Featured Item: Records relating to the Harvard Hall fire of 1764
"...the most ruinous loss ever met..."
On the night of January 24, 1764, a devastating fire destroyed Harvard Hall, and with it Harvard College's collection of scientific instruments ("philosophical apparatus") and most of the books in its library. In the aftermath of the fire, librarians compiled lists of books which were in circulation and thus spared from the fire. They also kept lists of the many gifts and benefactions, large and small, which poured in from individuals and organizations to assist in the rebuilding of the library collections and scientific apparatus. This collection of records of books spared from 1764 Harvard Hall fire and subsequent gifts, 1764-1778, available online, is compelling documentation of Harvard's library history.
On that windy January night two hundred fifty years ago, Harvard Hall, home to the College's scientific instruments and library since 1677, was consumed by fire. Of the 5,000 volumes in the library’s collection, considered the most extensive in the colonies, only 500 books survived. Approximately 400 were checked out of the library on loan to faculty, students, and other members of the community, and about 100 newly acquired volumes, not yet unpacked, escaped the “general ruin.”
With Harvard students on winter recess and a smallpox epidemic raging in Boston, the Massachusetts General Court held meetings in Harvard Hall that winter. According to a statement issued by then Harvard president Edward Holyoke, the blaze was believed to have begun in a beam under the hearth in the library, where the fireplace was in use for the comfort of the General Court. The fire then spread to the floor beams and quickly engulfed the structure in flames, destroying the building and most of its contents. Wind carried sparks toward Massachusetts Hall, Stoughton Hall, and the newly-constructed Hollis Hall in Harvard Yard, but these were quickly extinguished by the combined efforts of the General Court members and Cambridge residents who supplied the town’s fire engine with water.
Due to their presence in Harvard Hall at the time of the fire, the Massachusetts General Court claimed responsibility, and subsequently funded the reconstruction of Harvard Hall. Generous donors, including Thomas Hollis V and John Hancock, also contributed funds and books to the College to rebuild the library’s collection. By 1766, just two years later, a new Harvard Hall had been constructed, and the library’s collection surpassed the number of volumes in its possession before the fire.
For more information on the Harvard Hall fire of 1764 see President Holyoke's letter to the press, distributed as a broadside by the Massachusetts Gazette on February 2, 1764 (HUB 1446.)
Sketch of Harvard Hall by Eliza Quincy, drawn ca. 1830.
Illustration from Josiah Quincy's History of Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.: J. Owen, 1840.