A new view of Harvard in the 17th and 18th centuries

3 min read

The Harvard University Archives has launched an online guide to the 17th- and 18th-century records of the oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. “Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries” provides an online key to locating thousands of items — diaries, commonplace books, correspondence, legal documents, University records, drawings, maps, student notebooks, scientific observations, and lecture notes—that form the early documentary history of Harvard. “Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries” is now online at thanks to generous support from the Arcadia Fund and from the Sidney Verba Fund.

In preparing the new, web-based guide, Harvard University Archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff comments that “These vital materials have long been available to researchers who could visit Harvard. But early library catalogs—which historically enumerated published books—did not fully account for these unique manuscript materials. What we have launched today is a highly specialized guide to 17th- and 18th-century items. The guide is linked to descriptive documentation, including catalog records and finding aids, and, where possible, to digitized content. It is a huge step forward.”

“Harvard University was established under the auspices of the earliest class of emigrants to Massachusetts Bay,” noted Harvard President and one-time Boston Mayor Josiah Quincy in 1836. “It was, from the first, intimately connected with political and religious opinions and events. In every period, its destinies have been materially affected by the successive changes, which time and intellectual advancement have produced in political relations and religious influences.”

Quincy’s comments reflect the broad range of research possibilities available in Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries. By exploring the catalog records and finding aids, as well as the 13,000 digitized pages that the site delivers, users can gain insight into Harvard’s early history and development. At the same time, these unique and generally unpublished records cast important light on the material culture of colonial life, the legal and social concerns of citizens, the costs of goods and services, and the books that influenced thought, education, and other aspects of material and intellectual life in New England.

Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries features a series of 15 collection highlights that range from a deed belonging to the family of John Harvard—the oldest item in the Harvard University Archives — to records of 18th-century New England earthquakes to a guide to digitized papers of patriot and Harvard alumnus John Hancock.

According to Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian, “Harvard in the 17th and 18th Centuries opens up one of Harvard Library’s richest veins of material and makes it available to anyone who is curious about the origins of education in America and the origins of America itself. It gives glimpses of an aspect of history that has increasingly intrigued historians and that should fascinate everyone—the daily life of ordinary people, the way they dressed, the food they ate, the books they read, their rhythms of work and play, and the objects that surrounded them in their everyday activities. With the support of the Arcadia Fund, we are proud to offer this online preview of crucial materials from Harvard’s 17th- and 18th-century collections.”