How long do you think book clubs have been meeting? Five years? Fifty years? Would you be surprised if I told you no less than 194 years?
Early in 1816 a dozen ladies met in Colchester, Connecticut to form a reading class. Eliza L. Bulkley, Clarrissa Bigelow, Ann E. Bigelow, Sarah Clark, Frances A. Cleaveland, Mary E. Coggeshall, Susan Foote, Lucy Foote, Sarah T. Isham, Eliza Isham, Caroline Watrous, and Sarah Wells were “desirous of informing [their] minds in religious and literary knowledge” and formed a class, “for the purpose of social reading.”
The group met on Wednesdays at 2:00 PM for two hours, with a break in the middle. A President presided over each meeting, chosen in alphabetical order. She would then select the readers for the week. An additional job was note taker. The notes would be reviewed at the beginning of the next meeting. New members had to be approved by two-thirds of the group. Each meeting’s reading would be “under the superintendance & direction of the Revd. Salmon Cone and David A. Sherman.”
Over the course of several weeks the ladies read selections from Priestley’s Lectures on History. Next was The Campaign in Russia, which they read between March and May. Over the summer the reading selections were about famous ladies in history, including Lady Jane Grey, Great Britain’s Queen Mary, and the Countess of Warwick. The History of England was the topic for the last entries in the volume.
Each entry begins by noting where the class met (generally at the home of the President’s father or husband), the name of the President, and the names of the readers. Any new members were mentioned as well. The remainder of each entry summarized the reading. Note takers never recorded their opinions of the reading or whether there was any discussion on the topic.
As wonderful as this manuscript is, I find myself with numerous questions. Did they have food during the break? If so, what was served? Did they like what they were reading? What were their ages? Did mothers bring babies with them? What in 1816 qualified as a “good and sufficient reason” to miss a meeting?
The final entry in the volume is dated October 23. There is no indication as to whether the group disbanded or if they switched to a new notebook. Regardless, it is a wonderful glimpse into the social lives of women in the early nineteenth century.
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