Scroll through Colonial life
Library's vast collection from era, from love letters to receipts, digitized for public view
In a few weeks, the Harvard Library will release a new website for its ongoing, multiyear digitization “Colonial North American Project at Harvard University.” Approximately 450,000 digitized pages of all the known archival and manuscript materials in the Library relating to 17th- and 18th-century North America will be available to the public.
Launched in November 2015 with 150,000 images, the online collection documents life in the European colonies of the Americas and Caribbean, as well as in Great Britain, continental Europe, and Africa. These extraordinary materials enable viewers to see through the eyes of the influencers and common folk of the era, providing insights not only about revolution and politics but also economics, science, society, and much more.
This copy of printed images in a notebook made by Phebe Folger Coleman (1771–1857) features a cameo portrait of John Hamilton Moore (center), whose research developed the theory and practice of finding the latitude, longitude, and variation of the compass. Collection of Houghton Library.
This diagram of how “to make a portable moon dial” is found in a mathematics notebook compiled by Harvard undergraduate Joshua Green in 1782. Collection of Houghton Library.
Elizabeth Lincoln sent this lock of hair to Samuel Norton, ca. 1780, with the final lines of “The Friend” by Anne Steele: “Oh may I make my friend’s distress my own — Nor let my heart unhappy grieve alone — In sorrow let me never want a friend — Nor when the wretched mourn a tear to lend.” Collection of Houghton Library.
Phebe Folger Coleman made this copy of a printed image of a couple enjoying each other’s company in her notebook. Coleman wrote these lines to her husband, Samuel Coleman, a whaling vessel captain: “Why should so much of our time be spent apart, why do we refuse the happiness that is within our reach? Is the acquisition of wealth an adequate compensation for the tedious hours of absence?” Collection of Houghton Library.
Rules and Articles of the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Co., incorporated in 1798, to provide insurance against fire “whether the same should happen by accident, lightning, civil commotion or foreign invasion” were ornately written in the company’s records. Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
This sketch for a tavern sign was included in an account entry for Dec. 31, 1797. Daniel Rea Jr., a house painter, was paid $10 to make the sign for Richard Hayman. Daniel Rea & Son account books, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
Beginning in 1799, clients signed this beautifully inscribed subscription book for the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Co., agreeing to pay an assessment “in case losses should happen so as to consume the absolute funds.” Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Co. records, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
Paul Revere, one of the founders and earliest subscribers of the Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Co., was among the first to sign its subscription book in February 1799. Massachusetts Mutual Fire Insurance Co. records, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.
Official seals and calligraphy decorate Richard Saltonstall’s commission as a lieutenant colonel in the Provincial Army of Massachusetts. The commission was issued by Gov. Thomas Pownall on March 5, 1760.
Harvard University Archives.
In 1743, Samuel Adams answered affirmatively to the question “Is it lawful to resist the supreme magistrate, if the commonwealth cannot otherwise be preserved?” in this Commencement Quaestiones for master’s degree candidates.
Harvard University Archives.
Harvard undergraduate Fisher Ames owned this embroidered pocketbook from 1774. Harvard University Archives.
Faculty meeting minutes of Oct. 2, 1761, noting that Harvard College students were granted permission for “firing off their squibs and crackers & at night for a Bonfire & illuminating the College” in honor of King George III’s coronation during a day of rejoicing and displays of liberty. Harvard University Archives.
This printed Massachusetts probate form from 1712 was attached to a manuscript copy of the last will and testament of Ebenezer Clapp of Milton. Clapp was declared “infirm in body … yet … of memory and understanding competent.” Harvard Law School Historical & Special Collections, Small Manuscript Collection.
This vellum document, dated 1702, is an official record of the transfer of land on Dock Street, near the East River in New York City, to Hendrick Van der Heul. The document was “Sealed and delivered” with several signatures on one side. Harvard Law School Historical & Special Collections, Small Manuscript Collection, Small Manuscript Collection.
A detail of the transfer of land on Dock Street. The first of eight wax seals attached is shown on the lower left. Harvard Law School Historical & Special Collections, Small Manuscript Collection.
Bills of lading detail the contents of shipments bound for Boston on the “good ship Lydia” that sailed from London in the spring of 1766. Harvard Law School Historical & Special Collections, Small Manuscript Collection.
A 1659 hand-drawn portolan chart depicts the coasts of North and South America for sailors to use for navigation. Collection of Houghton Library.
A manuscript containing recipes for medical disorders compiled by London physician Edward W. Stafford for Gov. John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Province, dated May 6, 1643. Stafford’s prescriptions include hypericon (St. John’s wort) for madness; a mixture of toad oil and powder with yellow wax for “King’s evil” (scrofula); and a drink of sweet milk, saffron, and bay salt for jaundice.
Boston Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.
This detail shows the wax seal on the M.B. diploma conferred in 1797 on New Hampshire physician Lyman Spalding.
Harvard Medical Library, Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.