This time of year a few fortunate young people receive an email posing a marvelous question: Would you like to attend Harvard? Those that say yes will become the Class of 2018, offering a variety of reasons for their decision, which boil down to Harvard is oldest and Harvard is best—at nearly everything.
The “many and various” reasons University President Drew G. Faust’s predecessor, Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, gave to the Class of 1918 were pretty much the same: Been around for centuries, preeminent academics, well-connected alumni, great financial aid, and a great variety of “the athletic sports.”
It was easy to get in then. No personal essays required, just a series of entrance examinations. Seventy-three percent of applicants were admitted. Admittedly, there are lots of reasons to discount these numbers. The exams required special preparation available only at a few elite prep schools. There was no Common App, no female students, and only 937 people applied. But that’s not much comfort to the many thousands of students nervously hoping this year for a Crimson-colored “yes”; perhaps 5 percent of applicants will receive that happy news.
Today’s students do have at least one reason to be cheerful. The world is not on the brink of a massive war—assuming the Russia-Ukraine situation stabilizes. One hundred years ago, as the freshmen of 1914 moved into the dormitories, they listened to long speeches about the unraveling situation in Europe. Before they could graduate, many of them found themselves wearing uniforms on the battlefields where they fought in trenches, flew planes, and died. Some of those that survived the First World War perished in the second. 2018, we can only hope, will experience no world wars.
Brand new dormitories greeted the class of 1918, right where Lowell House and the community garden sit today. In those days freshmen lived by the river. Seniors occupied the yard. The new buildings, two years in the making, “combine[d] the atmosphere of Hollis, Stoughton, and Holworthy, with modern, comfortable, and inspiring surroundings,” according to a Crimson article published in 1914.
Next year’s freshmen will have to wait for a year—and get lucky in the housing lottery with one of the renovated houses—before they have the fortune to experience the neo-colonial living with all the comforts of modernity.
A time-traveling 1918er would find a few familiar aspects on campus. The Anderson Memorial Bridge across the Charles River was under construction back then, too. And the Fogg Art Museum seems to be on a 100-year cycle of collection reshuffling and roof readjusting. The museum reopened during the class of 1918’s freshmn year; the new iteration of the Harvard Art Museums opens this fall.
Freshmen today can more easily keep track of such campus developments. The Crimson, for example, is online and freely delivered to the slots on freshmen dorm doors. Back in 1914, reading the news cost $3 a year. News over those years included the dedication of a marble sun-dial given by the class to the university, invitations to “smokers” where everyone got together to watch short movies, and the selection of the class song, written by lacrosse player Edward McCabe, who went on to become a high school music teacher. At the end of freshmen year, the 1918ers produced a red book, bound in soft Morocco leather, summarizing the accomplishments of the class. Even the skeptics at The Crimson were impressed: “we may be justified in expecting a great deal of that class.”
By senior year, the news sunk into the unpleasant and tragic. Half the class had left campus for war, and they were dying—about one death a day. Those remaining in Cambridge shivered in a bitterly cold winter. With coal diverted to wartime uses, students were sent out to chop firewood. In June, they tossed confetti, collected degrees, and headed out into the world, if they hadn’t been fighting in it already.
At the head of the class, alphabetically, was Jacob Bates Abbott ’18. He served in the war, then worked in bonds before quitting to illustrate a comic strip titled “The Gay Stone Age.” Most of the class of 1918 was from around Boston. A few came from abroad: Japan, Lebanon, Denmark, China. Constantine Chezreki ’18 grew up in the Balkans; after Harvard, he briefly served as president of Albania. Many went to work in manufacturing, some in the “mercantile” industry, and a few in brokerage. In January 1943, Prescott Townsend ’18 was jailed for homosexuality; he helped start the gay rights movement in America.
Six months later, the Class of 1918 gathered for their 25th reunion. World war overshadowed the festivities again; Vietnam loomed over the next anniversary. Paul Bloomfield Zeisler ’18, the last of the class, had transferred to the University of Chicago and become a lawyer. By the 50th anniversary report, Zeisler had quit the profession and seen enough of life: “I like the world...less and less each day that passes.”
The class of 2018 have a few decades to enjoy first.