Halls, Tombs and Houses:    Student Society Architecture at Dartmouth

I. Literary Societies 1783-1870 | Long-lived but left little

    Most schools extant by the early nineteenth century had literary societies, flourishing particularly in the 1820s and 1830s and holding sway up to the Civil War. Each organization was indigenous to its particular school and normally unrelated to any other. Each school usually two societies, and the fierce rivalries that existed between them invaded every aspect of life.2 One society would attempt to steal the other's constitutions on occasion, and one would continually put down the members of its rival. Rivalries also kept students in line, as students seem to have avoided disciplinary infractions in order to keep up the honor of their societies.3 Such clubs had secret grips and passwords: at Dartmouth the society members wore badges bearing Greek letters that stood for their secret mottoes.

    The earliest evidence of American student clubs seems to occur at Harvard around 1715.4 The long-lived societies began to spring up in the 1750s in the handful of schools then existing. At several schools the organizations took Greek or pseudo-Greek names: Critonian at Yale of 1750; Athenian at Queen's (Brown) of 1776; Philermenian at Brown of 1794; Philolexian and Peithologian at King's (Columbia) of 1802 and 1806; Philological and Phlomathean at Pennsylvania of 1807 and 1813.5 Other names hint at whimsy: the Flat Hat Club at William & Mary of 1750; Pronouncing at Brown of 1771; Porcellian and Hasty-Pudding at Harvard of 1791 and 1795. At Princeton the Whigs (the American Whig Society, a 1769 reorganization of the Plain Dealing Club) tended to be Southerners, while the rival Clio (the Cliosophic Society, a 1770 reorganization of the Well Meaning Club) tended to attract Northerners.6 At Yale it was Linonian (reorganized from the 1753 Honorable Fellowship Club) that found a counterpart in the Society of Brothers in Unity of 1768. Unusually, at Yale a third society formed when Southerners left Linonian in 1819 to form the Calliopean Society.7 Dartmouth students founded their own societies in this mold: the Social Friends formed in 1783, and since every club requires a rival, the United Fraternity grew from a conglomeration of earlier ephemeral organizations in 1786, possibly including a secession from the Socials.8

    These societies were what students did outside of class, and they were the only part of the college education that students themselves created. Thus historian of education Frederick Rudolph names literary societies as the first example of the "extracurriculum" in U.S. colleges. The societies were training grounds for public affairs and trained students in subjects they found valuable but not available in college: debate and oration.9 Daniel Webster credited much of his training in oration to his time in the United Fraternity.10 Debates took on all sorts of topics, ideas that did not come up in the Classical curriculum. The Athenians at Rutgers in 1782 debated among other proposals "That the expulsion of the Indians from their possessions was unjust; That the Transportation of the Negroes from Guinea and to reducing them to Slaves is unjust; Wether Dancing is a necessary Accomplishment to a Young Gentleman; Wether the Continuation of the War is to be preferred before a peace short of the absolute Independence of America."11

    The societies had other functions as well. Each Dartmouth society placed gravestones on students' graves, totaling three each between 1797 and 1831.12 The societies also controlled a significant part of the graduation ceremony by selecting annual speakers. And since college libraries were usually small, infrequently opened, and of limited interest to students, the societies competed in amassing large libraries that formed the de facto collections of the school. The books that students actually wanted to read they found in the society libraries.13 Periodicals typically included the American Quarterly Review and Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine; books included standards of Homer, Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare as well as the more recent Dickens, Scott, Wordsworth, and Emerson.14 At Dartmouth the books included 'Gibbons's Roman Empire' and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.15 Students taxed themselves to continually improve their libraries: Lyman Flint, 1842, recorded in his sophomore year expense book that he paid a $6.00 initiation fee and tax to the United Fraternity on 5 March 1839; this was when the whole of his fall-term expenses had amounted to $38.18. Membership cost a dollar per term.16

    One unique literary society was Phi Beta Kappa, which students at William & Mary founded in 1776 and operated for four years. The society was unusual because, as Masonic lodges do, it granted charters to other chapters of the club.17 (Members of literary societies and their successor fraternities are also called "brothers" as in Freemasonry.) Several chapters rose in other Virginia towns, and a Harvard graduate who became a member in Williamsburg founded a branch of the society in Cambridge in 1781. Members of this club established a chapter at Dartmouth in 1787. The society had the usual secret handshake and initiation rituals of such clubs. Like other literary societies, members' academic standing was important and the meetings were venues for debates.18

    A number of schools' literary societies were able to muster the funds to create a permanent architectural presence. Whig and Cliosophic at Princeton built companion temples in the 1830s, for example. John Haviland of Philadelphia designed the buildings and laid them out symmetrically behind Nassau Hall. On the first floor of each was a library and reading room, while meeting halls for the literary exercises were on the second.19 At Davison College in North Carolina, Philanthropic and Eumenean also built symmetrically-arrayed temples, as did Phi Gamma and Few at Emory College in Georgia.20

    Though Dartmouth's societies were long-lived and essential to the operation of the school, they did not build freestanding halls of their own. Instead they constructed or were granted spaces within College buildings. At their height the societies occupied three rooms: a meeting hall and two libraries. During their early years the U.F. and S.F. had presumably met in one or both of the original College buildings on the Green (Fig. 1) until workers completed Dartmouth Hall in 1791. At first the society libraries jointly occupied a room, presumably a student's dormitory room. Disputes caused the two libraries to separate in 1799, however, leading to a rivalry in book acquisition that caused them to require more space.21 In 1805 each library got a room in Dartmouth Hall (Fig. 2). With the College's own library occupying a room in the center of the second floor, the United Fraternity's library took the northwest corner room and the Social Friends' a similar room in the southwest corner.

1. Reconstruction of southeast corner of the Green in 1775 showing original buildings of Dartmouth (author, after Aldren A. Watson's 1964 reconstruction in Ralph Nading Hill, College on the Hill [Hanover: Dartmouth College, 1964], 41).
2. 1784-1791 Dartmouth Hall

    For their meetings the literary societies used a special room called the Society Hall. The room occupied the rear of the first floor of Dartmouth Hall, just north of the southern staircase. This they shared with other groups including Phi Beta Kappa. Alpheus Crosby of the class of 1827 recalls the various groups that met in the Society Hall in the evening after tea: on Mondays it was the Theosphical Society, on Tuesdays the United Fraternity, on Wednesdays the Social Friends, on Thursdays Phi Beta Kappa and the Adelphian Society (extemporaneous speaking), and on Fridays the Handel Society and the Society of Inquiry Respecting Missions.22

    The most famous incident to take place in Hanover during the University Controversy, when the New Hampshire Legislature attempted to reorganize the College as Dartmouth University, involved the society libraries. Since 1805 each library had expanded into the spaceways over the building's entrance halls;23 when the University took control of Dartmouth Hall in 1818, students started moving their books into private homes. The University heard of the removal and organized a posse of townspeople and University professors to break into the libraries and secure the remaining books. A confrontation in the second-floor hallway ensued, with United Fraternity members reportedly sounding the alarm "Turn out, Social Friends, your library is broken open!" after the Inspector of Buildings and others used an axe to break through the library door. The University group, trapped in the library, retreated between columns of students brandishing pieces of firewood crossed over their heads.24 Arrests resulted on both sides, but all later dropped the matter.25

    In 1825 the United Fraternity expanded to occupy the Athenaeum, a room next door to their library, and when architect Ammi Young extensively reorganized the interior of the building in 1828 the society kept this room while relinquishing its original corner room. The Social Friends also expanded in 1825 to include the former Philosophical Apparatus room next door to their own library, but they relinquished the new room in the 1828 reorganization, preserving their original allotment.26

    Competition for new members of the Dartmouth societies was strong, and as early as 1790 the groups had to meet to draw up new initiation rules. Members had been selected by "fishing," what today might be called "rush," and the struggle to get the most promising new men was fierce. In 1815, to repair the "extensive detriment" that the rivalry caused, the College took over assignments using an alphabetical list of names. Even-numbered students formed a pool from which only one society could draw, and the same with the odds.27 In 1825 the faculty further ruled that all students would be automatically assigned to a society, closing the option of waiting until sophomore year to join the society of one's choice.28 This change would have an effect on society morale; interestingly the College would continue to make assignments even after the societies ceased to exist.

    In 1840, when the College completed Reed Hall, all three libraries moved into specially-designed spaces in the new building, occupying the whole second floor.29 The College library occupied the eastern half of the floor and the two literary societies the western half, all arranged in alcoves in the medieval tradition. The College stacks were still generally closed at this time. The Society Hall stayed in Dartmouth Hall when the libraries moved, remaining in the same location through the 1828 reorganization and expanding to the full depth of the building in 1856.30

    By the 1860s the literary societies were still active, though they would not last much longer. In 1860 the College had 14,795 books, the Friends 7952, and the United Fraternity 7954.31 In a burst of enthusiasm, students of the Chandler Scientific School created their own counterpart Philotechnic Society in 1854. Professor Edwin Bartlett describes the two original societies in the period 1868-72:

These societies possessed libraries of nearly 9000 volumes each, and gave occasion for lively politics, since the librarians were elected, drew salaries and appointed assistants. They united in an "Exhibition" just before Thanksgiving at which our most talented seniors showed the world what real poems and orations were.32

A look at the 1860s constitution of the Social Friends gives an insight into its operation: the officers of the Socials included a Primariuis, President, Vice President, Secretary, Executive Committee, Librarian and Assistant, Treasurer and Collector, Auditors and a Committee on Assignments. Meetings were intended to include the reading of the minutes, the literary exercises, and then business. Each debater had between eight and fifteen minutes to speak, and then the President and the society each decided the question.33

    But the societies were winding down and usually managed less than they intended, tending to put off their characteristic debates until future dates.34 The College had begun teaching subjects that had formerly been the nearly exclusive domain of literary societies. The College library had become more liberal and useful. With the random selection of members, the element of rivalry had long since vanished; athletics had also become a huge outlet for student energies. The College had also taken over the job of inviting Commencement speakers. Finally, new Greek-letter secret societies were taking over student interest in the 1840s and 1850s. By 1861 the literary groups were meeting only once a month to deal with library business, and between 1861 to 1866 the United Fraternity minutes show no debates taking place. A resolution of 1867 "to revive the literary exercises of the Society" produced only eight more debates between then and the dissolution of the society in 1870.35 The College gave the Society Hall over to other purposes, and it burned with Dartmouth Hall in 1904, leaving no remnants to examine.

    In 1874 the society libraries, in recognition of the fact that their supporting organizations had perished, merged with the College library.36 In changing their constitutions to allow this merger the societies agreed that the College would run the libraries while the societies owned them. About 1879 the societies let the collections be more completely merged as long as bookplates signified distinctions in ownership.37 The society libraries lost any remaining architectural identity when the merged collection moved from Reed into the new library, Wilson Hall, in 1885. Since Jens Fredrick Larson designed the complete reorganization of the interior of Reed Hall in 1928 no remnant of the society libraries survives, outside of the many nineteenth-century bookplates in books still in the Baker stacks (Fig. 3).
3. Bookplates of the literary societies (Williamson, 10).

    Even after they had died, the societies continued to collect members by alphabetical assignment as Charles M. Hough, 1879 recalls:

...During the whole of my course the Social Friends and the United Fraternity existed, so far as I knew or ever heard, solely for the purpose of forming a convenient division of the College into two approximately equal bodies of men who played football against each other. I became a "member" of the Social Friends (so far as I ever knew) by finding my name, with an "S" after it, posted on the Bulletin Board in front of the chapel during the first fortnight of my first Freshman term.38
It was not until June of 1904 that the societies went formally defunct and officially gave their books to the College, a move that required an act of the Legislature since the clubs had been dormant for 30 years.39

    The same decline happened differently elsewhere, for example at Yale: there the societies contributed over half the cost of the 1853 Alumni Hall and occupied elaborate rooms in the top floor. But interest declined and the three societies dissolved in the 1870s, with the Linonian and Brothers libraries merging under College control in 1871 to form the college's library of general literature. Linonian and Brothers Library and the Reading Rooms remained until 1908-09.40 At Princeton, alumni replaced the Whig and Clio Halls in 1893 with more luxurious marble versions by A. Page Brown as a rebuke to the decline of student interest, though the societies continued to sink.41 Nearly all such societies are defunct today, though the current Washington and Jefferson Literary Societies at the University of Virginia trace their roots to the 1830s.

II. Greek-Letter Societies 1841-1860 | The foundations
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