Early Illinois Women

Literary Societies at Monmouth College

Contests

Constitutions & By-Laws

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Meeting Rooms

text by Neil Dahlstrom, in collaboration with Dr. Stacy Cordery

Literary societies served an important function in the early educational and social existence of Monmouth College. The two male societies, the Philadelphian and the Eccritean, founded in 1856 and 1857, were soon rivaled by two female literary societies. The first, the Amateur des Belles Lettres (originally called the Philomatheon Society), was founded in October 1857. Its motto was "Droit et Avant", translated as "Right and Onward." The second, the Aletheorian, was founded in September 1862, with the motto "Aude Sapere", or "Dare to be Wise." These literary societies served to promote debate and public speaking at Monmouth College. In 1867, the Amateur des Belles Lettres (ABL) and the Aletheorian joined forces with the two male societies to sponsor a lecture course which ran until 1878. In 1869 they once again worked together to finance and produce a monthly newspaper, the Courier. Since Monmouth College lacked a library on campus until 1902, these organizations created their own. The books, donated by society members, were used for background research of debate topics. The library also contained copies of those books required for class use. Shakespeare, Milton, Gibbon and theological authors figured prominently.

Meetings usually followed the same procedure every week: Call to order, devotional service, literary exercises, criticism, miscellaneous business, initiation of new members, adjournment. The centerpiece of every meeting was the literary exercises and debates, which often focused on important events of the day such as the desirability of universal compulsory education, or giving women the right to vote.

On a lighter note, both female societies held an annual "spread," of which the Monmouth College Ravelings from 1900 reported as:

an event to which every girl looks with real, genuine pleasure. A mystery, indeed, at which the boys can only guess, and wish for one evening, at least, that they were girls. ...Formerly this feast was enjoyed by both societies, on the same evening, but this year the Aletheorians grew impatient and gave their spread on November 18. The program was good, and immediately after they adjourned to enjoy a royal good time. After the spread, the girls paid the yearly call to the boy's societies.

The A.B.L. girls always have waited until the spring term, this year selecting February 3. All dates were canceled, all excuses withheld. The program was quickly passed over, then the chairs were moved back and fun? well, if noise and laughter are signs, fun was there. About 6 o'clock the music and singing cease, and anyone eavesdropping might have guessed that the spread was in progress. Before leaving, the girls visited the boys' societies and interrupted their programs one more night. Every girl is willing to admit that the very best thing in the whole society is the "spread."

As the above illustrates, another important aspect of these early literary societies was their function as a social outlet. They provided students with the opportunity to be a part of an organization which brought women of similar interests together and allowed them to interact both intellectually and convivially.

By 1928 the Amateur des Belles Lettres and the Aletheorian had disappeared from the Monmouth College campus. With the development of intercollegiate debate as a separate activity, as well as the legalization of local college fraternities and sororities in 1923, the programs and activities offered by these societies were superceded. Their importance to the early life of Monmouth College, however, could never be replaced.

Sources:

  1. Beth, Loren P. "Monmouth Literary Societies," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, 43, XLIII (1950), 120-136.
  2. Davenport, F. Garvin. Monmouth College: The First Hundred Years 1853-1953. Cedar Rapids, IA:Torch Press, 1953.
  3. Monmouth College Ravelings, 1900.

Contributing Library:

Hewes Library, Monmouth College, Monmouth, Illinois


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