Project Editor:Anastasia Smallcomb, UCARE, 2007

Table of Contents

Overview of U.S. Literary Societies
UNL Literary Societies:
1. History
2. Within the Society
3. Women's Roles
4. Controversies

Works Cited
Site Map

Literary Societies in the Nineteenth Century
Brief Overview of Student Societies in the United States

During America's colonial era, colleges were populated and run by men, strict rules governed students' studies and play, and campus libraries were more akin to warehouses compared to the libraries of the Twentieth Century. It was during the early 1700s that the first student-run society was created. At the time there were students found pleasure in breaking campus rules: smoking, drinking and playing cards were all prohibited activities[1]. The purpose of the first society was to provide a type of safe haven from the more "rambunctious" students; in this society, the gentlemen practiced speaking and debating about moral and religious topics in response to the amoral activities of their peers. Nearly all of the members of the organization went on to become ministers and religious officials. Gradually more and more students began to form groups throughout the eastern colleges. Most were dedicated to the practice of speaking, writing and debating on various subjects (mostly religious in nature); other groups met purely for social purposes. While the purpose for the societies differed from one group to another, the reason the students met was the same: the desire to belong to a community.

The college literary society was a group of students who met at least once a week for the purpose of practicing their skills in speaking, writing and debating, as well as building a community of friends and potential colleagues. Virtually every college campus had more than one literary society, and more often than not rivalries existed between at least two of the campus societies, if not more. The society members competed in everything: they fought and campaigned for potential members, competed in contests comparing their skills in speaking and debate, and boasted their successes. Rivalries ranged in degree, from friendly "sibling"-like rivalry to flat-out hatred. Some societies included an addendum in their constitutions banning potential and existing members from belonging to more than one literary society.

College faculty, while very strict on free-time activity, approved of the academic societies and did their best to make these societies thrive. The students were allotted rooms on campus specifically for use by the societies, and faculty members became sponsors for the students. Sometimes societies were even allocated funds with which to aid their societies. But mostly, the students took complete control of their communities at their inception. While the colleges provided the halls, the students themselves provided most of the furnishings themselves, paying out of pocket for carpets and drapes, as well as chairs and desks. They elected their own officers to preside over meetings and activities, as well as their own committees to facilitate various needs the society had. The societies that created their own libraries also procured the books to fill the shelves and elected a librarian to steward over it all. On top of all the parliamentary procedures and community building, they also practiced speaking, writing and debating.

At least some portion of the weekly meetings was devoted to business matters, constituting the parliamentary proceedings of the evening. There was also time set aside for the society's exercises, consisting of reading some piece of writing, and at least one debate. Exercises differed from society to society; some only had a select few members speak at one meeting, in others everyone needed to bring something to share. The reading could come from a number of sources, such as an original piece by the speaker, or an excerpt from a novel or poem. Debates, however, were almost always the same: two sides of an issue (affirmative and negative) being debated by either individuals or teams, with one member or team being assigned to a specific "side". The debates ranged in topic, from religion to history to local and national politics. As much as these topics differed from college to college, they also differed from region to region[2].

Libraries were another facet of society life. Colonial college libraries were extremely strict on the borrowing of their collections, sometimes only allowing the upper classmen to check out books for a limited time. Even the libraries that allowed students to read books within the study rooms weren't that inviting; most were uncomfortable and, by modern standards, nonconductive to reading and studying. The collections of college libraries held only classical material, many written in a language other than English[3]. Society libraries differed greatly from the college libraries. Reading rooms were plush and inviting, collections held contemporary as well as classical material, and professors as well as students borrowed from the stacks. The collections in the society libraries were (more often than not) meant to fill the gaps the academic library had, and after the disbanding of the literary society, academic libraries often took in the society library's holdings.

Publications were another result of literary societies. Every society had a publication of some sort, whether hand-written or printed, and run by society members. These publications usually came out weekly and were read at meetings, the contents of which were centered on the goings-on of the society. Depending on the editor or writer, the paper could be serious or comical in nature. As with the officers, the students elected an editor and staff for the publication(s), and each position had a set term of service.

During the 1800s in frontier colleges, women were being allowed on campus for the first time. Many were concerned about the mixing of genders in both academics and spare time; most thought that the lady students would be a distraction to their male counterparts. The "solution" to this was, in some colleges, to separate the students into classes by gender—ladies and gentlemen. On some campuses, the two groups of students barely ever mingled.

The co-educational societies were sometimes the only place male and female students were able to mingle and work together. Both sexes benefited from the "mixed" societies: ladies were able to practice their speaking and debating skills in a public environment; gentlemen received practice with their social graces. While women were allowed to participate in society activities, they were expected to pursue "gentler" topics, as well as virtually avoid debates. Not all societies on co-ed campuses were mixed; there were segregated societies as well. Ladies founded and ran their own societies apart from the men.

The "golden age" of literary societies happened at two different times in two different regions of the U.S. The eastern and southern literary societies reached their peak right before the Civil War, and tapered off gradually. The reason for this had to do with economics; the southern colleges weren't the same after the war. The western college societies peaked in the early 1900s[4].


1.In Thomas Spencer Harding's book, College Literary Societies: Their Contribution to Higher Education in the United States, 1815-1876., the author gives examples of inappropriate behavior by students at the time. One not listed in the text above was attending public hangings.(Go back.)

2.Harding also examined debate topics by both region and time period.(Go back.)

3.Michael J. Waldo's thesis "A Comparative analysis of Nineteenth Century Academic and Literary Society Library Collections in the Midwest."(Go back.)

4.Harding.(Go back.)