IU Digitizes Archives Of 19th Century Literary Society

Indiana University is digitizing its archives of the Athenian Society--one of its oldest student organizations.

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    Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

    A Bloomington resident gives a speech in 1838.

  • sarah parke morrison 1869

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    Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

    A 1869 photo of Sarah Parke Morrison, the first woman admitted to Indiana University.

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    Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

    A program shows the lineup for a Philomathean Society gathering in 1871.

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    Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

    A painting shows the seminary campus circa 1850.

  • Athenian Society program

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    Photo: Courtesy of Indiana University

    A program shows the lineup for the Athenian Society's Annual Spring Exhibition in 1868.

From the African Languages Club to the Progressive Librarians’ Guild, Indiana University now counts more than 750 official student organizations. But in the mid-nineteenth century the school had only two.

They were rival literary societies that each wanted to prove their members were the most cultivated and articulate on campus. IU is digitizing its archives for one of them, the Athenian Society.

“Whenever I pull this book out, I feel like I’m in Harry Potter,” says Indiana University archivist Dina Kellams is sitting in the library’s archives office with one of the Athenian Society’s books of minutes.

The book is a very large, bound volume with has a leather spine and a marbled cover. Inside, the pages are ruled just like a modern notebook, and filled top to bottom with notes in brown ink.

“All handwritten, all beautiful penmanship which can be very challenging for a person today to read because it’s just a very different style, and the students, whoever were the minute-takers, sometimes they liked to put their own little touch where they would do little drawings at the top,” Kellams says.

A History Told in Meeting Minutes

The students of the Athenian Society used these books to chronicle their meetings. They noted ideas for speech topics. They recorded fines for members who failed to show up for events. And sometimes they used these pages to work out disputes with their rivals – the members of IU’s other literary club, the Philomathean Society.

It was founded in 1831, a year after the Athenians and just seven years after the university began holding classes. By that time students had already seen the memorably named Henodelphisterian Society implode over internal conflicts. The Athenians and the Philomatheans proved to have more staying power.

IU archives director Philip Bantin says almost every student on campus would have belonged to one or the other. Students selected their preference based on which one they thought was more intellectually rigorous.

“They actually had contests against each other that were judged by faculty and other students and so they competed on a regular basis,” he says. “Students kind of picked and choose kind of like we eventually see with fraternities and sororities.”

Bantin says the Athenians and the Philomatheans helped students polish their speaking skills, which were considered crucial for educated men in the nineteenth century. Often the students practiced on historical themes. Bantin gives one example of a question given in debate: Was the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots justified?

Some of the subjects were more contemporary. The Athenians’ minutes show they once discussed whether the United States had been justified in, quote, “annexing” Mexico and California. And the students did not just debate with each other. They organized events they called “exhibitions” where the public could come hear  original works such as poems, and of course, speeches. Kellams says Bloomingtonians turned out for these occasions.

“There was music. There were bands, the choirs, and then each of the members who were scheduled for that day would give their lectures,” Kellams says. “Some of the exhibition catalogues, you’ll see that whoever owned the brochure they wrote on there, ‘excellent speech’ or ‘not very well timed’. they would make little notes on them.”

Structure and Order

The Athenians’ minutes give the impression that the group valued both structure and order. Kellams and Bantin say while the groups appear regimented by today’s standards, they gave students some much-needed freedom from the watchful eyes of the administration. At the time, colleges were expected to act ‘in loco parentis’ – in the place of the parent. Still, Kellams says, the students took note of each other’s comportment.

“They wanted them to act and behave a certain way, and if they didn’t, it was brought up for discussion,” she says. “They would be censured in some way, perhaps given fines.”

Students found one outlet for their energies in the mostly-playful antagonism between the two societies. The Athenians’ minutes from January 1853 reveal a clash with the Philomatheans over their plans to host the Bloomington Brass Band at one of their exhibitions.

The Athenians were holding their own exhibition the same evening, and they suspected the Philomatheans of trying to disrupt it. They then hired the bands themselves to keep it away from their competitors. At that point the groups met.

“We the committee of the Philomathean Society hereby acknowledge that the band was invited contrary to the orders of our society, and we do not consider that it was the intent of our society to interrupt the Athenian society,”  Kellams reads the Philomatheans’ explanation as recorded in the minutes.

Both groups’ exhibitions eventually proceeded in peace. The societies continued to dominate campus life at least a decade more. But they faced a reckoning in the 1860s when the school admitted its first female student, Sarah Parke Morrison.

“She wanted to join the literary societies, and the men wouldn’t let her,” she says. “So a women’s organization came along, the Hesperian) Society.”

The groups declined further in the 1870s with the rise of Greek life and sports clubs. Almost a century and a half after the Athenian Society’s popularity began to wane, the digitization of their papers means the group is newly visible.

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