Wednesday, May 22, 2024

The Little Time Traveler


Last fall, my adorable grandson, halfway between two and three years, was finally tall enough to look at the family pictures arranged on a table. He identified his parents immediately. Then we talked about the rest of the people in the photographs.

He kept returning to a picture of a man holding the hand of a little boy, an animated child wearing saddle shoes, shorts, and a polo shirt, waving or pointing into the distance as they stood on an airport tarmac.

“That boy,” my grandson said, “can he come over to my house?”

I explained that the man in the picture was his grandfather, and the little boy was his uncle. A long time ago, I said, when we were all much younger.

“But,” my grandson persisted, “can he come over to play?”

The idea struck me as beautiful and poignant: that the boy in the photograph could have stood still for 36 years while the boy in the present could close his eyes and jump, just like Mary Poppins stepped into a sidewalk chalk painting.

Or the two of them could travel through time, meet somewhere in the middle, and understand each other as only two 2-1/2 year old boys can.


“Look at that airplane!”


“It’s as high as the sky!”


Eventually the little boy who lives in the present wandered off. All I could think of was The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton, my favorite childhood book.

The book was published in 1962 and I found it on a shelf in the children’s room of the Mount Vernon, N.Y., Public Library several years later. I withdrew it so often that my parents finally gave it to me as a birthday present.

The story takes place in Concord, Mass., where a sister and brother, Eleanor and Edward Hall, live in a Victorian house with their aunt and uncle. The children’s parents died many years earlier.

One day, standing in a field across the street from their house, the children notice a small round window in an attic room where they have never been. They race home and up the stairs, find a drop-down ladder in a turret, and scramble up the rungs. Langton writes:

            “Oh—” said Edward. His voice caught.

It wasn’t like Edward to be surprised by anything. He was matter-of-fact and took things as they were. Eleanor felt herself breathing hard. She twitched his trouser leg. “What, what?” she said.

As Edward makes room for his sister, their heads rise into the hidden chamber. Looking around the dim room, their eyes slowly adjust to the light. They see a dresser, a table, the window, a mirror . . .


And what was that on either side of the window? Eleanor’s heart bounded into her throat.

It was two narrow beds, and the covers were turned neatly down.



Demanding answers, the children sit with their Aunt Lily and page through an old photograph album. Her voice trembles as she tells the story of the “lost children,” her youngest siblings, a girl and boy named Nora and Ned.


Illustration by Erik Blegvad
The Diamond in the Window by Jane Langton

In the old photographs, Ned and Nora bear a striking resemblance to Edward and Eleanor. How did they disappear?

It turns out that an Indian prince, Krishna, once traveled to Concord to study with their uncle, Fred, a world-renowned scholar of Transcendentalism.

Krishna and Lily fell in love. Meanwhile, Krishna invented dream games in the form of a treasure hunt to entertain Nora and Ned, who slept in the attic room. But he had no idea that, over time, the dreams became quite dangerous with the interference of his evil uncle.  

One day, Ned and Nora disappeared. A worldwide search ensued. But the children never turned up, and then Krishna disappeared, too. The evil uncle had captured them.  



A few days after they learn the story, Eleanor and Edward vow to find the lost children. They move into the tower room and embark on the same magical--and dangerous--adventures as Nora and Ned. In an exciting climactic dream, they finally rescue the lost children and Prince Krishna. Exhausted and back in their beds, Eleanor and Edward fall fast asleep.

They awaken to insistent knocking at the front door. Peering through the glass, Aunt Lily opens it in shock. She calls Edward and Eleanor to come downstairs  and meet Prince Krishna and their “Aunt Nora” and “Uncle Ned.” Langton writes:


Why weren’t Ned and Nora children like themselves? But of course, they had been children when they were lost, and that was long ago. Of course they would have grown up, in all this time.

Even in magic and dreams, human beings grow up, although they may keep the heart and spirit of a child. I’m grateful to my grandson for returning me to the book I loved long ago, and for trying to open a little door in the mysterious universe.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

What the Widow Nolen Left Behind, Part 2


W. W. Nolen, 1910
(Harvard University Archives)

From his third-floor window, William Whiting Nolen watched the twentieth century arrive at Harvard University. Perhaps his dogs sat at his feet. Perhaps he rose from his chair and crossed the room to pour more whiskey into his glass.

W. W. Nolen was as necessary to Progressive-era Harvard as the Johnston Gate on Peabody Street. The comparison is apt because Nolen, too, offered entrée to the university.

In 1891, 30-year old Nolen opened his tutoring business, through which thousands of students would pass. Thanks to his formula of filched notes and exams combined with lectures distilled to the minimum of essential facts, he could almost guarantee a young man admission and graduation from Harvard.

“He hands it to you in one exquisite, highly concentrated pill of information,” said a grateful recipient.

By 1910, getting tutored by Nolen had become a rite of passage for so many Harvard students that he expanded his operation and kept raking it in—$20,000 annually, it was rumored. At the time of his death in 1923, Nolen employed more than 50 tutors. Arguably, he launched the multi-million dollar tutoring industry.

He was also an obsessive antiquarian.

Visitors to Nolen’s apartment might have noticed that he accumulated books, art, and furniture. They probably did not realize that the books and prints were old and rare, and the furnishings, including valuable clocks, had been created by early American cabinetmakers and horologists whose names are still invoked with reverence.   

The habit of collecting went back to Nolen’s Philadelphia boyhood when he started a stamp collection. The family lived in a brick house at 714 Pine Street, built in 1800. The inhabitants included father Charles, importer of oils (olive, cod liver, and castor), mother Abby, and aunts Kate, Sophia, and Caroline.

W. W. Nolen was an only child. When his father died in 1908, he became the beneficiary of a $5,000 insurance policy and inherited railroad and electric company stock, a houseful of mahogany furniture, profuse china and glass, and a white agateware bedpan.

Around that time, Nolen began to attend auctions regularly. His interests ranged widely: announcements of Napoleon’s death, sheet music, chintz panels woven with battle scenes, ladies’ fans, ship models . . .  


Among Nolen’s greatest treasures were George Washington’s silver camp cup, William Penn’s chair, Paul Revere’s dressing case, and his own stamp collection.

Unsurprisingly, the Nolen estate, appraised at $286,804, contained so much stuff that the deceased’s possessions were auctioned in four parts. Anderson Galleries in New York City handled the sales:

-Early American and Anglo-American Furniture and Objects of Art (1,037 objects),

-Washingtoniana and a Most Important Collection of Early American Silver, American Furniture of the 17th, 19th, and 19th Centuries (902 objects),

-18th and 19th Century American Furniture, Blue and White Staffordshire, Lustre Ware, Wedgwood, Lowestoft (516 objects),

-Rare American Lithographs, largely Currier & Ives (983 prints)  

Nolen’s 10,000-volume library was auctioned in Boston, December 5-8, 1923, a week without rain or snow. Had he still been alive, Nolen would have undertaken his daily walk along the Charles in a light coat and hat.

Perhaps in contrition, Nolen left his Lincolniana to Harvard.

Putting aside the documents and objets associated with famous people, Nolen’s possessions would not now reap the profits they garnered in 1923. Today it is a challenge to give away old silver, china, and crystal, and “brown furniture” is consigned to the attic.

That’s why Nolen’s estate came to auction at a perfect moment.

The furniture manufacturing industry had started in Grand Rapids, MI and High Point, NC during the 1880s. By the turn of the twentieth century, it was flourishing and many Americans preferred to fill their homes with new things.

Yet while manufactured décor became fashionable, a passion for Americana surged through the nation during the 1920s. Many wealthy collectors—both aristocrats and newly minted millionaires—pounced on the very antiques that Nolen acquired over the years.   

Thus Nolen’s collections were dispersed among the generations he helped through Harvard.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Widow Nolen at Harvard



Illustration from Harvard Celebrities (1901)

William Whiting Nolen orbited Harvard for the better part of 43 years. During much of that time, he annoyed the hell out of the faculty and administrators.

The native Philadelphian arrived at Harvard College in 1880, graduated summa cum laude, and went on to earn a master’s in science. Next, he enrolled in the law school but soon dropped out. He landed in the biology department as a teaching assistant.

W. W. Nolen hoped to become a professor but was not up to snuff. Yet he did have a gift for coaching students. In 1891, he opened a school on Brattle Street, offering “printed lecture notes, digests of required reading, and forced feeding just before the examinations,” wrote the eminent Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn.

The school thrived. By 1895, Nolen had moved to larger quarters and hired top Harvard graduates to help handle the load. His program could get you through your entrance exams and help you pass (perhaps ace) Latin, history, chemistry, physics, mathematics, French, English, and philosophy.

In July 1913, former President Theodore Roosevelt wrote to Nolen about his third son, Archie:


Naturally Mrs. Roosevelt and I are immensely pleased with Archie’s success. I take pleasure in sending the check – there could be no money I should be more delighted to pay. I feel that he has benefitted immensely by what you have done for him, and I am very much pleased with what you say of him personally.

 As tutees flocked to Nolen’s “cram parlor,” its proprietor raised his rates to $5/hour. “Harvard Men Attending in Hundreds,” declared the Boston Globe:


. . . what Harvard student ever failed to attend a Nolen “seminar” at least once? It is part of the Cambridge experience. Students attend who need it. Others attend who don’t need it. To attend is one of the set college duties. It is the proper thing to do, so to speak.

Nolen’s school was neither affiliated with nor authorized by Harvard. Yet Nolen managed to insinuate himself into the college, poaching exams, infiltrating lectures in disguise, paying for class notes. He also sold pamphlets: History I: Tutoring Notes, 1901; Self-Tutoring Notes, English 23, 1902, and so forth.



Harvard professors decried his effect on their students’ grades. They called him a bloodsucker. It was said that the faculty often discussed how to put Nolen out of business.

Yet while the university’s presidents and trustees loathed his very presence, they recognized that Nolen steered the sons of great wealth through Harvard. Those diplomas, perhaps earned craftily, would be worth their weight in bequests. 

By most accounts, Nolen was kind, generous, and eccentric. He also bore an odd nickname. Even those who did not know him personally could recognize it: “The Widow Nolen.”   

Where did the nickname originate? The prevailing theory was that a character named “Widow Nolen” appeared in a play attended by several of his earliest students, and they took it up.

Teased in the pages of the Crimson, the Lampoon, and yearbooks, parodied in songs and theater, the “Widow Nolen” seeped into Ivy League culture. Even the poets pounced on him.  


Poem by Henry Ware Eliot, Jr. [brother of T.S. Eliot] in
Harvard Celebrities: a book of caricatures and decorated drawings 
(Cambridge, 1901). 



The tutoring business was lucrative, yet the Widow Nolen lived modestly in a building called Little Hall, opposite Harvard Yard. He inhabited the top floor with three French bulldogs. Students could rent rooms below, and classrooms filled the first floor.

In 1923, Nolen, who had diabetes and a heart condition, died at the age of 63. Even before the will was probated, the question arose: would Nolen’s tutoring school continue at Little Hall?

The answer was no. Rather, a new school, Manter Hall, absorbed Nolen's business and carried on the glory. 

Indeed, in the absence of Nolen’s monopoly, five new tutoring schools sprung up in Cambridge. In 1936, the Harvard Student Council appointed a committee to study their “sharp, noisy competition” as they jockeyed for customers, according to Time magazine. Nothing came of it.

Three years later the Crimson published an angry editorial: “Lined up on Massachusetts Avenue, grinning obscenely down over Harvard Yard, there is a row of intellectual brothels  . . . making a mockery of a Harvard education, a lie of a Harvard diploma.” 

By that time, nine tutoring schools inhabited Harvard Square. The Crimson refused to take their advertising and called for their demise.

In 1940, the crammeries were shut down for good.

From Alice's Adventures in Cambridge
by Richard Conover Evarts (1913)


Wednesday, January 17, 2024

“Bab” Andrews & the Strikebreakers


"University Athletes Ship as Stokers"

It sounded like a great adventure, one that would yield $30 per man and a bounty of stories to tell. The seven University of Chicago freshmen were already on the top of the world because they played for Amos Alonzo Stagg, one of the twentieth century’s most winning college coaches.

These guys were hot stuff: fullback Sherburne Wightman, quarter-miler “Tommy” Taylor, high jumper Arthur Sullivan, tackle Frank G. Burrows, shot-putter Burt Gale, and track star “Jimmy” Carroll.

And the group’s leader, freshman class president Barrett Clendenin “Bab” Andrews, told reporters that Stagg had recruited him for the baseball team.

Founded in 1892 with a $600,000 gift from the oilman John D. Rockefeller, the University of Chicago was young compared with the nation’s major research universities.

Rockefeller, who would donate $35 million more to Chicago during the next decade, chose as its president William Rainey Harper, a rotund 36-year old Semitology scholar and Baptist minister who had taught previously at Denison and Yale.

Rockefeller (left) and Harper walking
to Chicago's tenth anniversary celebration
(University of Chicago Special Collections)

The ambitious Harper set forth to innovate. He established departments of Egyptology and Sociology and one of the first university presses in the U.S. He poached many a professor. And he capitulated to the craze for college sports, with the university joining the Big Ten Conference in 1896.

The football team achieved fame and glory. They were the “Mighty Maroons” until 1946, when Chicago withdrew from the conference.



But now it is April of 1903 and an agent of the Marine Carriers Association, which represents the owners of the steamers that ply the Great Lakes, meets with Stagg and some of his athletes. Stokers have struck at the port in Buffalo, N.Y. Surely the coach’s brawny young men are up to the work of shoveling coal into the freighters’ furnaces. 

They were not the nation’s first student strikebreakers. In 1901, UC-Berkeley athletes had unloaded cargo on the San Francisco docks. The San Francisco Labor Council denounced the students but UC president Benjamin Wheeler cheered them on.

Two years later in Chicago, William Rainey Harper kept mum after the student “stokers” made the news. But when representatives of the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Material Trades Council demanded an explanation, Harper issued a statement:

-        *I was out of town when the athletes decided to act as strikebreakers

-        *The students did not consult with university officials

-        *University officials would have discouraged the students from proceeding

-        *The university places no requirements on students except that they behave like gentlemen and perform their duties

-        *Students may absent themselves from their studies but must accept the consequences

-        *The university is not responsible for its students’ opinions

-        *The university does not take a side on any question; students and professors are free to think and do as they see fit

As the editor of American Industries noted, “President Harper of Chicago University Gets Solidly on Both Sides of the Question.”

Indeed, Harper would have been foolish to laud the students despite Rockefeller’s (and possibly his own) anti-labor stance. The university was in the midst of a building spree with a gymnasium, commons, bell tower, and law school under construction, not to mention perennial modification of the wooden stands that encircled the football field. 

Chicago could not afford a strike and never again—to my knowledge—would its students cross a line. But others did.

Historian Stephen H. Norwood, University of Oklahoma, has written extensively about student strikebreakers.

Columbia students broke a subway workers strike in 1905. Harvard students were called upon by university president A. Lawrence Lowell to help break the Boston Policemen’s Strike of 1919. Students were paid or volunteered to be strikebreakers well into the 1920s.   

Norwood attributes student strikebreaking to several issues:

-        *the early-twentieth-century cult of Christian masculinity, of which President Theodore Roosevelt was a proponent

-        *the brutality of football

-        *bans on violent hazing practices which left a void for aggressive social behavior

Further, the 1900s saw the rise of the “gentlemen’s C.” Many male students were not serious about their education and spent much of their time in pursuit of adventure—“larks.”  

Class of 1906 president "Bab" Andrews, far left

“Bab” Andrews, leader of the Chicago strikebreakers, was the king of larks.

A few months before heading to Buffalo, he had rounded up ten students on behalf of the Wisconsin Central Railroad, whose officials were trying to identify an embezzling conductor. Andrews et al purportedly found the culprit and declared that they’d had a great time.

Not so fast, observed the editor of the Chicago Tribune:


Though the young man may flatter himself with the titles of detective and strike-breaker, he has really earned the degree of “Spotter” and “Scab” and all the dishonor pertaining thereto.

Indeed, anti-unionism among middle- and upper-class Americans lay at the heart of the strikebreakers’ capers. Most students who could afford to attend college at the turn of the twentieth century would likely side with capitalists over laborers.

Especially for the fun of it.  

Circa 1906


July Night