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COLLECTION Identifier: UAI 90

Records of the Butler


The College Butler, a position that lasted from the mid-seventeenth century through the end of the eighteenth century, was responsible for supplying and managing the Buttery, a commissary where students could purchase food and minor necessities, along with other certain other daily tasks. The position was held by students. These records document the Butler’s financial responsibilities from 1722 to 1799 and consist of account books, receipts, bills, statements, and scrap paper used to calculate sums.


  • 1722-1799

Researcher Access

The records of the Harvard Butler are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.28 cubic feet (4 volumes, one half document box, 1 flat folder)

The records of the Harvard Butler are comprised of financial records created in the process of managing Buttery accounts and purchasing supplies. The collection consists of six series made up of account books, receipts, bills, statements, promissory notes, and scrap paper used to calculate sums, representing activity from 1722 through 1751 and 1788 through 1799.

The Butler's records provide a record of Harvard students' residential life. In some cases, the documents offer the only evidence of students who for various reasons did not remain at Harvard long enough to graduate and have their names recorded in the Commencement Theses and Catalogues. The records reveal students who made no purchases with the Butler, indicating that they likely boarded in town; other students made numerous purchases suggesting their family's wealth. The Butler's purchases, recorded in the quarterly account books, provide a valuable resource for researching the types of food available to the Harvard community in the 18th century.

The records are also a resource for information about life outside of Harvard's gates. The Butler's purchases also document the cost and availability of items in 18th century Massachusetts. The Butler reported to the Steward, the Treasurer, and the Corporation, but his position also held a large degree of autonomy, and accompanying accountability. The records reveal the Butler's interactions with members of the local community and his role in Cambridge's commercial activity, as he conducted business with local merchants and borrowed money from individuals outside of Harvard.

History of the Harvard Butler

The College Butler was responsible for managing the Buttery, a commissary where students could purchase food and minor necessities, and designated common rooms. The position, which existed from the mid-seventeenth century through the end of the eighteenth century, was held by a student, who received a salary and designated dormitory space in return. In later years, the Butler also received a percentage of the profits from Buttery sales.

The first mention of the Butler appears in College Book I, the earliest volume of Harvard records, which contains “Certain Orders by the Schollars & officers of the Colledge to bee observed, written 28 March 1650,” and states “to the Butler belongs the Cellar & butteries & all from thenceforth to the furthest end of the Hall with the South Porch” (College Book I, page 50). The Butler’s duties included cleaning and supplying the Buttery, managing the inventory, manning the Buttery hatch during mealtimes, and keeping the accounts for purchases by students and tutors. In addition, the Butler was responsible for the fires that heated the common rooms, managing the College’s candle supplies, ringing the morning and evening bells, and helping to ensure that utensils were not stolen. The Butler reported to the Steward, who paid his salary and supplied the beer and bread that were the mainstay of students’ meals.

Students appointed as Butler assumed a central role in College life. The Buttery sold “Wines & other Liquors, Tea, Coffee, Chocolate, Sugar, Bisket, Pans, Ink & Paper, & other suitable articles for scholars.” The Butler was also permitted to sell the “Butler’s cyder.” Students kept personal accounts with the Butler, who provided weekly accounts of their sizing bills (for food and drink) and collected on their Buttery debts. The Butler provided quarterly reports to the Steward and annually paid the money he had collected to the Treasurer. Along with noting Buttery purchases, the Butler also tallied student absences, fines, and punishments. Occasionally, the Butler also served as the College librarian. In front of the Buttery stood the Buttery book, a notice board with the prices of sundries and the names of all Harvard students listed by seniority. The first action against expelled students was to direct the Butler to remove their names from the posted list.

During the 18th century, Butlers were appointed regularly by the Harvard Corporation. The Corporation records often document resignations and appointments, but there is no complete list of all of the Harvard Butlers. On August 12, 1788, Thomas Adams (1764-1797), a member of the Class of 1788, assumed the position and held it until November 15, 1790, when he accepted a ministry in Camden, South Carolina. His successor, Samuel Shapleigh (1765-1800, Harvard AB 1789) took up the position and held it for three years before his appointment as College librarian. Joseph Chickering (AB 1799) was the last person to hold the position. When the position disappeared, the Steward, Master of the Kitchen, Tutors and Regents each assumed some of the Butler’s duties. The Buttery was closed in 1800.


The records are arranged in seven series:

  1. Quarterly accounts, 1722-1799
  2. Butler's bills, 1788-1794
  3. Correspondence, 1789-1793
  4. Promissory notes, 1790-1793
  5. Receipts, 1790-1794
  6. Statements, 1791-1794
  7. Calculations, 1794

Acquisition information

Most of the documents in this collection are University records and were likely acquired in the course of University business. Records from 1788 through 1799 were received as part of the Samuel Shapleigh papers, though additional acquisition information is unavailable.

When known, acquisition information is specified at the series or item level.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives

  1. Harvard University. Records of the Treasurer of Harvard University (UAI 50.xx):
  2. Harvard University. Early records of the Steward, 1650-1800 (UAI 71):


Inventory upate

This document last updated 2019 January 11.

Processing Information

The material was first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. The material was re-processed in 2010 and all call numbers were simplified to UAI 90. An 1819 account sheet incorrectly attributed to the Butler and classified as UAI 90.5 was separated from the collection and cataloged as an individual item. Re-processing involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.

This finding aid was created by Diann Benti in June 2010.

Preservation and description of the Records of the Harvard Butler was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.

Harvard University. Butler. Records of the Butler, 1722-1799
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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