Displaying items by tag: Clubs
Rumors of the death of the book have been greatly exaggerated. Hardcover sales are strong and audiobooks are increasing in popularity. People frequently like to share what they're reading and their thoughts about books on Goodreads, Litsy, and LibraryThing. Book clubs abound, and there’s a whole world within a world on Instagram known as “Bookstagram.”
In many ways this is a continuation (though in different form) of previous centuries' literary clubs and societies. As schooling became universal at the end of the 19th century, many people wanted to continue their education into their adult years. This coincided with a time when Americans liked joining clubs, and many of the clubs were based around reading and learning.
The Reading Circle in the early 1960's.
The Norristown Reading Circle was founded in 1910 by six women. The original plan was to read and review popular fiction, but it soon expanded to include history and current events. The meetings were held every other week at a member’s home. The membership was capped at 20. The club got a surprising amount of newspaper coverage.
We have two minute books for the Reading Circle, which was clearly more formal than a modern book club. The minutes from fall of 1923 illustrate how varied the topics were: on September 11 Mrs. Hunsberger talked about her trip to California, on the 25th Mrs. Anders gave an account of the Summer School for Working Girls at Bryn Mawr, on October 9 they discussed a novel called Spinster of This Parish, and on October 25, they all gathered at Mrs. Gotwals house to see her daughter’s wedding gifts.
In the late 19th century, Towamencin had the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association, whose object was “mutual improvement of Self Culture and to become familiar with Literature in general.” The members were all men, apparently young men from the minutes. The society also aimed to start a library. At meetings members practiced spelling and debated topics related to the club (should members be fined for not attending meetings?) or current events (the Civil War comes up a lot in the early years).
"Then spelling was practised a short time with deep interest."
These sorts of organizations were so common that in 1881, the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association merged with the Oxonia Literary Society and the Young Folks Literary Society.
A page from the Kulpsville Literary and Library Association acknowledging the assassination of President Garfield.
We have records of even more, in Gwynedd, Conshohocken, Upper Merion, and a few more in Norristown. These are probably just a sampling. Other societies were perhaps less formal and didn’t keep records, or didn’t last for as many decades as these clubs did. The idea that one can self-educate is inspiring, and the truly social aspects of these clubs seems so much more significant in the age of selfies and 144 character tweets.
It might be hard to imagine now, but the sale and consumption of alcohol were once hotly debated issues in Montgomery County.
With its large German population, the county was home to many breweries, Adam Scheidt perhaps being the best known. However, it was also home to many temperance societies, both local ones and nationally affiliated groups like the Sons of Temperance and Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.
The Temperance movement is an interesting one that combined several aspects of nineteenth-century America – clubs, “do-gooding,” political engagement, and crusading zeal. First, I think a quick explanation of the name of the movement is necessary. “Temperance” is a synonym for moderation, and in the earliest years of the movement (1820’s – 1830’s), it mainly focused on discouraging the consumption of hard liquor and drunkenness.
By the end of the 1830’s the goal the movement had changed, and many members of temperance societies pledged to abstain from alcohol totally (with a capital “T” written next to their names). After the Civil War, what had been something of a fringe cause became a mass movement that used preaching to discourage the public from drinking and lobbying the government for more stringent laws on the sale of alcohol or for outright prohibition.
The Norristown branch of the Sons of Temperance was founded in 1845, just three years after the original chapter was founded in New York. Moses Auge was one of the founding members, and he donated some of the group’s early papers to the Historical Society in 1887. (If anyone is interested, that makes them one of our earliest donations, number 108, to be exact.) The Sons of Temperance was like many other fraternal groups popular at the time. There was a secret initiation and death benefits for members.
We also have the papers of the Law License League of Norristown, a group that lobbied the county to enforce standing laws regarding the sale of alcohol, which they believed would reduce the number of public houses in the borough.
The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (which still exists) was also present throughout the county. They sponsored speakers and meetings. In our collection, we have a 1916 publication listing the names of people who signed petitions for liquor licenses for various Norristown establishments.
All of these groups promoted total abstinence from alcohol, but for some people, that didn’t go far enough. One of Montgomery County’s most progressive reformers was Dr. Hiram Corson. He often made public speeches in favor of temperance, but he was not a member of the Sons of Temperance. In his diary of 1847, he wrote of his opposition to the Sons of Temperance “on account of their allowing Root Beer, pop, &c.” I guess cold water was good enough for him.
Among our various collections at the Historical Society are papers from various societies for the recovery of stolen horses.
They started as mutual aid societies in different parts of the county. According to the constitution of the Montgomery Union Horse Company for the Recovery of Stolen Horses and Other Property and Detection of the Thieves (19th century people weren’t concerned with coming up with catchy names), members paid one dollar upon joining and twenty-five cents annually in dues. In return, when anything over five dollars in value was stolen from a member, the society would try to recover it.
These societies date back to a time before the county or townships had anything resembling a police force. The Mount Joy Society for the Recovery of Stolen Horses and Detection of Thieves was founded at the King of Prussia Inn in 1774. The first time a member’s horse was stolen was in 1787, when Alexander Henderson’s horse was stolen and recovered at a cost of five pounds. In 1853, Mordicai M. Stephen’s horse was stolen and not recovered, costing the society $249.54. Like the Montgomery Union Horse Company, the original constitution of the Mount Joy Society said that a company of men would ride out in search of the stolen horse. In the 1883 constitution, however, that company had been replaced by a two man committee whose job it was to telegraph local police a description of the horse.
Some of the societies even lasted into the motor age, though more as social clubs than serious crime detecting rings. The Blue Bell Horse Company discussed adding the protection of automobiles in its annual meetings in 1914 and 1920, but no decision was made. The group still existed as late as 1951.
I’d like to close with an interesting story I came across in an old scrapbook about a horse thief in Eagleville in 1893. The story first appeared in the Norristown Register. John Adam Fisher had been working as a hired man for Daniel W. Longaker for a few weeks when he took off with one of his employer’s horses. Longaker’s neighbor, Taylor Pugh, pursued the thief to Collegeville where he discovered that Fisher had tried to sell the horse for $150 but had been talked down to $50. The buyer, however, perhaps grew suspicious and asked where Fisher lived and wanted to go to his house. Fisher took off on the horse again heading toward Trappe, but he was stopped at a toll gate and not allowed to pass. Taylor caught up with him and ordered a magistrate to arrest Fisher. Fisher offered to give the magistrate the “finest stockings he ever saw” once he got to jail. On the way to the jail, he told the constable that he hoped to get twenty-one years. The article concludes that people who had spoken to Fisher believed him “not quite right.”
Earlier this week, our curator turned up an interesting book in her inventory of our museum collection.
The minute book of the Junior Literati of the Trappe is a small book that the group used to records its business from 1850 to 1851. At some point after 1851, the book was reused as a scrapbook and newspaper articles were pasted on top of the minutes.
This kind of repurposing was very common in the nineteenth century. The Historical Society has at least a dozen scrapbooks that were repurposed ledgers or even printed books.
At an even later point, someone decided the minutes of the Literati Society were more interesting than the newspaper articles. This might have been someone here at the Historical Society or it might have been before the book came to us. That person had mixed success in removing the pasted on newsprint, but the palimpsest underneath gives a good idea of what the club was about.
Meetings took place at the Augustus Lutheran Church, often called the Old Trappe Church, and the group met weekly. It consisted of young men, probably teenagers based on some quick searching on Ancestry.com.
At the end of each meeting a topic of discussion or question for debate was offered.
Can the Union be dissolved for under any circumstances? The group resolved that no, it couldn’t.
Is the world was advancing in moral improvement? There was disagreement.
They also debated the use of the Bible in common (public) schools, whether George Washington was entitled to more honor than Christopher Columbus, and whether one obtains more information from reading or from traveling.
The minutes end early in 1851 and give no indication of what happened to the club. About one dozen pages were cut of the book, and the last sixteen pages are blank. It may have been a short-lived club. On the other hand, maybe someday we'll find more records from this group.