Historic Photos Hidden In Plain Sight

The discovery of a Class of 1877 album sheds new light on the formative years of CAS

| in CAS, Features

By Marc Chalufour

The College of Liberal Arts’ first undergraduate class matriculated 150 years ago. By graduation, four years later, the Class of 1877 included 24 men and 8 women—a rarity in higher education at the time. Among them were future members of the clergy, educators, a judge, a bookseller, a lumber merchant, a best-selling author, and a leader of the women’s suffrage movement. The accomplishments of some would eventually lead to newspaper headlines, books, and (much later) Wikipedia pages. But most details about the class were thought to be lost to time—until a remarkable discovery was made at the College of Arts & Sciences in 2022. 

There, on a conference room bookshelf, an 1877 photo album had been hiding in plain sight. Within its pages are some of the earliest known images of BU administrators and faculty—and in some cases, these are the only known images. The entire Class of 1877 is included, first as a series of portraits and then as a group, as are BU’s original buildings and lecture halls. In all, the album’s 62 pristine photographs provide a detailed look at a formative moment in the college’s history.  

The Discovery

On September 14, 2022, Daryl Healea, CAS assistant dean for curriculum and enrollment services, was invited to a meeting in the CAS business office. He arrived early and looked around the conference room. Although he’d been there a dozen times before, he says, he had never studied what was in the cabinets and glass-covered bookshelves lining the walls. They hold financial reports, BU yearbooks, and miscellaneous artifacts like a ceramic BU plate and a brass microscope. Something else caught his eye that day: the spine of a thick book with the word “Photographs” embossed across it. 

Healea, who’s worked at CAS for eight years, has an active interest in BU’s history. He’s writing a book about BU’s fourth president, Daniel L. Marsh, and has spent hours researching in the University’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center

“I’m sure I’m wrong about this, but I feel like I’ve read everything that’s ever been published about the University,” Healea says. When he saw “Class of ’77” embossed on the front cover, he assumed that meant 1977. Then he opened the album and saw an unfamiliar image of BU’s first president, William Fairfield Warren, and immediately understood the significance of the album’s contents. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he says. 

The photographs of Warren that still exist tend to show him later in life, with a graying beard and receding hair. In 1877, he was just four years into his tenure as president. “This is him in his prime, in his youth,” Healea says. He kept flipping through the album, revealing one unique photo after another. “It’s just a gold mine.”

The exact history of the album is a mystery. Healea found a reference to it in the 1933 essay “Beacon Hill and Boston University,” by William Marshall Warren, former dean of CLA and son of William Fairfield Warren. After that, the album and its contents appear to have faded from the college’s collective consciousness.

On the occasion of the college’s centennial, BU published The College of Liberal Arts: 1873–1973 by Warren O. Ault, a CLA history professor from 1913 until 1965. Though Ault had access to the college’s and University’s papers and archives, the only photograph that his book has in common with the album is that of 18–20 Beacon Street.

Skipping ahead to 1987, Lisa Doherty discovered the album among a collection of artifacts in the CLA dean’s office (the college was renamed CAS in 1996). Doherty, now CAS director of operations and space planning, was then an assistant to the new dean and University provost, Dennis Berkey. 

“It was intuitive that these were historical in nature and important, but we never did anything with them,” she says. “I’ve never had anybody ask to see them.” In 2015, during another dean transition, Doherty moved the artifacts to the conference room cabinet where the album sat undisturbed until Healea spotted it seven years later.

The Contents

“Boston University College of Liberal Arts Class ’77” and “Chauncy C. Williams” are embossed in gold on the album’s cover. Williams was a member of the Class of 1877 (his first name was spelled Chauncey—the embosser missed the “e”) and his portrait is included inside, along with those of his 31 classmates and 19 administrators. Each page has a sepia photograph pasted inside a delicate gold border, and each portrait is accompanied by a signature. Dark suits and dresses, bow ties and ruffled shirts dominate. The clarity and detail in the well-preserved images are remarkable. 

Among the album’s notable figures:

William Fairfield Warren helped to write the charter that established BU in 1869 and made it the first US university open to women. He was named BU’s first president in 1873 and served in that role for 30 years while also serving as acting dean of the graduate school. Warren, dedicated to elevating women in higher education, also helped to establish Wellesley College in 1870. 

William Edwards Huntington, a Civil War veteran, served as dean of CLA for 22 years then as president of BU for 7 more.

Elizabeth Stuart Phelps was the first woman to teach at CLA. She was also a well-known writer. Her religious novel, The Gates Ajar, depicted the afterlife as a continuation of life on Earth and reportedly sold 80,000 copies in the US and 100,000 in England. 

Eva Channing (CAS 1877) became a prominent leader in the women’s suffrage movement. She protested at the 1908 Republican Convention, demanding that suffrage be added to the party’s platform. In 1913, she participated in a march on Washington, D.C. The protestors were greeted by a “dirty, spitting crowd…a disgraceful episode for the Capitol,” according to the Boston Globe, a reception that generated more publicity. “It is really the biggest boom our cause has ever had,” she said.

Orison Swett Marden (CAS 1877) turned success in the hotel business into a career as a prolific inspirational author. He sold three million copies of his first book, Pushing to the Front (1894), and went on to write dozens more. Upon his death, the Evening World-Herald in Omaha, Neb., quoted a eulogist: “[He] is said to have influenced more human beings than any writer of recent times.”

Sara EmersonOther students in the album: Samuel Beiler (CAS 1877), a prominent Methodist clergyman, became acting dean of BU’s School of Theology; William G. Colesworthy (CAS 1877) took over his family’s Boston bookstore, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson were said to shop; And Sara Emerson (CAS 1877), the first woman to recite in a CLA class, earned a PhD at Yale and taught at Wellesley College.

The album also includes photographs of the buildings and rooms where BU students studied. According to Ault, in The College of Liberal Arts: 1873–1973, the Class of 1877 would have taken Latin, Greek, mathematics, English composition, rhetorical exercises, elocution, German, and Greek and Roman history. They had no dedicated laboratory space at BU’s original Beacon Hill location, so they trekked over to MIT in Copley Square to take physics, chemistry, and geology, while biology, botany, zoology, and physiology were offered at the Boston Society of Natural History.

The First Yearbook?

With the name of a class member on the cover and the comprehensive collection of portraits and signatures inside, the Class of 1877 album could be an early version of a yearbook. There was precedent: students at Yale published a yearbook as early as 1806, using silhouettes to depict each student since photography wasn’t available yet. 

The invention of photographic negatives made the printing of multiple copies of a single image possible by the 1860s. Photography remained a very specialized process for several more decades, though, requiring heavy glass plates and poisonous chemicals. 

The Class of 1877 album would have been a significant expense 146 years ago, but today it’s providing invaluable insight into the people and places who shaped BU’s College of Arts & Sciences. 

Learn more about the history of the College of Arts & Sciences in celebration of its 150th anniversary.

In addition to Daryl Healea, several members of the BU community have contributed to this project, either researching the album or making it more accessible: Alison Currier, academic program coordinator at CAS, identified the Class of 1877 members in the album’s group photo; Ford Curran, digital preservation and conservation archivist at BU’s Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, digitized the images; and Athene La Jeunesse (CAS’25), a history intern at CAS, created the online flipbook of the album.