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RECORD GROUP Identifier: HUD 252.714 F

Class Book, 1852-1908.


Members of the Class of 1852 fought on both sides in the Civil War and most lived to witness the rise of Harvard from a semi-rural college to a national institution. There are no great events recorded here, only telling details, often recorded in faint pencil: "1863 July 4-Died of wound rec'd July 2 at Gettysburg." This volume is part of the official records of the class, containing biographical information on class members, minutes of class meetings, and records of class suppers.


  • Creation: 1852-1908.


Conditions on Access

Access is unrestricted; however, the volume is fragile and users are required to consult related materials first.

Photocopy Restriction

Volume binding is in poor condition and may not be photocopied on standard copier. Researchers may order copy prints or scans of relevant sections of the volume; consult Reference Staff for details.


.4 cubic feet
1 Volumes (720 pages ; 38 cm.)

There are no great events recorded here, only telling details, often recorded in faint pencil: "1863 July 4-Died of wound rec'd July 2 at Gettysburg." The main interest of the Class Book lies in the incidental witness it bears to life on either side of the cataclysmic divide of the Civil War. The contents of the book itself reflect in quiet ways this half century of change, as the gracious penmanship and long essays of the 1850s slowly give way to the typescript of the 1900s.

The 1852 Class Book is part of the official record book of the Class of 1852 as an organized body of alumni. It records a half-century of class meetings, dinners, and a wealth of periodically updated personal information such as is now commonly published in alumni magazines. It can be seen as a nineteenth-century counterpart to the twentieth-century class yearbook, but the resemblance is somewhat deceptive. Its biographical entries are often fuller than anything encountered in yearbooks today, but it says relatively little about undergraduate life. It also contains scrapbook material, pertaining not merely to class members, but also to their children.

While the events of Class Day and of the Class Supper are well recorded, there is no mention or memorabilia in the Class Book of the Commencement exercises themselves. The records of the class meetings are largely uneventful: attendance was rarely more than a dozen, and at least once as low as three. Memorial resolutions for deceased classmates and letters of condolence were recorded with the corresponding biographical entries, not in the minutes. By contrast, the records of the class suppers hold greater human interest, and often contain menus, seating plans, odes, and lists of songs sung and toasts drunk. These suppers were never more dramatic than in the Civil War years, when those assembled drank to: "Our absent class-mates in the field. May the Lord cover their heads in the day of battle." The class supper of 1863 broke up early to enable diners to stand guard at the State House, due to the "disturbed state of the city." The fortieth reunion dinner featured verses by class odist Horatio Alger and a generous gratuity for the headwaiter, to whose special care was commended the last survivor of the class--whoever he might be--when he came to "pour the old Madeira and drink to '52." There is no record that this affecting scene ever transpired. There is in fact no official record of a fiftieth reunion dinner, only of a class meeting. The final entry in an unknown hand gives the last recorded meeting as February 1908.

The faculty autographs are by no means complete, but do include such notables as President Jared Sparks and Assisstant Librarian John Langdon Sibley.

The biographical entries vary greatly in length and quality. The autobiographical essays, where present, are the most appealing, and offer a spectrum of young men's responses to the entreaties of the "ferocious and exorbitant" class secretary to give some account of themselves. While many declined to answer, and others confessed their young lives "utterly devoid of incident," or "marked by no striking events," the more voluble often took a Dickensian tone. Two wrote poems. Many railed against their early schooling, while several enumerated their New England ancestry. In the end, responses were so dilatory that the class secretary saw himself "obliged to give up the plan of autobiographical lives" and to "fill up the blank spaces with such meagre information as he may be able to command." The necrology was an early-abandoned section of the book; information on the deaths of class members is found in the biographical entries.

Grace Williamson Edes in her Annals of the Harvard Class of 1852 clearly had access to far more information, both written and oral, than what is presented in the Class Book. Her account illuminates the obscurities and corrects the uneven coverage of this book, and is in every way a fuller and more rounded portrait of the class. It also faithfully transcribes many of the choicest passages. But Edes is eulogistic and in her evenhandedness she glosses over the true social dynamics of the class. The Class Book makes clear that the Class of 1852 as a lifelong gentlemen's club appealed only to a handful of class leaders. Large numbers of class members, even those who lived locally, appear to have had only lukewarm loyalties and are virtually invisible in these records. The Class Book excels as a collection of unedited and authentic voices that attests to the quaint college customs, the social attitudes, and the prejudices of a Boston-centered Harvard that would became increasingly irrelevant as the University entered the 20th century.

Evolution of the Harvard College Class Books

The Harvard classes began compiling class books in about 1800. They were typically written by an elected class secretary and were often maintained for many years following commencement.

Each class book is titled according to a specific class's graduating year, but it really includes information about the entire college experience, starting from freshman year to senior year, and often even documenting class reunions, significant events in each alumni's life, and finally obituary notices. Harvard discontinued the practice around 1900.

Generally the earlier class books do not contain photographs, so they are complemented in the later years of the nineteenth century by another series, the class albums. Unlike class books, class albums were usually compiled by individual students, not the class secretary. Therefore, many class albums may exist for only a single class year. Class albums typically include a student's selection of photographs of students, faculty, staff, the campus, and buildings. Class albums exist for classes of the mid-19th to early 21st century.

History of the Class of 1852

Members of the Class of 1852 fought on both sides in the Civil War and most lived to witness the rise of Harvard from a semi-rural college to a national institution. Both academically and in the world beyond Harvard, this class saw the beginnings of technological change, but held fast to traditions that seem quaint by 21st-century standards.

Theirs was the first graduating class to be photographed, yet they still clung to the old graduation customs of dancing on the green and awarding a jack-knife to their ugliest classmate. The Lawrence Scientific School opened its doors in 1847, and Harvard granted its first S.B. degrees in 1851, but almost two-thirds present at the Class Supper still saw themselves as destined for the traditional fields of law, medicine, and ministry. Only one graduate vowed his ambition to become an engineer as the class bottle of Madeira was passed around. With eighty-eight members, the Class of 1852 was the largest graduated to date, and all but three had their daguerreotypes taken to mark the occasion.

Their college years were largely passed under the presidency of Jared Sparks, the second of six short-term presidents who led the University between the longer eras of Quincy and Eliot. Sparks's tenure was marked by order and tranquility, partly effected by the abolition of the college "commons" in 1849, which eliminated dining hall disorders.

While Southern enrollment surged under Sparks, it came too late to profoundly affect the makeup of this class. But the human drama of those few classmates who joined the Confederate army can be read between the lines of the class records in the early 1860s. In all, some twenty-nine class members served in the Civil War, twenty-three in blue and six in gray.

Among the notable members of this class were: Horatio Alger, prolific novelist of the rag-to-riches genre, Addison Brown, jurist and botanist (co-author of the Illustrated Flora of North America), Rufus Choate, lawyer and diplomat; Ephraim Whitney Gurney, first Dean of the Faculty of Harvard College, James Bradley Thayer, Harvard Law School professor and pioneer of the case method, and William Robert Ware, architect (with Henry Van Brunt) of Memorial Hall, and founder of the schools of architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia.


  1. List of Class Members of 1852, Pages 3-5
  2. Records of Class Day, Pages 15-57
  3. Records of Class Meetings and Suppers, 1852-1903 and 1908, Pages 9-13; 61-83; 581-623
  4. Autographs of Faculty, Pages 84-97
  5. Biographical Entries, Pages 100-543
  6. Necrology, Page 708

Custodial Information

This volume was maintained by four successive class secretaries, Calvin Gates Page (1852-1862), Henry Gardner Denny (1862-1907), Samuel Lothrop Thorndike (1907-1911), and David Williams Cheever (1911-1915).

Acquisition Information and Provenance

Received 15 February 1916, from the family of Dr. David W. Cheever.

Online access

The entire Class of 1852 Class book has been digitized and is available online:

Related Material

  1. Edes, Grace Williamson. Annals of the Harvard Class of 1852. Cambridge : Privately printed, 1922 (Harvard University Archives call number HUD 252.70.22)
  2. Many pages in the class book feature reproductions of daguerreotypes. The originals are also held in the Harvard University Archives. These have also been digitized and are available online. See: Daguerreotypes of members of the Harvard College Class of 1852. (Harvard University Archives call number HUD 252.716)

Researchers should also search in HOLLIS, Harvard's on-line library information system, for works by and about the Class of 1852. This volume forms part of the Records of the Class of 1852.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2016 Feburary 29.

Processing Information

Inventory created and encoded in March 2004 by Christopher J. Lenney, Intern.

Permalife paper was interleaved where large news clippings and other inserts gave evidence of acid migration.

Melissa J. Andrews, intern, added links to digital versions of the daguerreotypes and verified the identification of the members of the class with their images.

Harvard College (1780- ). Class of 1852. Class Book, 1852-1908: an inventory
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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