Signet society

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Signet Society Coat of Arms (Architectural detail above front door by heraldic artist Pierre LaRose)

The Signet Society of Harvard University was founded in 1870 by members of the class of 1871. The first president was Charles Joseph Bonaparte. It was, at first, dedicated to the production of literary work only, going so far as to exclude debate and even theatrical productions. According to The Harvard book [1]

It seemed to the founders that there was room in the College world for another association that should devote itself more exclusively to literary work than is possible with large numbers. Accordingly, they confined the membership to a few, and required that new members shall be, so far as possible, "representative men," and that at least five should be in the first half of their class.

After a few years in quarters on university property, the Signet moved to an off-campus location at 46 Dunster Street.

The Signet Society's mission[edit]

Signet celebrates most of the arts, including music, the visual arts, and theater. Members are active in most undergraduate publications. Many undergraduate Signet members are in other Harvard College artistic and literary organizations, including the Harvard Advocate, the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, the Harvard Crimson, the Harvard Lampoon, the Harvard Radcliffe Orchestra, and the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club. It admits both men and women without prejudice, unlike final clubs. Membership dues are required, but are pro-rated by Harvard's financial aid calculations, allowing all members of the college community to be considered for membership. Harvard faculty and administrators have been and are Signet officers, associates, and members.

The opening remarks of the Signet's minutes state: "On Tuesday evening, November 1, 1870, a meeting was held at 10 Grays Hall preliminary to the organization of a senior society, which was to afford to a select number a pleasant means of intercourse with each other, not to be expected from the illiberal policy of the only society of reputation existing." This "illiberal policy" refers to the displeasure with which the founders of the Signet greeted the established Final Clubs. These first members formed the society's admissions criteria to transcend the social politics that they perceived as dominating in the Final Club system.

To distinguish the Signet from other exclusive organizations, the founding members stated in the original charter that members would be chosen according to "merit and accomplishment." Today, those membership criteria are still present in the club's constitution mandating that members "shall be chosen with regard to their intellectual, literary and artistic ability and achievements." While these criteria are central to the put-up process (admissions procedure), personal character is also considered.

Architecture[edit]

Signet Society, 46 Dunster Street. Cram, Goodhue & Ferguson (building) and Pierre LaRose (heraldic crest). Early 20th-century renovation of an 1820 Federal Style structure.

Architectural historian Douglass Shand-Tucci includes an in-depth discussion of Signet's building in his history of Harvard's campus, relating the oddity that a firm known for its preeminence in Gothic Revival was utilized to renovate an 1820s Federal Style house. Regarding its distinctive features, Shand-Tucci writes:

It is in feeling wildly Baroque (of all things)—a welcome touch of flamboyance for what would otherwise have been a rather staid clubhouse for the Signet… the graphic quality of Cram & Goodhue’s and LaRose’s new frontspiece is actually rather reminiscent of book design (not to mention the Palladianism of several Tory Row mansions), and centers on a two story pedimented Ionic pavilion displaying the Signet arms…. The design concept- cavalier enough, but very successful—discloses another guise of history-making in Harvard architecture: to restore the house, not as it originally was, but in LaRose’s words, as it "ought to have been." Thus the architectural solecism of the two orders of the porch—the Doric columns and Ionic pilasters—was retained.[2]

Traditions[edit]

The emblem of the Signet was, at one time, "a signet-ring inclosing a nettle," the signet-ring symbolizing unity and the nettle symbolizing impartiality. The emblem which appears over the door of the Signet includes a beehive and bees, and a legend in Ancient Greek: "Create art, and live it." Another motto of the Society is attributed to Virgil: Sic vos non vobis Mellificatis apes -- "So do you bees make honey, not for yourselves." From this comes the Society's tradition of referring to its undergraduate members as "drones."

The Signet eschews initiation rituals common to Harvard's Final Clubs and the Lampoon in favor of an induction, during which each new member receives a red rose. The rose is to be kept, dried, and returned to the Signet Society upon the publication of the member's first substantial published work. The Signet maintains a library of these works, which were originally literary, but now include programs or other artifacts marking the performance of music, films, or displays of the visual artistry of members.

Dried roses hang on the walls of the Signet nearby the works that occasioned their return. Particularly noteworthy is T.S. Eliot's rose, which hangs along with his original letter of acceptance to the society.

Since 1910, the Signet has hosted an Annual Dinner honoring poets, authors, musicians, and social commentators. The Signet has a longstanding, reciprocal relationship with the Elizabethan Club, or 'Lizzie' of Yale University. The two organizations sporadically hold a lawn croquet tournament, for which a handled and engraved silver pudding cup in a mahogany case serves as the trophy.

An alumni corporation administers the Signet's endowment, property, and staff. Since 2010, the Society has hosted Artists-in-Residence in a second-floor apartment. [3]

References[edit]

  1. ^ The Harvard book: a series of historical, biographical, and descriptive sketches, 1875. The Signet Society:
  2. ^ (p.92, "The Campus Guide: Harvard University", Princeton Architectural Press ISBN 1-56898-280-1)
  3. ^ http://www.signetsociety.org/fall-2012-ben-cosgrove/
  • Signet Society Website
  • Documents relating to the Yale Elizabethan Club's organization and activities include correspondence, some written in Latin, with the Signet Society and are viewable through the online Yale Manuscripts and Archives Collection: [1]