Maggie Boyd’s Word: Literary Societies

Students at Ohio University today join many clubs and extra-curricular activities on campus, including academic clubs, interest groups and advocacy groups. In Maggie Boyd’s time at the university in the 1870s, there were limited non-religious extra-curricular activities available to students, especially women. One of the few extracurricular activities available to students in the Victorian Era and at Ohio University was literary societies, which were the “right hand” of the university (Hoover).

Literary societies revolved around writing and public speaking. Along with public speaking, students in literary societies participated in oratorical display, debates and critiques (Brubacher). Some of the topics debated in Maggie’s literary society included philosophical and ethical debates: the arguments for and against slavery, whether fame is good or evil and whether lying is ever justified (Hollow).

The societies also played an important role in the university’s early library. In 1878, the two literary societies in Athens voted to merge their respective book collections with Ohio University’s library (Hollow). The university library’s book collection more than tripled thanks to the donations made by the Athenian and Philomathean Literary societies (Hoover).

Literary societies provided a place for students to freely discuss topics and develop discourse without constraint of the university rules and regulations (Brubacher). This was especially important for Maggie, who often felt restricted by her gender academically and was always working to improve herself.

On Friday, February 28, 1873 she wrote:

“We take our supper with us this afternoon and stay till society time when we go down for Kate. I read an essay — Subject “The Marble Waiteth.” No criticisms.  Wish they would tell me my faults.”

There were two literary societies in the Village of Athens, Ohio, during Maggie’s time on campus. There was the Athenian Literary Society, which began in 1819 and stemmed from the Zelothian and Polemic societies. The second literary society was the Philomathean Literary Society, which Maggie was a member of, established in 1822 (Hollow).

Maggie attended “society,” as she called it, regularly, sometimes twice a week. Literary societies also participated in event planning and fundraising, activities which are familiar to today’s student groups. Loyalty to one’s respective literary society in the Victorian Era can be likened to an athlete’s loyalty to his team (Hollow). Because literary societies were taken so seriously, there were a strict set of rules in place.

  • Sophomores and juniors were tasked with giving recitations and writing themes.
  • Seniors were to engage in debate, give original orations and write compositions.
  • Fines were given for absences of meetings, not honoring your duty to the society and improper conduct.
  • A member could not use the same materials for a performance more than three times.

To read Maggie’s diary and hear a first-hand account of her involvement in literary societies in Athens, follow Maggie’s Twitter account, @MaggieBoyd1873 – we will be chronicling her day-to-day entries from her pocket diary. For images, please check out our Pinterest board, Maggie’s World in 1873. Also, keep following the Library Blog, the @AldenLibrary Twitter account or the Alden Library Facebook page to read more about the university’s history during Maggie’s time and other aspects of Victorian life.

 Works Cited

Boyd, Margaret. “Pocket Diary for 1873.” Digital Initiatives. Ohio University. 1873 http://media.library.ohiou.edu/cdm/ref/collection/archives/id/40940. Web. 29 Dec 2011.

Brubacher, John. Higher Education in Transition. 4th Ed. New Brunswick: Harper & Row, 1997. Print.

Hollow, Betty. Ohio University, 1804-2004: History of a Singular Place. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2003. Print.

Hoover, Thomas. The History of Ohio University. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1954. Web. 16 April 2012.