The intrepid, mop-wielding, toilet-scrubbing students who form the rank and file of Dorm Crew have their roots in the Student Porter Program, introduced to the college in 1950.
Before that, student dormitory upkeep was not conducted by the residents themselves, but rather by a maid service. These maids, alternatively monikered “sweeps,” “biddies,” (a diminutive for the name Bridget that became a colloquial name for a maid) and “goodies,” were considered a staple of the Harvard College experience. In late 1950, university officials anticipated that the maids would soon demand higher wages and proposed the more economical Student Porter Program.
Despite the fact that Harvard was one of the few colleges that still provided a maid service for its residential students, the proposal was met with mixed reactions. It certainly didn’t help that the University coupled the effective downgrade in cleaning services with a 15 percent price hike to student rent. As one Crimson editor put it in an unattributed article from 1951, the “loss of the 9 a.m. cheeriness and relatively conscientious work of the maids is an unhappy prospect.”
The program got off to a rocky start. It took the campus some time to adjust to student porters odd cleaning hours. A survery conducted by The Crimson reported the qualms of Dunster House residents, who cited the “degrading social stigma” associated with the job, as well as the “irregularity” and “attitude” of the porters as reason for their discontent.
In response, porters waged a passive-aggressive war. Porters would occasionally use “intentional by-pass strategies... forgetting or neglecting critical areas.” One porter recounted cleaning off glass shelves and not putting the articles back in place, as well as sprinkling water on toilet seats and rolls of tissue. Copies of Playboys and Penthouses found in bathrooms were tossed into the trash.
By 1951, the “Council’s Porter Committee” had worked out most of the kinks. Appreciating the opportunity for student employment, campus opinion of the program grew steadily.
Some awkward moments remained. In a 1976 Crimson article, an anonymous porter recalled “the morning he knocked, no answer, and entered, to find a couple obviously not expecting him, the girl screamed, the guy gurgled forth obscenities and the student porter dove into friendly porcelain territory locking the door behind him.”
In June of 1979, the Student Porter Program, now called Dorm Crew, made its way into the spotlight, when several Dorm Crew members who were cleaning out a room in Winthrop House discovered three letters written by none other than Robert F. Kennedy ’44. The letters were turned into the Dorm Crew supervisor as objects of interest.
The supervisor promptly graduated and returned home to Malaysia. Todd C. Hennis ‘82, an old Dorm Crew member, said in The Crimson in 1979 that he was “pretty sure” he remembers going with the supervisor to turn in the letters to the House superintendent, but the superintendent had no such memory. The letters, which Hennis described as full of “all the innocuous drivel one writes home to one’s parents,” were never seen again.
While these occasional moments of discovery and intrigue can make the history of Dorm Crew seem like an Indiana Jones movie, the organization has also suffered through its darker patches. Bonny Landers ‘77, one of the first women to clean on Dorm Crew, recounted her early cleaning experience in a 1976 Crimson article. The resident of the first room she was assigned to clean simply closed the door in her face, and even after students caught on to the fact that she was providing them with a helpful service, “five or six guys would stand around and watch [her] as [she] worked.”
Today Dorm Crew advertises on its website that more than 20 percent of recent Harvard graduates have spent at least a little time in its employ during their stay on campus. Once stigmatized and controversial, the program has spent 60 years evolving into the campus institution it is today.