The House of Mirth … at last

Edith Wharton, c. 1915. Wikimedia Commons.

Since finding out about the existence of the Woman’s Literary Club half a decade ago, I’ve been wondering what members of the club thought of one of my great literary heroes (I’m not going to call her a heroine), Edith Wharton.

As a jaded grad student in the 1990s, Wharton’s novel The House of Mirth (her first, published in 1905) was the only book I read that actually brought me to tears.

It was also a novel that challenged American literary history as it was viewed at the time. Back then, when people talked about American literature of the 1890s, they talked about the “Age of Realism” and “the big three”– Mark Twain, Henry James, and William Dean Howells–who supposedly exemplified its principles.* Entire courses were titled “Twain, James, Howells,” focusing just on these three writers. During the 1990s, Wharton muscled her way into this stalwart triumvirate. Now she is usually paired off with James on American literature syllabi; both are represented as novelists of consciousness and as prose stylists who bridged the divide between realism and modernism.

What, I wondered, did the women of the Club—elite, educated, and cultured contemporaries of Wharton—think of her? Were they scandalized by the fact that she divorced her husband? Or did they admire her for abandoning her stifling society life in New York for a life among fellow intellects in Europe? Did they wish to emulate her as a stylist? Did they recognize her as one? Did they share her ironic ambivalence about what Thorstein Veblen described in 1890 as the “leisure class”? Did they share her desire to validate female independence, female intellect? So many questions.

So imagine my delight when, in the midst of transcribing the 1905-1906 minutes (and slogging through the Recording Secretary Mrs. Philip Uhler’s curlicued handwriting), I encountered a review of The House of Mirth, offered as part of the program from the Committee on Current Criticism (Mrs. Percy M. Reese, Chairman) on Feb. 13, 1906. It was reviewed by Club member Miss L. M. Kirk. Mrs. Uhler wrote,

Miss Kirk spoke of the power and strength of the book and of the interest of its conversations. We were told of a young girl, who chiefly for want of money, drops out of the pale of society, loses her courage, and even, innocently, her reputation. There is much shown of weakness, of the want of moral training and self-control. After reading it, we were reminded that we can be glad that the “Smart Set” is a small set. But Mrs Wharton’s subjects do not run away from her, as Mrs [Humphrey] Ward’s sometimes do. “The House of Mirth” is called the book of the year, and has a great sale. Miss Kirk quoted a review of it from “Life,” which considered its heroine as not well-balanced, and not a cause for tears. Miss Kirk treated “The House of Mirth” as literature, rather than as pleasing or satisfactory.

Yep– that’s it. A rather cursory review of the so-called “book of the year.” But there are a couple of interesting things to be said. One is the obvious distance Miss Kirk places between the “Smart Set” (the cosmopolitan elite centered in New York City) and the women of the Club. Based on the tone, Kirk rather dismisses this group, known in the press as “The Four Hundred” (sort of like the Fortune 500, but primarily including the social elite rather than the elite of the business world).

It’s also significant, I think, that Kirk focuses on Lily Bart’s “weakness,” her “want of moral training and self-control.” Clearly, Miss Kirk did not read Lily’s demise as the result of societal forces, as the novel is predominantly read now. Kirk faults Lily for her demise; she finds nothing wrong with society itself. This complacency is in keeping with what we’ve seen with the Club throughout its early years.

But most of all, I’m intrigued by Miss Kirk’s judgment of the novel “as literature, rather than pleasing or satisfactory.” These distinctions– between literature, pleasure, and satisfaction– are ones that continue to differentiate those who consider themselves scholars, and those we might call “lay readers,” people who read for fun. Clearly, this Club saw themselves as litterateurs, not dabblers or pleasure readers.

And—based on her comments—it looks like The House of Mirth may have made Miss Kirk cry, too.

(As a side note, which may become the subject of a future post, the 38th annual convention of the National American Woman Suffrage Association was occurring just a few blocks away at exactly the same hour that the Club was meeting, but they made no mention of it in the minutes.)

* Note. In retrospect, it seems to me that the only reason why Twain was classified as a realist at all is because he was held up as one by his good friend Howells. Howells, too, was never able to fully adhere to realist principles, even though he played a large part in defining them.

Hurrah for volunteers!

We have a volunteer!

Cynthia contacted me about a month ago and asked if she could help us transcribe the WLCB records. (I said yes.) Though she’s retired now, she’s been volunteering at the Loyola/Notre Dame archives, and she heard about our project through Loyola’s archivist. It turns out that she was a curator at the Maryland Historical Society and processed the WLCB collection way back in 1975. That’s right: 1975!

Crazy how history moves in circles and repetitions … no?

Since we’ve gotten her set up, Cynthia’s been plugging away, transcribing the minutes from the 1901-1902 season. And her archivist brain has been leading her to sources that help confirm or elucidate what she’s been transcribing, which she’s been passing along to the team. It’s all been quite exciting.

This week, Cynthia sent me a link to the 1905-1906 Baltimore Blue Book (aka the “Society Visiting List”), which she noticed happens to include the complete WLCB officer & membership list. It did not even occur to me that the Blue Book would publish such a thing.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

One question we’ve been asked repeatedly about the Club is how many women belonged. Based on this list, the WLCB had 71 members during the 1905-06 season, and 15 honorary members (most of these were published authors). We also have wondered how the WLCB cultivated its membership and brought in new members. The fact that the entire membership list was published in the Blue Book shows that yes, belonging to the Club was seen as a worthy attainment for the upper crust—and those who aspired to rise to their level.

Perhaps most interesting to me, though, is what appears a few pages after the WLCB listing: the listing for the Daughters of the Confederacy—Maryland chapter.

1905-06 Society Visiting List, pages 456-457.

As several of the team members’ posts testified this summer, the white supremacist sentiments expressed by some of the members of the Club were a source of concern and dismay. We harbor suspicions verging on certainty that members of the WLCB were also members of the Daughters of the Confederacy, since many of them were born during the Civil War or in the years immediately surrounding it—but we have not had the chance to look into the DotC records (also at MDHS) to find out.

The Blue Book confirms that Mrs. Francis Dammann, a teacher at Boys’ Latin School and an active member of the WLCB during the early years of its existence, also belonged to the Daughters of the Confederacy. Not only that, she was an officer.

The Blue Book also provides an answer to another question that came up over the summer. At several points, the minutes mention another Baltimore literary society for women, the Arundell Club. We hadn’t had a chance to look into the history of this club, but the Blue Book brought the history to my eyes. A few pages before the WLCB entry, the Arundell Club also has a listing—which shows a much larger membership that includes many names I recognized from the early years of the WLCB. Most of them now belonged to the Arundell Club instead.

The numbers imply that the Arundell Club surpassed the WLCB in social cachet, at least. But were they actually in direct competition? I recalled reading in the minutes that the WLCB expressed the desire for both clubs to co-exist and thrive together, so I wondered if the two clubs defined themselves differently—carved out different niches for themselves, as it were.

I did a quick Google search and found an online copy of Jane Cunningham Croly’s History of the Women’s Club Movement in America (1898), a vast compendium of information about women’s clubs in the 19th century. And there, I discovered that Croly described both the Arundell Club and the WLCB in some detail.

If we’d only known in June when we started this project! Alas, this is so often how research goes—you find the source you need after you’ve figured out (mostly) what you wanted to know.

Croly tells us that the WLCB was founded before the Arundell Club, and so had the advantage of precedence. However, neither club had been in existence for more than a few years when Croly wrote her book.

Croly distinguishes between the two Clubs, highlighting the literary aims of the WLCB and the social, cultural, and philanthropic aims of the Arundell Club. She quotes at length from a June 1896 address from Francese Litchfield Turnbull—a real find, since the minutes book from 1896 has been lost. (In fact, we are missing minutes from the entire 1896-1899 period, so Croly’s book is especially valuable.)

Turnbull’s speech succinctly characterizes the aims and goals of the Club, at least as I’ve seen it reflected in the hundreds of pages of documents I’ve now read. She begins by reflecting on the name of the Club—the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore—which, we know, was decided after a great deal of deliberation. She asks:

“Does our title hold any hint that we are to strive tacitly, if not specifically, for some special good to woman in our literary work; that we are, in some sense, to uphold those qualities which are essentially womanly—not necessarily attributes of women only, nor sought for as differentiating them from men, but that we are to emphasize, as opportunity may offer here, those gifts and qualities which conduce to a nobler womanhood?”

She does not wait for an answer before continuing. “Then,” she says, “as a Woman’s Literary Club, this purpose should fix our point of view in our contact with literature.”

Croly then includes the following, verbatim:

The “modern need of the ideal” — that’s a nice turn of phrase. The need, in modern times, of the lofty aspirations of the past; and the need to apply the modern “precision of method” and “carefulness of study which realism has introduced into art” to bring hazy idealism into the sharp focus of the present. And the womanly attention to morality, beauty, and truth—coming out of the 19th-century Cult of Domesticity—governing all.

In contrast, the Arundell Club (whose president, Miss Elizabeth King, is pictured above) seemed to be a less “idealistic” organization, at least in Turnbull’s characterization of the word. They focused on philanthropy and social reform, on the one hand, and social activities, on the other. While the Arundell Club’s 300 members more than tripled the membership of the WLCB in 1898, Croly notes that the Literary Committee had just 25 members. So perhaps they ceded the literary ground to the WLBC. We should find out for sure, of course.

Regardless of the Arundell Club’s activities, Turnbull’s speech and the characterization of the WLBC in Croly’s book confirms for me what I and the rest of the Aperio team discovered this summer: the WLCB was, at least in its early years, a serious literary organization, not a social club. It was the kind of book club where the members actually read the books—and also wrote them.

And knowing that the Arundell Club took on the more social and philanthropic roles expected of women’s clubs of the time, I’m now willing to give the WLCB a bit of a pass on their decisions not to engage directly with “causes.” I wonder if the rest of the Aperio team will agree.

In the meantime, thanks to Cynthia for helping us—me, anyway!—answer some questions. She’s passed along lots of other discoveries, but I’ll save them for future posts.

Bmore Historic Unconference!

This past Friday, September 29th, Dr. Cole and I attended the Bmore Historic Unconference at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The Unconference’s mission is dedicated to “people who care about public history and historic preservation in and around Baltimore.” The group of people who fit this description and attended the unconference covered a wide range of ages and professions. I had never heard of an ‘unconference’ before, and the democratic system behind it was very interesting. Any participant could propose their own session and pitch it to all the other attendees at the start of the conference. Then, everyone had the chance to vote for whichever proposed sessions they were most interested in, and based on the results of the voting process, the conference organizers and leaders set up the session schedule that included the most voted-for programming. Each session also designated a note-taker, so the information discussed in each could be shared with all the attendees.

The main hall where the Unconference was held. Image from the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s website:

Dr. Cole proposed the session we wanted to give: “Scripto Transcription Session: Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore (1890-1920),” and it made it onto the schedule! Our initial plan was to spend the first few minutes of the 50-minute session giving an overview of the Aperio project, what we accomplished and learned over the summer, and our goals for the project moving forward. Then, we wanted to have attendees try their hand at transcribing a file containing some WLCB meeting minutes through the Scripto plugin on our Omeka site. Unfortunately, technical issues with the museum’s wifi made it difficult for everyone to do this, and we ended up talking a lot more about the details of the WLCB and the project than we had initially planned. Luckily, the people who came to our session were interested in more than just the process of transcription—we got a lot of great questions regarding the goals, demographics, and inner workings of the Club itself! Despite the internet issues, we were able to get people up and running and transcribing for us, and questions and discussion regarding the Club continued throughout this process.

A photo from the Bmore Unconference’s twitter (@bmorehistoric) of the transcription session we gave!

We also attended a very useful session right before ours about easy digital mapping techniques with Google Maps that will prove relevant in our own digital endeavors as we map Club members’ addresses over time. The final session we attended was an interesting discussion on how to best go about (if there is a ‘best way’) memorializing the sites in Maryland where lynchings occurred. There were also a myriad of other sessions we were unable to attend, covering topics including the recent removal of Baltimore’s Confederate monuments, Civil War history in general, Baltimore neighborhoods and their history, and museum and archival strategies. Overall, the Unconference was a fascinating experience! We got to share our own research and learn a great deal about others’ as well.

Wrap-up . . . and launch

So long, summer! Hello, fall!

The intrepid Summer 2017 Aperio team celebrated in style last Tuesday, commemorating the regular meeting day for the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore with a cold (but very classy) supper of relishes, salmon in aspic, a salad, chocolate and raspberry pie, and a cheese plate adorned with fresh figs and almonds. Chin-chin!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What did we accomplish? Over 10 weeks this summer:

  • 1700 pages of minutes transcribed
  • 5 notebooks of membership dues and lists, covering the entire 30 years of club existence, deciphered and organized into a spreadsheet showing who belonged when and where they lived;
  • 650+ programs (of ~1000) transcribed and entered into spreadsheet;
  • Domiciles of members from 1890-1895 plotted onto a huge 7’ x 7’ map recreated from the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps;
  • 42 blog posts, ranging from a few hundred to 2000 words each
Big Ass Map
A partial map of Baltimore in 1901, affectionately known as the “Big Ass Map.” For scale, the red thing in the lower part of the image is a computer mouse, placed at the Washington Monument. All the little red-orange dots are locations of members’ residences. I had to cut the map in two (down Charles St.) in order to get it into my car (rolled up).

It’s quite a body of work. But I won’t lie– we were a bit dismayed when we realized how much work is left to be done.

For one thing, we need to organize and put into a reasonably readable form all of the transcriptions we compiled this summer. For another, we need to make these documents accessible to the spring 2018 class that will be reading, editing, and analyzing these documents. Luckily, Clara will be doing an independent study with me this fall to do just that!

But the biggest body of work is to transcribe the remaining minutes— about 2400 pages’ worth. Based on the rate at which the team members were able to transcribe this summer (3 of the 5 team members spent the majority of their time transcribing minutes, while two focused on programs and the membership logs), we have somewhere in the neighborhood of another 800 hours of transcription left to go. If we can divvy up this labor among more hands, it will go faster.

Luckily, Friends School has come to the rescue! During both the fall and spring semesters, history teacher Josh Carlin’s senior seminar will be joining the team, transcribing documents and (I hope) continuing to blog about their discoveries. Clara, Hunter, and I met Elizabeth, Alex, and Sanny at Friends School last week and they have already started transcribing. We’ve created a special transcription site ( you can see what the minutes actually look like– as well as some of the finished transcriptions. We’ll be continuing to populate the site throughout the year with more things to transcribe and more completed transcriptions. And if you’d like to join us in this, let us know and we can add you to the team.

Hunter, Clara, & I met Sanny (pictured), Elizabeth, & Alex, our fall transcribers, at Friends School last week. They’re all in Josh Carlin’s senior seminar on archival transcription.

We are planning a crowd-transcription session at the Bmore Historic Unconference on Friday, Sept. 29. We’ll probably be there during at least the morning sessions if not all day. If you’re interested in Baltimore history, historic preservation, or museums, you should come. We’d love to see you there!

Meeting the Members—Henrietta Szold.

Over the past weeks, I have been looking at the members of the Club—who they are, where the lived—and finally I am able to say what some of them look like.

With the help of the Maryland Historical Society and their Portrait Vertical File Collection,  I have been able to find some images of the women from this club. For this blog post I wanted to focus on one in particular, Henrietta Szold.

Miss Szold was a member of the Club from 1890-1894. The picture below was taken while she was still a member of the Club in 1893. Born in 1860 to Rabbi Benjamin Szold, Miss Szold was the only Jewish member of the club, making her, to our knowledge, one of the only—if not the only—member who was non-christian.

Miss Henrietta Szold. Image taken at the Maryland Historical Society.
Miss Henrietta Szold. Image taken at the Maryland Historical Society.

Miss Szold’s wikipedia page (which I linked above) talks about her legacy as a Jewish Zionist and the founder of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. It also talks about the many different roles she played in the Jewish community from Jewish education and being the first editor for the Jewish Publication Society. In 1933 Miss Szold emigrated to Palestine and was a part of Youth Aliyah, an organization that helped to rescue more then 30,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany.

In 1945 Miss Szold passed away in one of the hospitals that she helped to found in Jerusalem. She is remembered around the world for the work that she did.

In the entire Wikipedia article about Miss Szold, it does not mention once that she was a member of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore. I think that because she was a member for such a short period of time, there was no mention of her membership. In general I think it is astounding that the ladies of the club let someone like Miss Szold in. These are women who have been known to hold discussions on why the Anglo-Saxon race is superior, as mentioned in Clara’s post. So the question must be posed, did Miss Szold leave once she realized the nature of the majority of the women in the Club, or was she asked to leave because of her religion?

Women like Miss Szold are few and far between in the Club, but it is important to try to find them and tell their story and also try to figure out their involvement in the Club. Miss Szold is remembered as a world renowned leader and activist but not as a member of the Woman’s Literary Club. We can only hope to bring recognition to the Club with the help of members such as Miss Szold.

Peaceful Politics?

As I continue to work on the 1900-1901 season surrounding the January 8th meeting I discussed in my last post, I’m still on the lookout for hints of reflection or change with regards to the turn of the century. The most notable minutes I came across the week before our Omeka workshop in the context of this particular concern were more about the state of the nation than the state of the Club.

The November 27th, 1900 meeting of the Club, led by the Committee on Current Topics, opened with an article by Mrs. Frederick Tyson on the 1900 presidential election. This presentation begins with some brief, pointed remarks on the progress made in America, and the world, in the closing century. She told the Club that reports about current events of this season in particular should be more comprehensive than they’ve ever been in the past, because now,

Events pass quickly, and we hear of them immediately. People know more, see more, travel far more rapidly and care for more things than they ever did before. In the olden times people going on what are now insignificant journeys, made their wills, and then took leave of their friends as if they did not expect to see them again.

While this is not the explicit declaration of change I was still holding out for, it’s at least something. It’s also reflective of the priorities and interests of the Club members–namely, travel advances, and being able to learn and see more through the collection of shared knowledge created by members with the privilege to travel (so, all of them).

These remarks led into Mrs. Franklin’s “comprehensive” breakdown of the recent US election, which was between Republican William McKinley and Democrat William Jennings Bryan. Her main focus was on how peacefully the election results (McKinley as victor) were accepted by the general public.

She thought that considering the excited feeling and intense interest that preceded it, it was gratifying to know that there was almost no disorder or trouble on the eventful day itself; and that the result was calmly accepted by both parties as the will of the people.

Again, this brief quotation reflects the ideals of the Club, and what aspects of current events they are interested in: consistency. McKinley entered his second term as President after this election, and that kind of calm retention of old power as the new century rolled in mirrors the Club’s own apparent attitudes. The rest of the article, instead of mentioning any kind of campaign or platform details, touched on how both candidates were “good Christian men” in their private lives. Mrs. Tyson closed her presentation on the election by mentioning the changes of the Democratic party; she said that though it used to be pro-expansion, in recent years it had become anti-expansionist, the most explicitly political statement in her entire speech.

While I’m sure the women of the Club had their own particular political leanings and opinions, Mrs. Tyson’s speech, despite touching upon major developments in information sharing, travel, and the presidency, seems fairly disinterested in actual politics. I’m wondering if this lack of discussion of election specifics during an allegedly “comprehensive” presentation has to do with the fact that these women could not vote. We’ve been talking a lot about the governing body of the Club recently, specifically about the idea that they were “practicing” governing and voting in their own setting since women of their time couldn’t vote or really participate in politics outside of the spaces they created for themselves. With that in mind, it’s odd to me that a segment of time set aside specifically to talk about current politics would not contain more in-depth discussion. So much of the Woman’s Literary Club of Baltimore’s work seems to be about establishing and proving themselves as capable, well-read, literary women with a solid governing body, so I would expect their political discussions to try to do the same work.

Documenting the only voting these women were allowed to take part in because they lived, and we continue to live, in a patriarchal society

Throughout the first three seasons, the Woman’s Literary Club has gone from a small gathering of women to a quite larger, established organization. It is easy to forget (as I am often guilty of) that this club of women is one of the first of its kind. During this period of history, there were not many clubs of only female participants, and certainly not many partaking in intellectual and cultural discussions. As the researcher who has taken over the first three seasons of the Club, I have had a very clear window into all that has taken place to establish the Club as an actual organization of women. At times, it has been tedious to transcribe all the voting the women have taken part in throughout the Club’s run, from voting on various Articles while establishing their Constitution, to voting on the membership of proposed women, it seems that nothing can take place within the Club without a vote.

Despite the tedious work that this sometimes presents, it is so so important to realize how monumental the act of voting is for these women. The Club is formed in 1890, nearly thirty years before women are allowed the right to vote in the United States. The Woman’s Literary Club is, for all members throughout the 1890-1920 lifetime of the Club, the only medium through which these women can assert their voices and opinions through voting. It is impossible not to wonder whether women being afforded more liberties within the United States has something to do with the disintegration of the Club.

It was not until I reached the third season of the Club that I noticed any serious dissent between the women in regards to voting. On October 11, 1892, at the 60th general meeting of the WLC, the women met to discuss and vote upon whether or not the Club should elect a Corresponding Secretary to the Board. To set the context, this is after Eliza Ridgely, the previous Secretary, stepped down from her position. Lydia Crane has taken over the role of Recording Secretary, but has refused to take responsibility for the correspondence part of the Secretary’s duties. Therefore, the topic has been broached to elect a Corresponding Secretary to act as a counterpart to Lydia Crane’s position of Recording Secretary. Eliza Ridgely has stressed on numerous occasions how necessary it is to have a Corresponding Secretary, which makes me think that Eliza stepped down from her role because it simply became too much work for one person to handle.

Several women proposed that a Corresponding Secretary be appointed by the President and act as the President’s assistant. However, Miss Edith Duer “made some very decided objections to the motion” which, in WLC speak, basically means shit went down. Edith Duer’s main objection was to the point about the Corresponding Secretary being appointed by the President–this comes after the President was declared to have power likened to a governor. Several women spoke in support of Edith, including my girl Eliza Ridgely, who said the Corresponding Secretary should be voted in just like everyone else (you go girl!). The vote was taken orally, was not super conclusive, so they took a standing vote–14 for, 14 against.

The women were then reminded that the President of the United States got to choose his own Cabinet, and the President piped up that it would be super helpful to the wellbeing of the future club if she could pick her assistant, because why wouldn’t she want more power?

Votes were then taken to amend the Articles on Officer Duties to split the duties of the Recording and Corresponding Secretaries, to allow the President to nominate several people for the position to be voted upon by the Club, and then to allow the President to nominate people for the position for the Club to vote upon by ballot. None of these votes ended in the two-thirds majority to be passed. The meeting took so long, it seems, that several women “left the room” and the President motioned to move this discussion to a different day. It took several meetings and many votes before it was eventually decided that the President could make nominations, but that the position would be filled by Club votes.

This is the first instance I have seen in which dissent amongst Club members has been documented. This vote, which really comes down to how much power the President should be afforded, is really a pivotal moment in the history of the Club. This is the moment where several women–Edith Duer, Eliza Ridgely, and others–spoke up to ensure that things were done fairly. Unfortunately, women with the mindsets of Edith and Eliza still had to wait nearly thirty years before their opinions mattered in actual votes.