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Lagniappe

Harvard on the Block

Collectors of Crimson memorabilia meet in cyberspace

March-April 2002

John Harvard doll
Harvardiana from the collection of Michael Droller. He thinks that the doll, circa 1950, may be one of a kind, unlike the turtle (below), of perhaps earlier vintage. He has seen a kangaroo wearing an H.
turtle doll sporting a Harvard H

Photographs by Robert Adam Mayer

You can't go back to your happy, bygone college days. But you can go to eBay. The world's largest on-line auction service (www.ebay.com), with 30 million registered buyers and sellers and more than 5 million items up for bid at a time, is celebrated for selling everything from used underwear to low-mileage Rolls Royces. For a small contingent of alumni aficionados, a tiny corner of eBay also serves as a sort of virtual museum--and shopping mall--of Harvard history. At any given moment, between 400 and 600 Harvard items are up for auction, and it's quite an array. The 1975 Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club production of West Side Story, for instance, was immortalized in a documentary film, Gee, Officer Krupke, and a 16mm copy was offered on eBay recently. So were five of legendary history professor Samuel Eliot Morison's recorded lectures, the LP records still sealed in their sleeves.

Of course, not everything listed under the Harvard name pertains to the University or Harvard Square. The "Harvard Adjustable Double-Locking Hand and Leg Irons" auctioned a year ago were not a nineteenth-century pedagogical device to instruct unruly undergraduates, but a product of one of those other institutions named Harvard, the Harvard Lock Co. of Reading, Pennsylvania.

Fully 90 percent of the items for sale are bona fide Harvard collectibles, though, including in recent months:

* The 1950 midterm exam for History 106, "The History of Greece";

* A lady's hatpin shaped like an oar, inscribed "Harvard" and sporting a Harvard crest;

* A 1949 doctoral dissertation, "Supply Problems in the Philadelphia Fluid Milk Market";

* A complete 25-piece Wedgwood punch bowl set produced for the Tercentenary celebration in 1936;

* The 1958 booklet 75 Aromatic Years of Leavitt & Peirce in the Recollection of 31 Harvard Men;

* A game film of the 1927 Harvard-Holy Cross gridiron matchup;

* The 1959 album Folksingers 'round Harvard Square, featuring Joan Baez;

Michael Droller
Droller holds a felt banner of the 1940s. Collectors of a Yale or Princeton persuasion can encounter similar treasures.
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

* A March 1911 membership certificate from the Harvard Varsity Club;

* A June 28, 1965, Sports Illustrated with a very young Harry Parker on the cover, signed by the renowned crew coach;

* A drinks menu, shaped like a beer stein, from the Wursthaus, meeting place for generations of Harvardians;

* Enough copies of the Harvard Classics series of great books from the early 1900s to restock Widener Library, should that ever become necessary;

* A pennant from the class of 1939's twenty-fifth reunion featuring Linus and Snoopy from "Peanuts";

* A button proclaiming "Harvard/Radcliffe '57 for a Nuclear Arms Freeze";

* An 1890s etching of Law School dean Christopher Columbus Langdell, who introduced the case method into legal instruction;

* Postcards from the 1880s to the 1960s, including a whole series of pre-World War I tall, patrician, spirited, "Gibson girls" waving, or wearing, Harvard pennants;

* The summer 1963 issue of the Harvard Review on "Drugs and the Mind," featuring then recently terminated faculty members Richard Alpert and Timothy Leary writing about "The Politics of Consciousness Expansion."

 

Like time, eBay does not stand still. Auctions typically last for seven days; after that, an item is gone. The variety of treasures on the block draws Harvard collectors to eBay, and the realization that these mementos will shortly disappear into some other collector's cabinet is what drives the bidding to an occasionally frantic pace. The oar-shaped hatpin, which might seem an odd collectible if ever there was one, sold for $86.33.

Japanese ceramic of a footballer
This Japanese ceramic of a cherubic footballer was made in the 1960s, Droller judges.
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

Who buys this stuff? It's difficult to tell for sure. Both bidders and sellers on eBay use confected sign-in names and do not learn each other's actual identities until they get to paying and delivering. Unless a collector uses a sign-in name like "hmsharvard," which belongs to Michael Droller '64, M.D. '68, it's hard for observers to tell much about the players, though who's hard-core may be discerned over time. Some of the most-prized items are Wedgwood pieces from the Tercentenary, for instance, and "when Wedgwood comes up, there are four or five serious bidders. You always see the same people, such as philip331 and docmurdoch," says collector Alan Turri, Ed.D. '86, who has gone by the sign-in name "bahada."

There are only about a dozen diehards, with perhaps another two dozen who bid on certain categories of collectibles, such as football memorabilia. These Harvard collectors compete against collectors of items that may happen to say "Harvard" on them: beer-can collectors, for instance, seem to buy the commemorative Black Label cans produced for the twenty-fifth reunion meetings of the classes of 1946 to 1950.

What motivates the true believers? Three who responded to e-mails said it's about much more than buying knickknacks; collecting helps confirm their ties to the University.

Droller wound up as chairman of urology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, a demanding position that makes him cherish the time he can devote to his number-one hobby, collecting children's books. In 1996, his daughter, Miriam, was accepted for the class of 2000. About the same time, Droller bought a circa 1900 Harvard alphabet book for youngsters, and an 1890s children's book about a character named Rollo who travels to Cambridge and visits the Yard.

Droller, who hadn't thought much about his alma mater in years, was hooked again on Harvard. In 1998, when his son, Daniel, was accepted for the class of 2002, Droller discovered eBay. His collection now numbers somewhere between 500 and 700 Harvard items, stacked neatly on bookshelves in his home, including pamphlets, magazines, dolls, banners, key chains, etchings, medals, pen knives, plaques, mugs, and lots of books.

"I've bought some weird things," he says. "I bought a freshman book and a yearbook from the year I was born, 1943, just to see who was there at that time." He was pleased to discover that the class of '43 includes Benjamin Bradlee and Norman Mailer.

cartoonish Harvard Puritan ceramic
This cheerful Puritan of the 1950s or '60s, another Droller eBay find, is a coin bank.
Photograph by Robert Adam Mayer

Harvard collectors tend to be most intrigued by memorabilia that predate their own time at the place. Aron Silverstone '87, for instance, wasn't yet in grade school when University Hall was occupied by student demonstrators in 1969, yet his favorite collectible is the Harvard Strike album from Buddah Records, a two- record set of WHRB's live coverage of the takeover and its aftermath. Silverstone lives in Durham, North Carolina, where he is "developing healthier and tastier vegetable crops through genetic engineering" at a large agribusiness named Syngenta. As "docmurdoch," he is one of the most active Harvard collectors on eBay.

Turri is another Harvard collector who identifies with a past he never knew. He left his native Los Angeles for Cambridge in 1979. "Seeing old buildings was a shock," Turri recalls. After earning a doctorate in education, he became an educational consultant in many parts of the world before returning to L.A. and semi-retirement four years ago. But he has never forgotten that first "surprise and fascination" at encountering the country's oldest university.

While he was at Harvard, he longed to claim some of the history around him for his own, but as a graduate student, he lacked the means. He bought his first piece of Harvard memorabilia in 1985 at a New York City antique shop: a gravy boat from the Harvard Club of New York.

Three years ago he discovered eBay. When he typed "Harvard" into the search engine, "I was amazed to see 11 pages of stuff, some of it good, some just junk," Turri recalls. He started with Wedgwood, but soon decided that was too impersonal.

Now he specializes in items that offer glimpses into the personal lives of those who came before him, such as an early 1900s scrapbook from a graduate who settled in Kansas. Pages dated 1904 to 1907 contain a Valentine card, a ticket stub from a performance of David Copperfield, tuition receipts, and a dance card from January 1904. The student dutifully noted each dance ("waltz, two-step"), the name of the girl he danced with, and that he had a good time despite the fact that except for the sister of a classmate, "all the girls danced liked farmers."

Just like new Harvard graduates, new Harvard collectibles are being created at a steady pace. On March 2, 2001, for instance, Jane Fonda visited the Graduate School of Education to give $12.5 million to launch the Harvard Center on Gender and Education. On March 5, the name tag she wore was for sale on eBay. A Harvard collector paid $20 for it.

John Lenger, assistant director for publications and editor at the Harvard News Office, makes an occasional bidder appearance himself on the Harvard pages of eBay as ringo1001.

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