Hate crowds, long lines, waiting lists? You’d have suffered mightily in the fall of 1946, when Harvard experienced a population explosion of unparalled proportions. That year’s influx of 9,000 war veterans taxed University resources and altered the size and character of the institution.
World War II had ended in August 1945. An advance guard of 500 veterans, their tuition fees and other expenses paid under the G.I. Bill of Rights, had registered that September. A year later the deluge began. The University’s population soared from 3,600 to 11,700. The size of the College rose from 1,782 to 5,400; the prewar level had never exceeded 3,500. The freshman class of 2,000 was by far the largest ever. Enrollment in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences rose from just over 400 to 1,600, the Business School’s student body went from 70 to 1,400, and the Law School’s jumped from 162 to 1,500.
The Harvard Alumni Bulletin pondered the plight of the conquering hero: “After several uncomfortably crowded years in the armed forces, he is destined for further uncomfortable years at Harvard.Aside from the inconvenience of living quarters which may be located at considerable commuting distance from Harvard Square, he will have to be satisfied with crowded classrooms and all the haste which goes with a University enrollment of 12,000 men, a third larger than the previous peak year. His $60 or $90 a month will not go so far as a year ago in a community where sodas now cost 25 cents and suits $50; where a single furnished room is $32 a month and an apartment $75. But he has come, he is welcome, and we wish him the best of luck. We can take him if he can take us.”
American educators had anticipated rising enrollments after the war, but nothing like this. Student housing was now their number-one problem. President James Conant sent letters to 16,000 local alumni asking for help in sheltering some 3,000 married vets and their families. His appeal elicited 99 offers of space. The widow of an alumnus proffered a room in her Brookline home for $10 a week. That sum, she explained, would be added to the salaries of her two maids. Meals and services would be provided; if meals had to be served at odd hours, they would be. If the cook didn’t like the arrangement, said the widow, she’d fire the cook. Another Brookline homeowner offered to consign his garage to a naval officer and his wife, provided the wife washed up for the household. Done and done. Other offerings included a sanatorium and two country clubs.
Before registration day in 1946, some 300 students who lived within 45 minutes of Harvard Square were notified that they would have to commute till the housing crisis abated. The basketball court of the Indoor Athletic Building was commandeered as a dorm for single students. Each was issued a “cot, chair, and ashtray.”
Almost 200 of the married veterans were housed in 33 one-story frame buildings shipped by the government from South Portland, Maine, where they had been erected for wartime shipyard workers. The buildings were reassembled on lots near the Divinity School, the Business School, and Memorial Drive. About 400 families bunked at Fort Devens, in the outlying town of Ayer, a three-hour round-trip train commute via Porter Square station. Their sector of the army camp was dubbed “Harvardevens Village.” Another 115 families lived in apartments at the Hotel Brunswick in Copley Square, which Harvard leased for three years.
The veterans were eager to learn. Faculty members admired their seriousness of purpose, disciplined work habits, and broad perspectives. Their differing economic and social backgrounds, war experiences, motivations, and values set the vets apart from the relatively homogeneous and more casual student body of prewar days, and made Harvard a more pluralistic institution. For the teachers and the taught, the years just after World War II were an exhilarating, rewarding, often joyous time-crowded quarters and long lines notwithstanding.