Episode 14: Down & Out at Harvard

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Harvard, America’s first college, is thought of as a bastion of privileged patricians, a place filled with old brick buildings, ivy-covered walls and inscrutable ancient traditions. But it’s also a real college where real young people live, learn, struggle and try to find themselves. In 1813 two boys, Stephen Salisbury and Aaron White, fifteen and sixteen, respectively, left their homes in Massachusetts to become freshmen in the Harvard College class of 1817. The remarkable personal day-to-day accounts both of them left behind illustrate in vivid and sometimes amusing detail what it was really like to go to college in the 1810s. Stephen engages in endless battles with his parents over pocket money and dirty laundry; Aaron in the meantime struggles against depression, feelings of guilt and unworthiness, and his own temptations. Both somehow manage to graduate, but one senses it wasn’t easy!

Historian Sean Munger takes a personal and often humorous look at college in the 1810s, and tries to break down the ivory walls that separated 19th century Harvard from the real world. In this episode you’ll figure out why curtains are so essential in an 1810s dorm room, cross swords with Stephen’s insufferable nagging mother, endure Aaron’s seasonal affective disorder, and you’ll learn what a ‘Sulkey Bagg’ is. This could be the most fun episode of Second Decade yet.

Special permission was granted by, and thanks is given to, the Massachusetts Historical Society to quote from the unpublished Aaron White Diaries, 1815-1880.

(Some background music for this episode licensed CC3.0 by Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston).

Additional Materials About This Episode

The book containing Stephen Salisbury’s letters from Harvard, titled Life at Harvard a Century Ago (published in 1910), is in the public domain. You can read it all at archive.org here.


(Above) Here is a painting, by Gilbert Stuart no less, which is believed to be of Elizabeth Tuckerman Salisbury, Stephen’s mother. The one who wouldn’t send him curtains.


(Above) An early photograph of George Bancroft, taken in 1846. He was Stephen Salisbury’s roommate at Harvard. Sadly, no photos of Stephen or Aaron have survived.

Here is a biography of Aaron White from a geneaological site. Note, it incorrectly gives his birth date as October 1798. He was born in September 1797.

Here is Stephen Salisbury’s grave (on Find-A-Grave dot com).

All images are believed in to be in the public domain.

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