Campus & Community

Antique silver shines

3 min read

Elegant collection created over the years by finest smiths

Company’s coming, and Harvard is bringing out the good silver.

The installation of President Drew Faust on Oct. 12 is one of the rare occasions when the eight pieces of the University’s ceremonial silver will see the (well-guarded) light of day.

The 17th and 18th century pieces, some of which were, until recently, on display at the Fogg Art Museum, make public appearances only during presidential inaugurations or other occasions of great ceremony, such as Prince Charles’ visit for Harvard’s 350th anniversary in 1986. Although several of the items may have seen useful service in their past lives, the silver pieces are now purely ceremonial.

The value of the ceremonial silver is more than sentimental, says Sandra Grindlay, curator of the Harvard Portrait Collection at the Fogg Museum, who oversees the silver collection as well. “As works of art they’re extremely important,” says Grindlay, adding that they were crafted by some of the finest silversmiths of the time. “They’re wonderful to examine. They really reward careful looking,” she says.

The oldest and most significant of these pieces is The Great Salt, a saltcellar that dates to at least 1637. The piece, elegant in its simplicity, was brought to America in 1638 by the Rev. Jose Glover, who died on the trip from England. His widow, Elizabeth, married Henry Dunster, Harvard’s first president. Elizabeth’s brother, a tutor, donated The Great Salt to Harvard upon his death in 1644.

Salt in the 17th century was expensive — valuable for curing and preparing meats — and a saltcellar like The Great Salt would sit at the head of the table, signifying the authority of the head of household. As the centuries eroded this tradition and The Great Salt fell into only occasional ceremonial use, it was often displayed upside down, its scrolled volutes presumed to be legs. As recently as the 1953 inauguration of President Nathan Pusey, The Great Salt was upended, inspiring Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison to note afterwards, “Please, … place The Great Salt right side up!” Grindlay says that more recent scholarship indicates that a plate of fruit would have been placed atop the scrolls after the meal.

Several of the silver items came into Harvard’s collection as additional tuition payment granting well-connected students elevated status or exempting them from chores. The Browne Cup, a ceremonial two-handed cup dated to circa 1731, was commissioned by Harvard following a bequest by Col. Samuel Browne of Salem, a wealthy merchant. Brown donated 60 pounds for a silver piece to be engraved with his family’s coat of arms. According to Corporation records, Brown’s previous donations had freed his son Samuel from responsibility for errands and chores.

Similarly, the Vassal Tankards (c. 1729) brought the status and privileges of “Fellow-Commoners” to brothers John and William Vassal. In exchange for a gift of silver and higher tuition, Fellow-Commoners were greeted as “Mister” and sat at the tutor’s table.