Spaces within Spaces: The Origins of Harvard’s Final Clubs



As the university became more egalitarian, final clubs became elite spaces within elite spaces.



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Once upon a time, in a cramped Hollis dorm room, a student stuffed a live pig into the storage bench beneath his window. Fueled by a disdain for his proctor, who lived one floor beneath him, the student would cause the pig to squeal, disturbing the proctor’s studies. But each time the proctor knocked on the door to ascertain the source of the disruption, he entered the dorm room to find nothing amiss — just an innocent student studying at the bench by his window.

When a looming faculty inspection threatened to out the student once and for all, he decided upon a fitting end to the ongoing prank: he invited a group of his friends over for a dinner party for a ravenous feast of — you guessed it — roast pig. Thus, in the year 1791, the Porcellian Club was born.

Or so the story goes. Almost 100 years passed between the alleged founding of the Porcellian and the 1887 Crimson article that reported its supposed origin tale, and approximately another 150 years have passed between then and now. What might have been lost in all those years of secrecy, rumors, and imagination that the Porcellian is famous for having inspired?

The “Tens”

The Harvard of the 1780s was not the Harvard we know today. Classes consisted of memorizing passages in Latin, Hebrew, and Greek, according to Harvard Extension School lecturer and historian Zachary B. Nowak. There were no University-backed social clubs nor regularly-accessible libraries. And in stark contrast to today’s extracurricular environment, the College was openly antagonistic to students creating any sort of social or intellectual society; University officials were concerned that students gathering together without formal academic supervision would lead to “subversive” activity, Nowak says.

“The last thing the College wanted was a bunch of students in a room talking about college,” Nowak says. But when presented with an obstacle, college students did then what college students do now — they found a way around it.

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The “Speaking Club” was founded in 1771 to remedy the “cold indifference to the practice of Oratory” that William D. Orcutt, Class of 1892, claimed the University perpetuated. The organization served as a place for members to sharpen their public speaking skills by delivering enthusiastic speeches amongst the group and bonding over their love of the spoken word. In 1873, a Crimson writer described it as being in the “foremost rank of literary societies.”. Other clubs were later founded to center their own intellectual pursuits — the Conference Francaise organized around the study of French authors, for example — but none were as large or active as the Speaking Club.

The secrecy of the Speaking Club was of utmost importance to its members — not necessarily in an effort to perpetuate prestige and exclusion, but for the practical purpose of preventing a crackdown by the administration. Fearing that the organization’s name might alert surveilling authorities of the society’s purpose, its name was changed several times throughout its first fifty years, finally settling on the “Institute of 1770” in 1825.

How did one get into the Institute? At the end of their freshman spring, 10 lucky fellows were chosen to be welcomed into the fold. Upon returning to campus in the fall, those 10 would choose another 10 new members. This next group of ten would then choose another ten members — and so on until there were about 100 to 120 members of the organization.

However, the Institute of 1770 was only the first stepping stone to entering Harvard social and intellectual life. From the first five or six “tens,” students would be pulled into other Harvard social organizations — namely, the Delta Kappa Epsilon society (known as the “Dickey”). Unlike the Institute of 1770, the DKE served no practical purpose. Rather, being part of it was a signifier of prestige that furthered one’s social standing and opened up yet more doors in Harvard’s web of increasingly elite spaces.

The men of the DKE formed a pool from which even more exclusive clubs would select their membership. These clubs include Zeta Psi (which later became the Spee), Alpha Delta Phi (which became the A.D. and the Fly), Delta Phi (which became the Delphic), and even the Hasty Pudding Club (which eventually absorbed the Institute itself in 1925). Having made it through a labyrinth of social climbing, these clubs were the last stop for a Harvard man — the top of the pyramid.

They were the final clubs.

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Eliot and the AES

Although administrative surveillance of students and a lack of intellectual stimulation may account for the beginnings of these first social clubs, what can account for the peculiar nature Harvard’s social scene took on soon after? What prompted this structure wherein each group was a subgroup of another, as opposed to a more democratic alternative? Once again, the answer — at least in part — can be found in the actions of the Harvard administration.

When Charles W. Eliot, Class of 1853, took office as Harvard’s president in 1869, he advocated for the admission of a handful of working class students into the College, according to Novak. Fearful of a socialist revolution in the U.S., Eliot hoped his admission would both suppress working class anger and encourage more formerly working class young men to uphold the mores of the elite. Hence, the socioeconomic diversity at Harvard increased under Eliot’s tenure.

A few decades prior, the American Educational Society, a Christian organization, had also worked to increase the presence of the working class at Harvard. By funding the collegiate education of low-income, Christian students from rural Massachusetts, AES hoped that these young men would return to their hometowns upon graduation to serve as educated ministers. During the approximately 30 years that it was active, AES was a significant force in getting more low-income students through the gates of Harvard in the 19th century.

Amidst this changing landscape, final clubs and their peers became a means of perpetuating the old social order, according to Nowak; clubs provided a structure through which students belonging to the highest social classes could reassert their dominance within the school’s extracurricular scene. Final clubs were a mode of separation — a tool used to reify the financial and social disparities that were now apparent across campus, both an identifier and an exacerbator, of growing disparities in the student body.

Justified or not, no club has earned this reputation as an echelon of the elite more so than the Porcellian.

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The Porcellian, in at least partial contrast with the apocryphal tale of the pig and the proctor, actually began as a dinner club of young Harvard students starved for social interaction. They called themselves the Argonauts. Members rotated hosting weekly dinner parties in their respective dorm rooms. When it was Joseph McKean’s turn to host, a member of the Class of 1794, he served his friends a decadent feast, including a whole roast pig. It was so beloved by the dinner club members that they began calling themselves the “Pig Club,” which quickly became the Porcellian.

But McKean is known as the founder of the Porcellian for more than his dinner party skills. According to Orcutt’s 1892 article on the matter, McKean’s “refined characteristics” imbued the Porcellian with an aura of dignity; he solidified the Porcellian’s values as “sociability, brotherly affection, generosity, and the true spirit of a gentleman.”

With these guiding principles in mind, the Porcellian quickly came to be known as a club for some of the richest men on campus. Though perhaps founded out of genuine hopes for an association of friendly, “dignified” men at the university, the desire for more spaces reserved exclusively for only the most wealthy students underlies the Porcellian’s origin story. As the university became more egalitarian, final clubs became elite spaces within elite spaces.

Looking Forward

Today, Harvard’s student body looks vastly different than it did at the turn of the 20th century. The school now accepts women, more students of color, and a growing number of first generation, low income students. Final clubs, too, have changed. Since 1968, when Frank M. Snowden ’68 became the first Black man to be accepted into a final club with his induction into the Spee, clubs have increased their racial diversity. Over time, numerous women’s clubs have arisen. What once began as a chance to practice oration has given way to social outings and Friday night parties.

As hundreds of students in formal dress swarm the clubs for “punch” events each fall, final clubs’ presence is clear. But with opportunities for social and intellectual stimulation now abounding outside of the clubs as well, the initial, practical needs that the clubs evolved to address have largely been accounted for.

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However, the classicism and elitism that characterized these clubs’ origins still lingers today. The majority of Harvard’s student body is wealthy — coming from families whose income ranks in the top 20 percent nationally — although the growing socioeconomic diversity on campus raises questions about the role final clubs will take on going forward. Might our increasingly-diverse student body make the ever-unattainable clubs more inclusive, or will they retract even further into the exclusivity and secrecy they know so well?

Final clubs remain to be shrouded in mystery. The clubs’ official records are locked away in private archives — inaccessible without written permission from the clubs’ current presidents. We still can’t say with certainty where or how many of them originated, nor can we say where they’ll go.

Your guess is as good as ours.