It was a stark lesson for an aspiring publisher: The business of selling books and great literature don’t always mix. And young William Morrow put that realization in his own words after a job-scouting trip to New York. “Among the publishers,” he wrote in his diary, “every thought is for the business value of an enterprise or project: ideals of literature have no place with them.”

Morrow’s insights are among dozens on display in Y1.9K: Harvard at the Dawn of the American Century, an exhibition in the Gallery of the University Archives throughout much of the fall. To commemorate the end of the 19th century, Harvard and Radcliffe students (and some faculty) were asked to encapsulate their lives, momentous and mundane, in journals that would be sealed for 60 years. In fact, the wooden chest was opened in the mid-60s in a small ceremony, then largely forgotten—until the summer of 1999 when Lewis Day, Archival Cataloging Assistant in the University Archives, transcribed the ornate handwriting from about 20 diaries (only one was typewritten) and created the exhibition of selected writings and photographs. He discovered study habits, courtship rituals, and social mores. But what struck him most was how completely different student life was in 1900—and how completely unchanged. “In looking at the student essays, I began thinking about how similar student life is,” says Day. “You had people who were very studious. There were jocks who did nothing but sports. There were people who had very active social lives. The only thing I didn’t see is evidence of political activism, although they had political views.”

Besides a glimpse into the minds of those who would achieve prominence, like Morrow, the exhibition touches on early feminist thought; on racism; and on less weighty topics such as theatre, food, drunken parties, and exclusive clubs.

In one pre-Betty Friedan missive, the female curator of astronomical photographs for Harvard’s observatory lamented her pay in 1900. “I had some conversation with the director regarding women’s salaries,” Williamina Paton Fleming wrote. “He seems to think that no work is too much or too hard for me, no matter what the responsibility or how long the hours. But let me raise the question of salary and I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand. … Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men? But I suppose a woman has no claim to such comforts. And this is considered an enlightened age!”

Yet chivalry, it seems, was already dying. John Frederick Neal, a proctor at Harvard College and third year law student, recalled subway etiquette with an attitude that could echo today’s. “The Cambridge women rarely if ever thank you if you offer them your seat—they sweep into it as a matter of course,” he wrote, “and if you are hard hearted enough to keep it while one of them stands, they make it a point to glare at you and make remarks.”

While Neal’s writing seems natural, even enthusiastic, he—like many contributors—questions the worth of his words. “My effort will, I know, lack literary ease and merit,” Neal wrote.

That may be because humility was a palpable virtue in 1900, and some considered the mere writing of a diary for posterity immodest—even a sin. Evan Randolph, ’03 recalled the rector at church blasting the diary project. “He cursed it out in great shape and said that it would be a failure for sure, because no one could keep a diary that would interest people two generations from now.”

Little did he know. The exhibition is entertaining and informative as both historical and social commentary. Some of the most interesting writing documents the race and class divisions of the day. Radcliffe student Katharine Fullerton describes one Sunday train ride: “The people in the cars interested me immensely: gorgeously clad colored maids, going home from their Sunday outing, and cooks returning from church—nearly all, people to whom Sunday had been a day of change and pleasure. The faint, after-glow of it was in their faces; and they were still consciously decked out for the holiday. I liked them very much.”

Neal’s writing is among the most humorous in the exhibition, such as this Lenten entry: “It being the second day of Lent, I, as a good Episcopalian, observed it by doing penance and undergoing suffering—the former was accomplished by reviewing Corporations; the latter, by having a wisdom tooth pulled. Perhaps one would not think it was penance for a moderately studious man to review on a rainy day when he has nothing better to do, and examinations are in sight. But the men one reviews with, and especially their humor, must be considered. I am reviewing this year with two of my chums, Jack Frame of Reading, Pa. and Joseph Potts of Kansas City, MO… They spend about half the time in reviewing in ‘cussing’ each other, and to preserve order I have to bully Joe—Jack quiets down the minute he is left alone. Last evening Joseph was very thick-headed—which he is very seldom—and we had to drag him through the cases by punching him every few minutes to let him know where we were—and at ten we left him with his nose glued to some printed notes, but with his thoughts elsewhere. The sèances will be resumed tomorrow night.”

Neal also comments on his peers’ religious beliefs: “We all of us break the third commandment, we are indifferent as to several others, keep the sixth, eighth, and ninth as law-abiding citizens, and honestly observe the fifth to the best of our ability.”

Though there is little of the intimacy one might expect from personal diaries, there is flirtation—and one grand and humiliating brush-off by Radcliffe student Harriet Hyatt. “After dinner, Gelett Burgess begged me to go with him to the little room off the ‘Crows Nest,’” Hyatt wrote. “It is a charming retreat, hung with wine colored velvet curtains, and with a big divan piled high with cushions. He said he had been thinking of a fairy tale to tell me. Fairy tales are amusing, but not always pleasant; I turned to my other friends present, Mr. Marks, Mr. Vincent, Mr. Fortin etc. and said, ‘Oh! Friends how charming, Mr. Burgess will tell us all a fairy tale, if we follow him into the retreat, he said so.’ There was a shout of approval, and they all crowded into the room… G. B.’s face was a study, he refused sulkily to say anything, much to the amusement of the men.”

From frivolity in the Crow’s Nest to William Morrow’s determination to nurture young writers, the exhibition provides a picture of 1900 in personal terms, as no textbook could. Its value is so great that the University Archives plan a similar millennial diary project this fall. Perhaps the fact that the writers in 1900 did not intend to write something momentous makes the collection an especially vivid depiction of turn-of-the-century Harvard. “I don’t know that any one diary presents a total, well-rounded picture,” says Day, “but taken together, they do.”

Copyright © 2000 The President and Fellows of Harvard College