Learning in the Nineteenth Century

How many of you have ever been part of a book club?

I’ve never officially belonged to a book club, but spending many years in higher education, especially graduate school, showed me what it was like to sit in a small group and talk about what we have (or at least were supposed to) read. Well, did you know that participating in a book club is participating in a tradition that has been around for centuries?

That’s right, your book club (or the Whaley House book club if you are choosing to join us) has roots in ideas about continuing education that have been around since the decades following the American Revolution. Once all of the political upheaval settled and America jumped into the era known as the Early Republic (1786-ish until about the War of 1812) the principle of self-improvement became important for everyone ranging from the working class to the wealthy. Members of various craft guilds and fraternal organizations formed environments where learning could take place, while the men at the top of social ladder formed their own literary societies and groups such as the American Philosophical Society. These groups allowed for an exchange of ideas and the cultivation of social morals (how to treat people and act in public) in an era when the printing, publishing, and distribution of books and other media forms was difficult. People continually got together, at regularly scheduled intervals, to discuss books and ideas! Yay learning!

So let’s fast forward to the last half of the century!

Even though it was easier for books to be printed and transportation connected cities to smaller towns, people still came together to learn outside of the walls of a school! In addition to literary societies and other educational groups, visiting museums became a popular past time! Prior to this wealthy individuals may have a room filled with curiosities they had collected over the years to intrigue visitors. Some governmental institutions also created museums (the first was the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, which was founded in 1773), but now museums were springing up in many American cities and many people were visiting them in their new-found leisure time. Women were also founding their own institutions of learning in the arts and other forms of culture and the humanities.

So, as you can see in this nutshell history lesson, book clubs have a long history in the United States. They provided social connections and outlets for curiosity in an age when official institutions of learning (schools, colleges, etc.) were new or exclusive to certain parts of the population. Today they remain strong in various parts of society because, after we’re done with school it’s fun to find people we can connect with over a common interest.

So, if you’re looking for a good book club, stop by the Whaley House at 6:30 on January 30th for a fun discussion of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. Did I mention I’ll provide refreshments, because I will!



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