Book Club Records Provide A Window Into Women’s Social History

[This blog post comes from Gwen Thomas Mays, Organization Records Archivist.]

The organization records at the State Archives of North Carolina include collections from various clubs, committees, sororities, fraternities and lodges, patriotic societies, lineage societies, professional associations, veterans associations, and special interest groups.  Clubs form around a variety of interests, including books, gardening, politics, and music, just to name a few, as well as for purely social reasons.  The records at the Archives from several women’s book clubs covering over 100 years, show us not only what women have been reading from the late 19th century to the present, but also what they care about, think and talk about, and act on.

In the 1890s, women’s book clubs sprang up across the country.  Generally meeting in each other’s homes, these clubs often met every other week on a weekday afternoon, sometimes hearing a paper presented on an important topic of the day, followed by some discussion, and ending with refreshments provided by the hostess.  Membership was usually limited to a number chosen by the charter members, and acceptance into the club was voted on by the membership.  In North Carolina, there were several Tuesday Afternoon Book Clubs in various towns across the State, and there were several Thursday Afternoon Book Clubs as well.

The organization records at the State Archives include records from the Anna Jackson Book Club in Lincolnton, the Fortnightly Review Club, O. Henry Book Club, Olla Podrida Club, Round Table Club, and Tuesday Afternoon Book Club all in Raleigh, and the Thursday Afternoon Book Club in Laurinburg.  The oldest of these, the Anna Jackson Book Club, was formed in 1894 and named for Mary Anna Morrison Jackson, Mrs. Stonewall Jackson, who was a Lincoln County native.  The club’s constitution states, “Its object shall be the mutual improvement of its members in literature, art, science, and the vital interests of the day.”  The Club made contributions to many worthy causes and was deeply interested in the local library, to which they presented 100 books.

The city of Raleigh has enjoyed many book clubs, and in 1899 the Fortnightly Review Club and the Olla Podrida Club were founded.  From the first page of the minutes for the Fortnightly Review Club we read, “This Club was organized with the desire of bringing together congenial friends for mutual pleasure and profit.  But especially that we may do a little work together for our literary advancement and culture.”  Olla Podrida, which means a hodgepodge, a miscellaneous mixture, a medley, chose their name to reflect their wide ranging interests and openness to a variety of topics.  Although its charter members were all leaders in the city’s civic and charitable organizations, it was understood that the Olla Podrida Club would not undertake any special projects.

The Thursday Afternoon Book Club of Laurinburg, has been called Scotland County’s oldest social club for women.  About a dozen women, led by Miss Julia Stewart, decided in 1899 to organize a club with the objective of fostering the appreciation of good books and other aspects of cultural life.  Organized the following year, the Club included 22 charter members, a total which has been maintained throughout the years.          In accordance with the constitution, the Club meets the second and fourth Thursdays of each month, with no meetings in June, July, or August.  Each member buys a book of her choice to pass to every other member.  Books rotate twice a month, and the Club enjoys a variety of fiction and non-fiction books as well as poetry on occasion.  Through annual dues, the club is able to donate a book to the local library every year.

The Tuesday Afternoon Book Club of Raleigh (TABC) was organized in 1903 by Mrs. J. S. Wynne and Mrs. Franklin McNeill, largely as a neighborhood group.  Residing in Raleigh, NC, around Blount Street and Peace College, the women had in common a “yen to study Shakespeare.”  With a limited membership of 18, the club met first in the home of Mrs. T. N. Ivey on Halifax Street.

The TABC is thought to be Raleigh’s fourth oldest club, following behind the Johnsonian, founded in 1895, and the previously mentioned Olla Podrida and Fortnightly Review Clubs.  For most of its history, the TABC has been informal with few rules, officers serving in rotation, hostesses presenting programs and serving refreshments, occasional guest speakers, and over the years the club has supported in tangible ways the Olivia Raney Library and the D. H. Hill Library at North Carolina State University. 

The O. Henry Book Club of Raleigh was organized in the fall of 1923 for the purpose of studying “various literary and cultural subjects.”  It was named in honor of William Sydney Porter, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina and a noted short story writer.  The first meeting was held at the home of Mrs. Paul E. Davis, with nine charter members.  In 1925 the membership was limited to twenty.  The Club has averaged seventeen meetings a year, between the months of September and May.

The Round Table Club held its first meeting at the home of Mrs. Reynolds in 1927 in Raleigh, NC.  The object of the Club is the study of subjects which will give its members a wider knowledge and keener appreciation of all that interests the woman of the day.  Any woman residing in the community who is interested in the work of the Club and is willing to assume the duties shall be eligible for membership, the membership being confined to twenty active members. 

Each club reflects the interests and personalities of its members.  Some are light-hearted social gatherings; others choose more serious, intellectual pursuits.  The membership of each must change over time, with long-standing members leaving and new members taking their place.  But the importance of these clubs to these women remains constant, as reflected in the fact that some have been meeting consistently every other week, through times of war and peace, social and political upheaval, good weather and bad, for more than a century.