But in the absence of evidence to the contrary, it may safely be assumed that the form obtaining at an English college was followed at Harvard. At all events, it is absolutely certain that in the early days here the College authorities were ceremonious in the extreme.
No Professors until 1722
"As to whether the professors or tutors ever at any time took meals with the undergraduates, it is to be remembered that there were no professors until 1722. Apparently there were three tables in the Hall or College Hall, as it was variously called--that is, the hall in the first Harvard College and that in the second Harvard College: one table for the tutors (or Fellows, as they were usually called in the early days) and (after 1722) professors; another table for the masters; and another table for the 'scholars' (that is, undergraduates). In 1666 it was ordered that 'such as are fellows of the Colledge, & have sallaryes payd them out of the Treasury, shall have their constant Residence in the Colledge, and shall Lodge therein & be present with the Schollars at meall times in the Hall.'
'References to Fellows' Table
"There are other references to the Fellows' table in 1674 and 1682. In 1685 Chauncy was appointed 'a Waiter at ye ffellowes table,' and Dasset 'a Wayter at the Schollars, table.' In 1719 Tutor Flynt was 'allow'd upon the Consideration of his Bodiely infirmity to live out of Commons, he taking care to be present in the Hall at Meal-times as there may be Occasion.' In 1734 fellow-commoners 'Shall have the priveledge of Dining & supping with the Fellows at their table in the Hall, and Shall be excus'd going on errands, Shall have the title of Master, and Shall have the priveledge of wearing their Hats as Masters do.' A law in 1734 declared that 'All the Tutors, & Professors, Graduates & Undergraduates, who have Studies in College, Shall constantly be in commons, while Actually residing at College vacation time excepted; and shall Dine and Sup in the Hall; at ye Stated meal times.....' I used above the word 'apparently' because, though there is no possible doubt about a Fellows' table and an undergraduates' table, the question of a masters' table is somewhat obscure, as the only reference I have noted to such a table is found in a law of 1734 which says that 'If any Master neglects to put himself Into commons, when by the preceeding Law he is Obliged to be in commons the waiters on the masters Table, Shall Apply to the President, or one of the Tutors, for a Note to put him into commons and inform of it.' Still, 'waiters on the masters' Table' seems sufficiently specific.
Grace Before and After
"As to a 'prayer or grace' at meals:...I incline to the opinion that particular word is not likely to have been used by New England Congregationalists in the early days. In trying to think up some other word, 'blessing' and 'thanksgiving' came into my mind, and I scored on each, for both are in the index. In 1650 an order stated that the Butler 'is not bound to stay above half an hour at Bevers in the Buttery after the Tolling of the Bell, Nor above a Quarter of an hour after Thanksgiving in the Hall at Meals'; the order was repeated in 1667, and in 1734 it was specified that 'the Senior Tutor, or Other Senior Scholar in the Hall Shall crave a blessing, & return thanks'. Presumably, then, a grace was said both before and after a meal."
It seems apparent, then, that the old Harvard custom provided not merely a "high table," for the fellows, but a table for the "Masters", or what might be called the "scholars" of the house in other institutions, and a table or tables for the undergraduates.
Continue "Harvard Tradition"
In view of these circumstances, is it too much to hope that, if we are to return to the older and, as we belive, the better customs of an earlier time, it may be found possible to devise some form of "dining in hall" which continues the "Harvard tradition" rather than lending itself to the fatal imputation of "Anglomania"? It would seem that amid such an amount of talent and knowledge as we have here, there must be some one who could discover that form, even, if necessary or desirable, resurrect those "prayers" with which it was begun. Though, under existing circumstances, that cheerful custom of the "beever" is no longer possible, the seating of the members of the house, and even the "thanksgiving" would not seem to smack too much of "imitation"--except, perhaps, the imitation of the great past of Harvard College. It may, perhaps, be argued that the revival of these former practices has no more to recommend them than the resurrection of kneebreeches and shoe-buckles would have, but that argument is in a sense beside the point.
Seventeenth Century Goody
In view of the remarkable archaeological discovery of the college plates, whose reappearance was so widely and so enthusiastically welcomed, other "revivals" would not seem beyond the possibilities in connection with this interesting experiment, which, in so many ways, is but a revival of old Harvard practices. For this matter of seating in hall is of course, only one, and doubtless not the most important, of many such suggestions that might be made in this interesting field of Harvard's history. For these the fortuitous concurrence of the publication of her early records and the establishment of the new houses offers a favorable opportunity. And if there remains a doubt that "Harvard tradition" is a real and ancient thing, one need but to remark that the first human being who clearly appears in Harvard College records as an individual, is "old Mary", the goody--in 1659