Archives News: Phi Beta Kappa Records

Harvard PBK charter from December 4, 1779, with the chapter's signature pink and sky blue ribbons

Four Centuries of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard

May 5, 2014.  Just in time for Harvard’s upcoming Commencement festivities, the Harvard University Archives has finished cataloging the records of the Phi Beta Kappa Alpha of Massachusetts, Iota of Massachusetts, and Alpha Iota of Massachusetts chapters, 1779-2011.  The Archives’ collection documents the history and activities of Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard from its founding through the 21st century, including its merger with the Radcliffe chapter in 1995.

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.  Harvard’s chapter, Alpha of Massachusetts, was founded in 1781 under a charter dated December 4, 1779 and is the oldest chapter of the fraternity in continuous existence.  Phi Beta Kappa literary exercises, held annually as part of Harvard’s Commencement activities since 1782, feature a poet and an orator. Over the years, these exercises have included such luminaries as John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Adrienne Rich, Elizabeth Bishop, and Annie Dillard.

The records of Harvard’s chapter, Alpha Iota of Massachusetts, reflect the close connections between the University and the intellectual and cultural history of the country.  Tucked among the boxes of minutes, correspondence, and orations, is Bronson Alcott’s copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1837 essay on the American scholar. Other collection highlights include:

  • The original charter from December 4, 1779, featuring the chapter's signature pink and sky blue ribbons
  • Minutes dating back to the first meeting of the chapter in September 1781
  • A list of toasts given at the Phi Beta Kappa meeting in August 1824, at which General Lafayette was present

The Archives also holds over 300 volumes, published between 1740 and 1854, from the chapter’s library.

For further information, see the inventory for the records of Phi Beta Kappa. 

Please contact the Archives reference staff at for more information about access to this collection.