Once upon a time, a student at Harvard could speak openly of his drunken whereabouts:
“You were on the cars Fast Day night?”
“You were drunk?”
This conversation, recounted by Nicholas L. Anderson, Class of 1858, in his “Letters and Journals,” occurred between one of his friends and the President of Harvard College. It ended with the friend’s reassuring assertion that he had already made a temperance pledge to Anderson; further drinking wouldn’t be a problem.
The early 19th century witnessed the rise of temperance movements ranging in zeal from the promotion of moderate consumption of beer and wine (instead of hard liquor), to teetotalism. These movements influenced college administrations, but Prohibition was still almost a century away, and alcohol remained a major element in students’ lives.
The diaries of Benjamin W. Crowninshield, also Class of 1858, reveal that several societies on campus—including The Hasty Pudding Club, of which Crowninshield was a member—had meetings that consisted of poetry readings and lively speeches, followed by supper and booze. Sometimes the students would be so drunk that poems were left unfinished. The night was considered a success if all members lost consciousness, plunging into drunken bliss.
Student protests were also an occasion for drinking at Harvad in days of yore. In 1768, one unfortunate student, Thurston Whiting, Class of 1770, was locked in a room for seven hours by a particularly cruel tutor. Fellow students responded to this tyranny by throwing bricks at the tutor’s window. Four of the protesters were expelled. In response, the student body got drunk and marched around the Rebellion Tree in front of Hollis Hall (a verdant nod to the Liberty Tree, located in Boston Common, a popular site of protest in pre-Revolutionary times). Three of the expelled students were later readmitted, according to University library records.
Though they lacked the now-standard array of empty bottles of Rubinoff, Svedka, and Bud Light, 19th century dorm rooms offered a variety of arguably classier drinks. Beer, wine, champagne, punch, blackstrap rum, and hard cider—a drink that John Adams, Class of 1755, encountered at Harvard and which became a part of his daily routine later in life—all flowed freely. One of the earliest recorded stories about Harvard concerns a Mistress Eaton, who was responsible for running a residential house. It’s rumored that she served the students hasty pudding laced with goat dung. As quoted by Samuel Eliot Morrison in “The Founding of Harvard College,” according to Mistress Eaton’s testimony before the Massachussets Bay Colony Court, “And for their wanting beer, betwixt brewings, a week or a half together, I am sorry that it was so at any time, and should tremble to have it so, were it in my hands to do again.”
Fast forward to Prohibition and we find the Harvard men conflicted and confused. The Crimson announced on Jan. 9, 1924 a poll, organized by college dailies across the country, that students could take to voice their opinions on the 18th Amendment. College students’ responses were released on Jan. 11. The results appear below:
1. Do you favor an amendment to the Constitution repealing the present Prohibition amendment?
No Vote: 94
2. Do you favor modification of the Volstead Act to permit the sale of light wines and beers?
No Vote: 92
3. Do you favor more rigorous enforcement of the Prohibition Amendment and the Volstead Act, to make Prohibition an actuality?
No Vote: 135
*Includes 244 who favored rigorous enforcement while the existing laws remain on the statute books but who also favored repeal or modification or both.
The end of Prohibition was celebrated on Dec. 6, 1933 by a Crimson writer: “The night of Repeal, now many months heralded by brassy clarion sounds and the low moans of boot-leggers, is the finish of a flaming column in the scroll of American delusion.”
Beer made its return to the dining halls, though a different writer foresaw a division in the dining halls and called for the drinking age to be lowered: “A concession might be made in the form of the stronger malt beverages, of porter and ale, but the limit itself must be reduced to eightees [sic] years.”
According to a 1934 issue of The Crimson, beer was again served freely in the dining halls to those who presented a blue card signed by the House Master signifying that they were 21.
And so the seemingly endless debate on drinking age began to appear in the pages of The Crimson. The legal age for the purchase of alcohol in Massachusetts was lowered to 18 in 1973, raised to 20 in 1979, and to 21 in 1984, causing House Masters’ Sherry Hours (students drinking sherry with their House Master) of the ’70s and ’80s to become the Not-Just-Sherry Hours of today (as in Leverett House). According to an article that appeared in The Crimson in 1985, the Kong was said, at the time to accept library cards as proof of age, and Harvard Student Agencies was once a source for international student I.D.s with altered birth dates.
In time, however, Harvard’s policies began to align more strictly with incremental changes in governmental policy: beer disappeared from the dining halls, wine cellars were forced to close, and inter-House parties went dry. A 1997 Crimson article quoted Dean of Students Archie C. Epps ’68 as stating that College administrators were “moving towards a no tolerance posture” on underage drinking.
Perhaps it wasn’t so different in the early days, after all. In 1655 the Harvard College Handbook stated clearly: “Neither Shall hee without sufficient reason such as the President or his Tutor shall approve of, eyther take Tobacco or bring or permit to be brought into his Chamber strong Beere, wine, or strong water, or any other inebriating Drinke to the end that all excesse and abuse thereof may bee prevented.”