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April 16, 2014

Western Reserve College’s First Student Organizations

In the earliest decades of Western Reserve College, student organizations were few. The very first student group was the Philozetian Society, one of several so-called literary societies. Today we would consider these debate clubs. Their purpose was to give students practice in debate, oration, and parliamentary procedure - all necessary skills for the ministry, law, and public affairs, for which students were being prepared.

The Philozetian Society was established on October 22, 1828, a little more than a year after the first classes were held. Meetings were held weekly, usually on Wednesday evenings. The meetings included extemporaneous debates during which the chairman proposed a topic and called upon members without prior notice. Topics for scheduled debates were assigned in advance by the program committee one week in advance. Topics included a broad range of contemporary issues, including, (1867) “Should the Right of Suffrage be extended to American Women?” (1871) “Should ministers preach politics?” (1874) “Is cremation better than burial?” (1879) “Have we anything to fear from Catholicism in this country?”

Together the literary societies published an annual newspaper, The Transcript, in the 1860s. Not surprising from debating clubs, editorials on issues of the day as well as the state of the College were a staple of the newspaper.

As was common among college literary societies, the Philozetian Society established its own library, separate from that of the College. Books were purchased, using society dues and fines. Members, former members, and friends of the College were also encouraged to donate books from their own libraries. Some of the Philozetian Societies’ books can still be found in Kelvin Smith Library’s Special Collections. The group continued to operate after Westen Reserve College moved to Cleveland in 1882, but was much less active and seems to have ceased around 1890.

Philozetian Society seal from an 1868 membership certificate

Philozetian Society records in the University Archives include:
Meeting minutes, 1828-1884
Constitutions and by-laws, 1828-1886
Financial and membership ledgers, 1867-1886

Secondary sources about literary societies at WRC and at other schools include:
Waite, Frederick C. Western Reserve University - The Hudson Era: A History of Western Reserve College and Academy at Hudson, Ohio, from 1826 to 1882. (Cleveland: Western Reserve University Press, 1943)

Harding, Thomas S. “College Literary Societies: Their Contribution to the Development of Academic Libraries, 1815-1876” The Library Quarterly. v.29 no.1 (Jan. 1959): pp. 1-26 and v.29 no.2 (Apri 1959): pp. 94-112

Saslaw, Rita. Student Societies: Nineteenth Century Establishment. Thesis (Ph.D.) Case Western Reserve University, 1971

Posted by jmt3 at April 16, 2014 01:42 PM

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