Campus & Community

Harvard Insignia

4 min read

Documents, art, keys bear witness to installation

Rarely seen Harvard insignia of office will emerge from the vault of University Archives to bear silent witness to the Oct. 12 installation of President Drew Faust.

Directly or by symbolic substitution, all the insignia have a long history at Harvard that clearly dates back to the installation of President John Leverett in 1708 and probably goes back even earlier.

In “Three Centuries of Harvard” (1936), Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison notes that Leverett “revived the ancient formalities which had fallen into desuetude” during a protracted power struggle between Crown and colonists that had erupted in the previous century. The revival of proper form included the use of the College keys, charter, seal, and early records as emblems of office.

The charter and the early records have survived. Symbolic successors of the other insignia date from the 19th century.

Charter of 1650

Henry Dunster, Harvard’s first president (1640-1654), secured the Charter of 1650 from the Great and General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony. In “Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century” (1936), Morison indicates that Dunster himself “in all probability” drafted this document, which “still serves as the constitution of the modern University.”

Written in English (not Latin!), the charter establishes a corporate body with perpetual succession that “shall be called by the name of President and Fellowes of Haruard Colledge.” (Known also as the Harvard Corporation, the body consists of the president, the treasurer, and five fellows.)

Among other provisions, the charter continues the elder of Harvard’s Governing Boards, the Board of Overseers (dating from 1637, with powers legislatively defined in 1642). As established by this charter, the President and Fellows constitute the oldest corporation in the Western Hemisphere.

While the charter’s broad single sheet bears evidence of much folding and some water-spotting here and there, the document remains in remarkably good condition.

Morison considers the charter “one of the most precious possessions of the University,” a document that preserves “an interesting effort to do the proper thing in diplomatics, and to express the creative instincts of an unknown local artist.”

The artist probably took visual cues from the royal charters of institutions such as Oxford University and Oxford’s Wadham College. Most prominent among the embellishments (which, along with the text, seem to be the work of a single artist) looms an initial “W” so artfully wrought as to be virtually inscrutable without the ensuing “hereas.”

On the foothills of the initial flourish stands a young man aiming bow and arrow at a squirrel (a learned forerunner of certain present-day Yard denizens, perhaps?). A dog gazes on attentively. In the second valley of the “W” sits a curious balloon-shaped version of the College arms bearing a chevron, three closed books, and no “Veritas.” All in all, writes Morison, the charter is “unique as a document, and as a colonial artistic creation.”

Years ago, the Charter of 1650 was archivally triple-matted and placed under shatter-resistant plastic in a squarish frame under the supervision of former Harvard print and paper-conservationist Marjorie Cohn.

Ceremonial keys

William Gordon Stearns (A.B. 1824, A.M., LL.B. 1827), steward (comptroller) of the University from 1844 to 1870, gave Harvard its current set of ornate keys in 1846 for the installation of President Edward Everett. The larger of the two is approximately 8 to 9 inches long (20.3 to 22.8 cm); the smaller, about 2 inches (5 cm) shorter. Both are attached to a large circular key ring. Entirely decorative, these heavy-gauge silver implements open no doors at Harvard (or anywhere else).

Corporation records designate the keys “for use on public occasions,” but they apparently only make cameo appearances for presidential installations. Such limited exposure to the air beyond the special velvet-lined wooden storage box may partly explain why they never tarnish.

College Book I and the seals

Oldest among the emblems of office of the Oct. 12 ceremony is a hand-drawn design from College Book I, a compilation of official Harvard records from 1639 to 1795.

These pages show that at a meeting of Dec. 27, 1643 (a Julian-calendar date translating to Jan. 6, 1644, in the modern Gregorian system), the Overseers approved an official seal for the College. Not surprisingly, “Veritas” figures prominently in the design.

What happened next is the real surprise. The venerable sketch, filed away and forgotten, lay unnoticed until President Josiah Quincy found it in the College Archives — in 1836. “During the intervening two centuries,” writes Samuel Eliot Morison, “the College had used three different seals, none of them containing Veritas.”

Appearing with College Book I on the ceremonial platform will be dies for President Quincy’s Seal of 1843 (cut in a sardonyx set in gold on a richly marbled onyx handle) and the Great Seal of 1885 (source of the shield that remains the University’s most widely known official emblem today).