By Hannah L. Niederriter

Tuned to the Trends: The History of Harvard's Varsity Mandolin Club

Through the late 19th and early 20th century, Harvard’s all-male Mandolin Club, alongside female mandolin players from Radcliffe, entertained the campus with their annual shows.
By Natalie K Bandura and Maeve T. Brennan

Most students who enter the Queen’s Head Pub are not expecting to learn about the history of Harvard student life. Yet an unassuming student using their BoardPlus money for chicken wings might stumble across an unexpected and peculiar piece of Harvard’s extracurricular history: the Varsity Mandolin Club.

On the pub’s wall, a glass-framed poster displays a 1900 advertisement for “a trial of candidates” for the long-forgotten club. With its earliest records dating back to the 1890s and continuing through the 1930s, the club existed during a fleeting American obsession with the mandolin. The poster’s recruitment language is firm — “every one playing the mandola or flute is urged to try,” it reads.

Through the late 19th and early 20th century, Harvard’s all-male Mandolin Club, alongside female mandolin players from Radcliffe, entertained the campus with their annual shows. Students could buy tickets at the Harvard Co-operative store for their performances, which included collaborations with Harvard’s Varsity Glee Club and the mandolin clubs of other schools, such as Yale and Dartmouth. The club also played a part in campus spirit, performing during football games.

The mandolin’s outsized presence on campus can be attributed to the stringed instrument’s growing popularity in the United States at the time, as well as to a traveling band called the Figaro Spanish Students. Inspired by the 1878 performances of a similar band, the Spanish Students, during the Paris World’s Fair, the Fidalgo group began a tour of the United States in 1880. Their concerts introduced the music of the bandurria, a Spanish folk instrument often referred to as the “Spanish Mandolin,” to the American public. They inspired a flurry of similar mandolin bands, who copied the Spanish Students’ style, costumes, and sometimes even their name.

Young Americans, entranced by the mandolin’s sound and European associations, took to the instrument like mad. They formed mandolin clubs and orchestras across the country, and at the start of the 20th century, mandolin sales even outstripped guitar sales, albeit by a small margin.

Harvard’s own Mandolin Club enjoyed a similar popularity, and by 1895, it had expanded to include a total of six first mandolins, four second mandolins, and four guitars. That year, the club also welcomed a new, lesser-known instrument — a flageolet, a type of compact wind instrument resembling a small whistle. The Crimson documented the club’s growth, writing in 1893 that “an unusually promising lot of men responded last night to the call for candidates for the Mandolin and Guitar Club.”

The mandolin attracted enough students to warrant the creation of two separate groups: the Freshman and the Varsity Mandolin Clubs. The classification may seem strange for a musical group — indeed most of the language around the club is reserved for organized sports today. Auditions were called “trials,” a series of shows were called a “season,” and the club’s director was even referred to as a “coach.” Even the term “varsity” itself, which was originally derived from an abbreviation of the word “university,” reflects a change in the language that we use to describe musical groups.

The Mandolin Club underwent many transformations during its time at Harvard — sometimes it combined with the Glee Club, sometimes it adopted the name “Mandolin and Guitar Club” and other times “Mandolin and Banjo Club.” The Mandolin Freshman Club had a four-year hiatus in 1916, before being briefly resurrected in 1920.

The urgent diction of The Mandolin Club’s 1900 recruitment poster in Queen’s Head may reflect the eventual dwindling influence of the mandolin fad. In 1895, The Crimson complained that only five men appeared at the club’s trial, and commented that “the talent shown was not of the best.”

“If the mandolin players in college have not sufficient interest to attend trials, the club will be seriously affected,” the article continues. By the 1900s, there were few candidates to choose from during the trials, and The Crimson reported that, “if any one of the clubs fails to be formed, no acceptable concerts can be given in the spring.”

In 1937, Harvard’s Instrumental Clubs held a meeting in Lowell House, complete with “barrels of beer and an evening of informal singing,” according to a Crimson article at the time. But after the festivities, they turned to “the question of the Mandolin Club,” and decided that due to insufficient interest, the club would only continue as a string ensemble, if at all.

Mandolin orchestras across the country suffered similar fates during that period as young Americans turned to other leisure activities and new forms of music, such as jazz. Harvard’s own club was replaced by a string ensemble, but photos of decades-worth of mandolin players can still be found in a collection of old Harvard yearbooks stored in Pusey Library.