Pay the Term Bill in Barrel Hoops

"Your wooden arm you hold outstretched to shake with passers-by."

Roger Thompson of Norwich, England, an emeritus professor of American history at the University of East Anglia, is at work on a history of early colonial Cambridge. He sends along these reflections on the ever-tricky business of paying bills from Harvard:

Historians working 350 years from now may well be puzzled by the way students' educations at twenty-first-century Harvard were financed. By 2354, grandparents' trust funds, educational bonds, life-insurance endowment plans, student loan schemes, and all the other devices for amassing the cash behind the checks may well seem mysteriously antique. The same can be said for methods of payment for scholars at the newly founded College during the 1650s. Though the account books survive, many of their entries demonstrate novelist L.P. Hartley's famous dictum: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."

The keeper of these early accounts was Thomas Chesholm, steward of Harvard College from about 1650 to 1660. He was a 1635 immigrant from Newcastle-on-Tyne, a tailor and a deacon of the church. He and his wife, Isobel, lived on the northwest corner of Dunster and Winthrop Streets, where in 1636 he was licensed to sell liquor. Childless, the Chesholms were foster parents for Benoni Eaton, the abandoned child of the disgraced first head of Harvard. Though not wealthy, Chesholm was highly respected.

His accounts have been published in the series of Harvard Records and partially analysed by college historians. The bulk of the printed 270 pages consists of debit and credit accounts for individual students. The debit entries list all the charges incurred by each scholar for tuition, food and drink, board, heat and light, services such as laundry, bed-making, cleaning, shoe-mending, haircuts, clothing, books, medical fees, and repairing any damage.

It is when we come to the credit-side entries, the College income from each student, that we enter a baffling world. A few wealthier parents paid, as we might, with "bills"—the forerunners of checks— or in cash. The vast majority of payments were made in kind, most commonly in meat, grain, or malt, but also in a dizzying host of other items, from shoes to a sword, from thread to sugar, from "pease" to lockram (a linen fabric), from apples to barrel hoops, from a bridle to wampumpeague (the Indian shell currency).

The most perplexing aspect of the credit entries is the way that paying for a Harvard education could be financed by parents' calling in various debts or obligations owed to them. Thus, for instance, to Sir [graduate] Burr's credit in 1650 both Jonathan Hyde and his new wife pay regular consignments of wheat, two bushels at a time, totalling 16 in all, worth £4. The next fall, Hyde delivers eight bushels along with £1's worth of beef. Thomas Prentice also pays £4-10-0 in beef. All this was credited to the graduate-student son of Rev. Jonathan Burr of Dorchester, who had died in 1641. The clue emerges in the phrase "for Mr. Dummer." Richard Dummer, merchant, landowner, and moneylender of Newbury, had married Burr's widow. Hyde and his brother were bit-by-bit buying a 200-acre tract on the south side of the Charles River from the heirs of Nathaniel Sparhawk. Recent arrival Thomas Prentice was also in the market for land. These buyers probably financed their land deals by mortgages from Dummer, and the credits to his stepson's account were repayments by installment.

In most cases it has proved impossible to unravel the tangles of obligation in these accounts. For Chesholm, methodical record keeping and presentation of individual accounts each Quarter Day was essential. So was his analysis of the College's material needs and of the kinds and quantities of commodities that would keep Harvard fed, warmed, and sheltered.


"Historic 2004 striking..." The Washington Mint (not affiliated with the U.S. government) took a full-page ad in the Boston Globe last spring to offer for sale (at $125, but get yours now at "the special advance strike discount price—only $99") the "World's First $100 Silver Proof," a quarter-pound slab of silver in the design of a $100 bill. This "true artistic masterpiece" offers "exquisite detail," including the "historic 2004 date"; is done in the "new, improved $100 bill design"; and "comes with a numbered certificate of authenticity." And there, clearly, is the signature of the secretary of the Treasury, Lawrence H. Summers, who we thought had taken a new job. Don't try paying your term bill with this.

~Primus V


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