Harvard Square, 130 years ago—cobblestones growing out of pavement, horse-drawn carriages instead of taxis lined up on Mass. Ave., metal flasks in place of Starbucks cups. The din of iPhone conversations and the recitations of tour guides recounting the origins of Widener Library for the thousandth time are muted. They are replaced by a single voice, belonging to a middle-aged man selling fruit.
His name is John Lovett, but “the bright boys of Harvard,” as he calls students, dub him John the Orange Man. He has blue eyes and graying auburn hair, parted in the center and curled at the ends, complemented by a thick, white beard. He is short and round-shouldered, and wears a tall beaver hat with a crimson sash; on game days, he dons his jersey. Students pass him rushing from dorm to class, and he calls to each invariably, “Hello, frin’.”
John the Orange Man began selling fruit in Harvard Square in 1858, about a decade after he immigrated to Cambridge to escape the Irish potato famine. He worked in the Square until his death following an operation in 1906, and during that period, saw the erection of 26 university buildings, and made the acquaintance of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1891, the Boston Daily Globe dubbed him “the most popular man at Harvard.”
Contemporary essayist Roger Malstacks wrote, “He is much better known among Harvard men than President Eliot.”
To his almost exclusively wealthy student-contemporaries, John was part-servant, part-friend. Students asked John to deliver fruit directly to their Matthews and Holworthy dorm rooms, and appreciated that he handed out goodies even when they didn’t have ready cash. Imitating John’s Irish brogue in song became a regular pastime, and Harvard men called the vendor “Paddy” and “St. Patrick.” Yet students also invited John to smoke pipes in those dorm rooms, and often brought him to dinners at upscale Cambridge restaurants and hotels—more than once, they intervened to get him out of legal jams. John is a Harvard icon, but he is also a figure who reflects the complicated nature of turn-of-the-century class hierarchy.
County Kerry to Cambridge
John Lovett was born in County Kerry, Ireland, in 1833, one of 12 children in a family of middle-class farmers. Biographers would later imagine Lovett’s upbringing with the romance of an Irish pastoral; a Harvard Illustrated Magazine piece written shortly after the vendor’s death describes his early home as a “straw-thatched stone house… the typical Irish homestead.” Novelist Henry Fielding, who published “History of John the Orange Man,” claims that “the beautiful scenery” of John’s birthplace “is something beyond description.”
With the onset of the potato famine in 1845, though, John’s family fell on hard times, and several of the older children left Ireland for the United States. John eventually followed to join his mother and older brother in Cambridge, carrying—the romantic lore continues—nothing but a red trunk full of potatoes and oatmeal.
At the foot of the Charles River Bridge, John, informed that he would have to pay a penny-fare, feared that he would have to return home. Luckily, a local teamster came to his assistance, paid the fare, and drove him into Harvard Square.
John worked odd jobs in the Square for around a decade, renting a room in a house on Brattle Street. On one fateful day in 1858, John went to see “the bright boys of Harvard” play baseball at Soldier’s Field.
John watched from the sidelines until a senior player, wiping sweat from his brow, spotted the observer and shouted “Hi, there, Paddy bring us some water!”—perhaps John’s vibrant hair suggested his national origin to the student. John promised he would fetch some, and returned, 20 minutes later, with Irish sweet-water, a traditional blend of water, molasses, and vinegar. According to the obituary, John won over the students’ hearts with his tasty drink and his “many thanks to you, friends.”
The Most Popular Man at Harvard
When John spoke about the difficulty of finding work in the Square, a student recommended that he try selling fruit to Harvard students. Soon, he became a fixture in the Square. In the days before dining halls provided a constant supply of apples and bananas, students appreciated that that they “never had to go fruitless to bed, for need of the ready cash to purchase.” John claimed that trusting students to pay him back later never put him in debt. He was everyone’s “frin.”
Besides providing treats free of charge, John also earned a reputation for his enthusiastic support of collegiate sports. It became a tradition never to bet on a game unless John attended—though John only ever bet on the Crimson, a practice that proved even more financially risky than selling fruit on loan. Like any good Harvard fan, John’s sideline-support consisted mostly of insulting Yalies.
Malhstack’s essay—along with several contemporary articles—describes a famous exchange between John and a tourist who asked the vendor what “veritas” meant. According to legend, John replied, “I’m not sure, frin,’ but I guess it means ‘To hell with Yale.’”
Such humorous but somewhat patronizing tales delight in John’s outsider-status and supposed ignorance of Harvard etiquette. Yet at the same time, students often used their own wealth and influence to obtain a privileged place for John in the Cambridge community. The class of 1881 gave John a wheeled cart so that he could sell his fruit inside the Yard. When the Yard Cop—the HUPD of the 19th-century—protested that both vehicles and the sale of goods were prohibited in the Yard, students signed a petition for John to be granted special permission. The petition succeeded, and John became the only vendor ever to cart his business between Widener and Memorial Hall.
By 1891, John, who had been born with a stumped leg, found it increasingly difficult to push the cart through the Yard or anywhere else. The graduating class that year presented him with a new cart that could be wheeled by a donkey. John dressed the donkey in a crimson blanket and named it “Radcliffe,” because, John reportedly quipped, she was the only one of her sex admitted to the college proper.
John soon became a regular guest at the Longfellow’s house for dinner. Having worked on campus for decades at a time when most students were legacies, he earned renown for teasing young men about their fathers’ collegiate exploits.
Intervening on John’s behalf meant more than needling campus police—students often challenged Cambridge authorities who treated John as an inferior on account of his background. By the 1890s, however, John had made his way into the middle-class with the purchase of a home on Beaver Street. When the vendor joined Harvard students for a post-game dinner at a local hotel, Fielding writes, a waiter “mistook him for an ordinary workman and was about to forcibly eject him.” It took one of the better-known athletes to protest to the waiter on John’s behalf; the student was one of Harvard’s greatest boxers and the waiter, Fielding claims, must have been grateful to “escape intact.”
But if students condescended to John because of his background, this did not prevent them from regarding him as one of their own. A few years before death, an anonymous Harvard alum interviewed John and recounted the vendor’s life story in “The Story of John the Orange Man, Written by One of His Friends.” According to the book, John was constantly occupied in “mingling with the men of various sets and cliques” and therefore found himself privy to the gossip and petty rivalries of the student body. When asked to comment on another student though, John reportedly never said anything besides “’Aw, he’s a good fellah, frin.’”
According to the author of the history, John knew “many of the dark deeds committed within the college walls.”
If students treated John with a mostly benevolent paternalism, the outside world sometimes regarded the Irish immigrant with downright contempt. John appeared in a play called “Brown at Harvard” at the Princess Theater in New York, to add realism to a collegiate setting. A contemporary critic snobbishly wrote: “This was in such excessive taste that even one’s sense of humor was dismayed. The poor old chap, blinking in the footlights, toothless and smiling, was… pathetic, with the pathos of sheer ineptitude, and it seemed a pity.”
John passed away later that year in Massachusetts General Hospital. His death was followed by an outpouring of loving obituaries written by former students and Cambridge locals.
After John’s death, some suggested that a Harvard Square character nicknamed Mugsey, who had once worked for John and then opened his own business selling popcorn and candy, take his mentor’s place as mascot. The idea never caught on, though, and today, Harvard’s official mascot is the other John— the school’s first donor, John Harvard. He has red hair but no beard; he wears a Pilgrim’s hat and does not sell oranges.
John’s anonymous student biographer concludes his story with a prediction:
“He has served us faithfully, and will continue to do so as long as he is able to push the handcart; and when at last he is too old and feeble to attend to his business, he will come occasionally to the yard and sit in the sun on the steps of Mathews Hall, and his name will be enrolled on the records of the University as John Lovett, Emeritus.”