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Calhoun literary society archival photo

From the archives

Rediscovering Wofford's Literary Societies

Occasionally friends of Wofford might hear a reference to the college’s literary societies or to student debates in years gone by. Perhaps someone’s grandfather or great-grandfather had a program or document from the Preston Literary Society or the Calhoun Literary Society. But what were these societies? What did they do and when did they exist?

The literary societies passed out of existence in the early 1950s, but for a century, they played an important role in student life at the college. The Calhoun Literary Society, the first society, was founded less than two months after the college opened. Eight students met to organize the society in September 1854. They chose to name themselves after the most famous South Carolinian of the 19th century, John C. Calhoun. Four years later, students organized a second society, this one named after another South Carolina political leader of the day, Sen. William C. Preston.

The two societies held weekly meetings, which were run in accordance with parliamentary procedure. Members were responsible for participating in a weekly debate, and each meeting featured orations by individual members. These debates and speeches were judged by other society members. Fines for tardiness, absences or missing the spittoon could be steep. The practice that students received in their speaking and writing skills was so important that by the early 1870s, the faculty made membership in a society mandatory.

Beyond being debating clubs, the societies had other responsibilities. They provided the marshals and committees for a number of campus events, lectures and receptions. Their debates and annual addresses helped give structure to Commencement season activities. Each society began to collect portraits of founders and faculty members, and these helped start the college's permanent art collection. Each society also began a library for the use of its members, and many of these volumes are part of the library’s special collections today. In 1889, the societies started the Wofford College Journal, the literary magazine, and in the next 25 years, they also started the Bohemian and the Old Gold and Black, all of which are still published by students today.

In 1905, the student body had grown to the point that a third society, the Carlisle Literary Society, was organized, and in 1920, a fourth, the Snyder Literary Society, was created. However, distractions began to draw student interest away from literary debates and toward other modes of entertainment. By 1935, the faculty did away with mandatory membership, and within 20 years, the societies had ceased to exist.

You can learn more about the literary societies by visiting the Sandor Teszler Library Gallery through the end of May. A number of ledgers, books, photographs and other artifacts of the four literary societies are on display there. There’s more on the From the Archives blog as well at blogs.wofford.edu/from_the_archives.

By Dr. Phillip Stone ’94, archivist