Early History: Literary and Debating Societies
From the beginning, literary societies were part of the culture of the Western University. The first catalog printed for the newly charted institution in 1822 stated that, “with a view to encouraging oratory and general literature, your committees further suggest that it would be highly proper to encourage one or more societies, in the University, such as are usual, and so eminently beneficial in other colleges.” These student societies did much to promote literature, oratory and composition in an era before English had departmental status.
The oldest student club was the Thespians, organized in the Pittsburgh Academy around 1810 and disbanded in 1833 by order of the faculty, who were scandalized that the students had replaced Shakespeare with “modern vulgar comedies.”
In 1821, students from the Western University of Pennsylvania organized the Tilghman Literary Society in honor of William Tilghman, Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and a friend of the university. Every year, from 1821 to 1844, the members met to eulogize the chief justice “in speeches flowery but sincere.”
The Pittsburgh Philosophical and Philological Society was organized in 1827 by university alumni and fifteen clerks from mercantile houses in the city. It acquired eighty-four members in ten years. William W. Irwin, then the mayor of Pittsburgh, erected a building for the use of the club. Two debates were staged in 1827: “Are Critical Reviews Injurious to the Advancement of Literature?” and “Was the Chivalry of the Middle Ages Calculated to Improve the Moral Character of the World?”
George Woods served as fifth Chancellor of the University from 1855 to 1880. He gave primary attention to engineering and the sciences, and these programs grew substantially under his leadership. According to Starrett, “Except within the three literary societies, which flourished under faculty presentation, little attention was paid to the study of English literature or composition.” At this time there was a student-run College Journal and three literary societies:
- The Philomathean Literary Society, which collected a library of 325 volumes, including an English encyclopedia, Irving, Lamb, Leigh Hunt, several histories, Macaulay, Dickens, and the English and American poets.
- The Irving society, which also had a substantial library. The president of the Irving Society was John Milton Duff, “whose hair is buff and who never opens his mouth except at meals.” Duff became a physician and was Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Western Pennsylvania Medical School.
- The Franklin society, which was founded in 1879 and devoted primarily to elocution. Student-delivered speeches included such topics as “Wits of Queen Anne’s Day,” “Is a Limited Monarchy to be Preferred to a Democracy?” and “The Pleasures of Memory.”
A Pittsburgh Exchange
Agnes Lynch Starrett’s history of the university, Through One Hundred and Fifty Years: The University of Pittsburgh, lists this diary entry by Charles B. Scully, class of 1837:
Tuesday, March 29th —At 12 noon a remarkable event, a thing I never expected happened today. Went to the Exchange Hotel and was shown up to room No. 12, and on announcing our name to Mr. Putnam and Mr. D’Almaine, was introduced to Mr. Charles Dickens, the greatest author of our age. He gave us a cordial handshake. I wished him welcome and he thanked me most politely. I was then introduced to Mrs. Dickens, who very easily and in a friendly manner reached out her hand. I took a seat beside her and spoke of her fortune in having such good weather. She said this was a remarkable country of ours and she delighted in it. I told her she would admire its vastness even more when on the broad waters of the Ohio and the Mississippi. She hoped she would not be too nervous, as she was alarmed at the dreadful accidents upon our rivers from boiler explosions. I recommended her to take a boat with Evans’s safety valves, and she said she would.