A Few Well Selected Books

Collecting & the Haverford Community, 1833-1950

Book cremations in the late 19th century at Haverford

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An Assortment of artifacts related to book burning at Haverford William Paley's A View of the Evidence of Christianity Plaque commemorating the Cremation Ceremony of William Paley's Book Invitation to the ceremonial cremation of Paley's book, 1878 Program for the Trial and Cremation of Wheeler, 1883 Program cover for the burning of Wentworth's book, 1886 Urn with the ashes of William Paley's bookClass of 1886's cremation Haverford CollegeClass of 1888's cremation Haverford College
The origin of book burning by Haverford students is unknown, but the tradition began in the 1860s and ended in 1889 when then-president Isaac Sharpless banned the practice. The College Archives keeps a number of artifacts documenting this part of the school's history.
At the end of a semester, sophomores voted to cremate the textbook that they disliked the most. For a long time, the choice was William Paley’s Evidences of Christianity, published in England in 1790 and in America by 1795. A surviving Library copy of this text shows evidence of being very well used.
The students put a great deal of time and energy into elaborate preparations for the cremation; here you can see a hand-made ceremonial plaque for one of the cremations of the Paley text.
The students ordered professionally engraved invitations written in exalted language to mark the "seriousness" of the occasion.
The ceremony consisted of a procession with singing, an oration in Greek, an accusation against the offending tome in English, another oration in Latin, a defense of the work in English, the damning decision, cremation along with mournful singing, and finally the recession with more singing.
A significant amount of talent, time, and money were expended on the book cremations. All participants prepared their own costumes, while the audience donned sheets.
The most unusual archive that survives from the textbook cremations is this ceremonial urn, containing the ashes of yet another doomed Paley text.
Students from the class of 1886 in costumes for a book cremation ceremony, June 23, 1884.
Students from the class of 1888 in costumes for a book cremation ceremony.
Book Burning: a strange Haverford traditionLoading image. Please wait

From the beginning, the Library was a repository of scholarly books in the sciences, philosophy and the classics. The Library Committee sought to "procure books of standard and durable value," and their aim was to make it an important reference library, "especially for works and manuscripts relating to our own Religious Society." While these venerable aims are still very much a part of the Library's collecting philosophy, individuals and groups from the campus community have long prompted the broadening of collections to include other types of works. Key stakeholders whose actions and interests have shaped our changing collections are featured below.

While reverence for books and collections has never gone out of style at Haverford, an unusual and irreverent tradition developed in the late 19th century. On an annual basis, sophmores voted for their least favorite required book. The winning text was then cremated and given an elaborate (and expensive) funeral. Surviving artifacts from the College Archives attest to the talent, creativity, and humor of the participating students.

Community influences: