Table Troubles

Silver Salt Cellar
Silver Salt, ca. 1635, Courtesy of the Harvard University Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Can you imagine having to serve other students based on your age? At early Harvard, strict hierarchical systems required younger students to bring bevers, two small meals in the morning and afternoon, to older students’ rooms. Two more substantial meals for dinner and supper, known as “commons,” took place in the Old College building, where the kitchen and buttery were located. While bevers generally consisted of a pint of beer and a piece of bread, commons also added to this staple of bread and beer the luxury of meats and vegetables.

According to archives, the College officially favored wealthy students, who paid double tuition and presented the College with a silver dish upon matriculation, such as this silver salt given to Harvard by Richard Harris in 1644. These students, known as “Fellow-Commoners,” received the right to dine at the Fellows’ table on tablecloths covered with their silver and pewter items. Their dishes would be filled with hot mulled cider, fresh fruit, and other luxuries unknown to the less affluent students who had to eat from considerably less opulent wooden trenchers (shared platters). Because of the worth of silver and pewter items, some of these objects have been passed on for generations. But an item need not be expensive to have historical importance. Our excavation’s material finds also revealed information about early Harvard dining divisions, supplementing information from archives and saved treasures.

stemware, wine bottle, ceramics, spoon

17th and 18th-century drinking and dining utensils from colonial Harvard Yard. Photo by Mark Craig. Glass stem, PM 987-22-10/100192. Latten (copper alloy) spoon, PM 978-22-10/100159. Stoneware tankard body sherds, PM 992-9-10/100224. Wine bottle, PM 992-9-10/100225.


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