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COLLECTION Identifier: HUD 3684

Records of the Phi Beta Kappa Alpha of Massachusetts, Iota of Massachusetts, and Alpha Iota of Massachusetts chapters, 1779-2011


The Phi Beta Kappa Alpha of Massachusetts chapter was founded at Harvard in 1781 under a charter, dated December 4, 1779, granted by the chapter at the College of William and Mary. In 1995, the chapter merged with Radcliffe’s Iota of Massachusetts chapter to form the Alpha Iota of Massachusetts chapter. This collection documents the history and activities of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard from its founding through the 21st century. While the collection chiefly documents Harvard's Alpha chapter, it also contains a small amount of records created by the Iota Chapter at Radcliffe in the mid 1980s and early 1990s and some records of the Alpha Iota chapter.


  • 1779-2011


Conditions on Use and Access

Open for research use, with the following exceptions: Phi Beta Kappa records and Harvard University records in this collection are restricted for 50 years from the date of creation. Personnel and student records in this collection are closed for research through 80 years from the date of creation. These records are located in boxes 95-131. Specific restrictions are noted in the inventory.


36 cubic feet (89 document boxes, 18 volumes, 18 flat boxes, 5 portfolio folders, 2 microfilm boxes, and 1 half record carton)
This collection documents the history and activities of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard from its founding through the 21st century. While the collection chiefly documents Harvard's Alpha chapter, it also contains a small amount of records created by the Iota Chapter at Radcliffe in the mid 1980s and early 1990s and some records of the Alpha Iota chapter, created after the Harvard and Radcliffe chapters merged in 1995.

The collection chiefly consists of administrative and financial records maintained by both graduate and undergraduate officers of the Alpha chapter; records include correspondence, minutes, reports, copies of the constitution, financial statements and accounts, election dockets, medals, catalogs, news clippings, photographs, and ephemera. The bulk of the records document routine activities of the chapter, including elections of undergraduate and honorary members, arranging the anniversary meeting and selecting orators and poets for the literary exercises, and organizing annual dinners and initiation suppers. Other topics documented in the collection include finances, committees, the chapter’s library, anniversaries, relationships with the national organization and other chapters, and the design and orders for keys and medals. Items of particular note include the original charter granted by the College of William and Mary in 1779 and correspondence between John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun regarding the establishment of a chapter at South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina).

Aside from the general administrative and operational records of the organization, the collection also includes a large amount of documentation of the anniversary meetings held annually by the chapter since 1783, which include literary exercises featuring an orator and poet. The collection includes the text of orations, including those delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Quincy Adams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Madeleine Albright, and many others; it also includes the text of the poems delivered by poets including Robert Frost, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, W.H. Auden, Carl Sandburg, Peter Viereck, and Adrienne Rich. Additional documentation of the anniversary meetings includes photographs, and a few audio recordings of the exercises, and ephemera such as programs, menus, and tickets.

Historical note

Phi Beta Kappa, the oldest Greek letter fraternity in the United States, was founded on December 5, 1776 at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. Deriving its name from the initials of its Greek motto, Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης or philosophia biou kybernetes (meaning “philosophy the guide the life”), the society adopted an oath of secrecy, an initiation ritual, a medal, and a special handshake. In 1779, the society granted charters to Elisha Parmele, a 1778 graduate of Harvard College who had previously studied at Yale College, for those two institutions. Parmele established Alpha of Massachusetts at Harvard in 1781 under a charter dated December 4, 1779; the Yale chapter, Alpha of Connecticut, had been established the previous year under a charter dated five days after Harvard’s. A fourth early chapter was founded at Dartmouth College in 1787 by the Yale and Harvard chapters; the original chapter had disbanded when the College of William and Mary closed in 1780 or 1781 during the American Revolutionary War.

The first meeting of the Harvard chapter occurred on September 5, 1781, making Alpha of Massachusetts the oldest Phi Beta Kappa chapter in continuous existence. In its early days, the society functioned as a social and debating club. Undergraduate members met every other week in students’ rooms to discuss culture, education, politics, ethics, and religion. Examples of questions discussed at early meetings include whether Benedict Arnold can be considered a traitor, whether the increase of knowledge leads to increases of happiness, whether painting or music was superior, the desirability of a national university, whether the civilization of the American Indian be practicable, whether any government have a right to restrain emigration, and whether French politics be more injurious than New England rum. Undergraduate meetings gradually died out in the nineteenth century as the organization developed into the undergraduate honor society we recognize it as today; after the last debate was held in 1820, the activities of the undergraduate members were limited to elections, initiation, social gatherings, and running the Phi Beta Kappa Library, established in 1785.

The first anniversary meeting was held in September 1782. From the very beginning, these anniversary meetings encompassed an annual meeting, literary exercises featuring a reading by a poet and an address by an orator, and a dinner, as well as the election of honorary members. While the duty of recording the anniversary meetings initially fell to the undergraduate Recording Secretary, in 1799 the graduate position of Corresponding Secretary was created. The Corresponding Secretary assumed responsibility for recording the activities of the organization as a whole, including the anniversary meetings. Beginning in 1792, the anniversary meeting was held on the day after Commencement; today they occur on the Tuesday of Commencement Week. While the business meeting has been an annual tradition since 1782, the literary exercises and dinners were omitted every second or third year during the 1850s and 1860s so as to not conflict with Harvard Alumni Association meetings.

Alpha of Massachusetts’ centennial celebration in 1881 was attended by representatives of the twenty active chapters and resulted in the creation of a national organization: the first National Council of the United Chapters of Phi Beta Kappa was held on September 5, 1883.

In the 1980s, the Alpha chapter at Harvard and the Iota chapter at Radcliffe first began discussions of a merger. The Radcliffe chapter, Iota of Massachusetts, was founded in 1914. The two chapters officially joined in 1995 to form the new Alpha Iota of Massachusetts. While the method of election and number of students elected has changed over time, currently, twenty-four juniors and forty-eight seniors are elected each spring and fall, respectively; an additional number of seniors are elected in a final election before Commencement, bringing the total membership to no more than ten percent of the graduating class. Activities of the chapter include the awarding of a prize for excellence in teaching awarded to members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and of the Patricia King research grant fellowships to undergraduate students.


  1. I. Administrative records, 1779-2007
  2. ___A. Charter, December 4, 1779 and twentieth-century copies
  3. ___B. Constitution and by-laws, circa 1799-1994
  4. ___C. Minutes of anniversary meetings kept by the corresponding secretary, 1799-1982
  5. ___D. Correspondence and records of the Corresponding Secretary, 1800-1999
  6. ___E. Correspondence of the President, 1878-1895 and 1959-1995
  7. ___F. Administrative records, correspondence, and subject files, 1787-1797, 1834, and 1923-2007
  8. ___G. Financial records, 1797-1879 and 1907-1938
  9. ___H. Committee records, 1833-1979
  10. ___I. Catalogs and lists of members, 1781-1802, 1902-1933, and 1970-1985
  11. ___J. Library records, 1834-1853
  12. ___K. Objects, [circa 1915?] and undated
  13. ___L. Photographs, June 1961
  14. II. Records of undergraduate members, circa 1782-1952
  15. ___A. Minutes and records of the Recording Secretary, 1783-1928
  16. ___B. Records of the undergraduate treasurer, 1794-1924
  17. ___C. Membership certificates, 1887-1934 and undated
  18. ___D. Dissertations, discourses, and disputations, 1796-1810
  19. ___E. Medals, circa 1782-1905, 1935, and undated
  20. ___F. Photographs, 1871-1914
  21. ___G. Posters, 1906-1910
  22. ___H. Prize essays, 1934-1952
  23. III. Records of literary exercises, 1790-2004
  24. ___A. Orations and poems, 1790-1990
  25. ___B. Audio and audiovisual recordings, 1959, 1965, and 2003-2004
  26. ___C. Photographs, 1937 and 1965
  27. ___D. Lists of orators and poets, [1957 and 1981]
  28. IV. Speeches, odes, and poems given at Phi Beta Kappa society events, 1857-1938
  29. V. Society and event ephemera, 1807-2003
  30. ___A. Society and event ephemera, 1807-1860
  31. ___B. Society and event ephemera, 1875-1909
  32. VI. Publications, 1805-1985
  33. ___A. Catalogs of members, 1814-1981
  34. ___B. Periodicals, 1805-1806
  35. ___C. Handbooks for new members, 1940, 1982-1985
  36. VII. Outside sources documenting the chapter, 1805-1986
  37. ___A. News clippings, 1805-1986
  38. ___B. Histories and other publications, 1912-1965

Online access

Some of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

Collections in the Harvard University Archives
  1. Harvard University. Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Faculty records concerning Phi Beta Kappa candidates, 1898-1968 (UAIII 15.70).
  2. Phi Beta Kappa. Massachusetts Alpha (Harvard University). Phi Beta Kappa library books, 1740-1854 (HUD 3684 Library):
  3. Parmele, Elisha, 1755-1784. Papers of Elisha Parmele, 1776-1785 (HUM 16):
  4. Photographs of Phi Beta Kappa can be found in Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Subjects, ca. 1850-2004 (HUPSF Phi Beta Kappa):
  5. Photographs of Phi Beta Kappa can be found in Harvard University Archives Photograph Collection: Subjects, oversize, ca. 1850-1989 (HUPSF Phi Beta Kappa (BP)):
  6. Papers of Mason Hammond [unprocessed accessions], 1920-1995.
  7. Harvard College. Dean of Students. Records relating to Phi Beta Kappa, 1909-1997 (UAIII 5.95.36).
  8. Additional collections of personal papers of Harvard faculty and students containing Phi Beta Kappa material are cataloged individually in HOLLIS.
Collections in the Houghton Library
  1. Sargent, Winthrop, 1783-1808.A poem on taste : manuscript, [ca. 1800] (MS Am 1119)
  2. Richardson, William Merchant, 1774-1838.New England : a poem for the Phi Beta Kappa anniversary : manuscript, 1802 Aug. 26 (MS Am 730)
  3. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. [Phi Beta Kappa poem]: manuscript, 1834 (MS Am 1280.233)
  4. Sumner, Charles, 1811-1874.[The scholar, the jurist, the artist, the philanthropist : an address before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard University, at their anniversary, August 27, 1846] : manuscript, [1846] (MS Am 2617)
  5. Frost, Robert, 1874-1963.The lesson for today : manuscript, [1941] (MS Am 1223.2)
Collections in the Massachusetts Historical Society
  1. John Pierce memoirs, 1788-1849
  2. [Collection of miscellaneous materials relating to Harvard University chapter of Phi Beta Kappa], 1885-1922.
Collections in the Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
Collections in the Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives
Collections in the University Archives, Swem Library, College of William and Mary
  1. Phi Beta Kappa Papers, ca. 1776-1976

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 January 3.
  1. Adams, John Quincy, 1767-1848
  2. Albright, Madeleine Korbel
  3. Auden, W. H. (Wystan Hugh), 1907-1973
  4. Bethell, John T
  5. Brinton, Crane, 1898-1968
  6. Butterfield, L. H. (Lyman Henry), 1909-1982
  7. Calhoun, John C. (John Caldwell), 1782-1850
  8. Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882
  9. Engell, James, 1951-
  10. Evans, Allan
  11. Folsom, Charles, 1794-1872
  12. Forbes, Elliot
  13. Frost, Robert, 1874-1963
  14. Greene, William Chase, 1890-
  15. Hale, Edward Everett, 1822-1909
  16. Hammond, Mason, 1903-2002
  17. Holmes, Oliver Wendell, 1809-1894
  18. Howard, William Guild, 1868-1960
  19. Lane, William Coolidge, 1859-1931
  20. Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth, 1807-1882
  21. Jewett, L. Fred (Lester Fred), 1936-
  22. Phelps, Reginald H. (Reginald Henry)
  23. Rich, Adrienne, 1929-2012
  24. Roosevelt, Franklin D. (Franklin Delano), 1882-1945
  25. Sharpe, Russell T. (Russell Thornley), 1905-1992
  26. Voorhees, Oscar M. (Oscar McMurtrie), 1864-1947
  27. Whiting, Bartlett Jere, 1904-1995
  28. Wilson, Woodrow, 1856-1924
  1. Phi Beta Kappa. Massachusetts Alpha (Harvard University)
  2. Phi Beta Kappa. Massachusetts Iota (Radcliffe College)
  3. Phi Beta Kappa. Alpha Iota of Massachusetts (Harvard University)
  4. Phi Beta Kappa
  5. Harvard University -- Societies, etc.
  6. Harvard University -- Students -- Societies, etc.
  7. Harvard University -- Alumni and alumnae -- Societies, etc.
  1. Learned institutions and societies -- Massachusetts -- Cambridge
Formats and genres
  1. Photographs
  2. Medals
  3. Charters
  4. Sound recordings
  5. Poems
  6. Orations
  7. Constitutions
  8. Harvard objects

Processing Information

Processing Note The collection was processed in 2013. Processing involved a collection survey, housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, and the creation of this finding aid.

Personal materials belonging to James Atkins Noyes (AB 1883), who received an honorary membership to Phi Beta Kappa in 1904, were removed during processing. These items can be found in the James Atkins Noyes Phi Beta Kappa collection, 1904-1923:

This finding aid was created by Juliana Kuipers in September 2013.
Link to catalog
Phi Beta Kappa. Massachusetts Alpha (Harvard University). Records of the Phi Beta Kappa Alpha of Massachusetts, Iota of Massachusetts, and Alpha Iota of Massachusetts chapters, 1779-2011 : an inventory

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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