Webb Essay: Researching A Century of Education for American Women

Sheila Webb, Western Washington University

My work on the Delphian Society is one example of my long-standing research interests which have been devoted to periodicals and their role in American life and culture. Entrée into new research topics may follow many routes: aspects of previous research one wants to further explore, areas in previous research that sparked a new path, or serendipity that leverages previous topics.

My article, “The Delphian Society and Its Publications: A Historical and Cultural Analysis of a Primer for Middle-Class Women’s Education” (Journalism History, June 2019) came about serendipitously. I met a collector who, based on my interest in women’s history and suffrage journals in the early 20th c., asked me if I had ever heard of the Delphian Society. I had not! He had a set of volumes published by the Society which he was kind enough to give me. As I looked through them, I became more and more intrigued.

The Delphian Society

The Society was at the juncture of adult-education history, women’s history, and media history. Named after the ancient Greek sanctuary and home of the oracle, the Society was founded in Chicago in 1910 to educate women in the great ideas of Western society so they could become productive and knowledgeable citizens. Through organized chapters throughout the United States, in towns and most large cities, the Delphians promoted the study of culture, personal improvement, and social progress. Following the Society’s meeting guidelines and discussion tips, women gathered twice monthly to discuss great ideas as framed by the Society’s publications. The entire “course” took six years to complete, a considerable investment of time and effort, especially in an age when many did not finish grammar school. By 1929, 2,000 chapters had been established throughout the United States, with numbers increasing each year; by mid-century, 4,000 chapters were active.

The volumes were evidence of the push for adult education in the Progressive Era, and they took that push further into countless homes across the United States. The material was written by the most esteemed scholars, university presidents, and museum directors of the day. It was thus a compilation of what was considered the canon of the time. Also intriguing were the accompanying study guides which assisted the discussion groups in conducting the meetings. Being able to access these discussion guides provided me a path to pair the educational material, which identified the themes and trends the editors deemed worthy, to interpreting how the editors framed what they considered essential knowledge.

The Society was a ripe topic to explore due to its reach and comprehensiveness, its role in educating women at a time coinciding with suffrage, and the insight the Society’s publications offered as a compilation of what was considered essential to know. As I researched information about the Society and its publications, it became clear that, despite its resonance, nothing had been published on either the Society or its publications.

Research Process

I looked for any library or university collections that might contain primary materials on the Society. An examination of meeting minutes and group records of three archives—the Elfrida J. Pedersen Scandinavian Archives at the University of Washington; the San Jose State University Special Collections and Archives, which keeps the records of the San Jose Delphian Study Club; and the Chicago Public Library—provided additional background. Chicago was a promising potential source of information, as the company was founded by the Brown family in Chicago and was centered there for decades. Supported by a grant from Western Washington University’s Research and Sponsored Programs, I visited the Chicago library which held copies of the volumes, but I hoped to also access memos, letters, etc. there. The material was not annotated, but I was able to find business memos and to identify the address of the company. Unfortunately, the company closed some decades ago, the address was no longer viable, and efforts to reach the family member who supposedly took the company files did not pan out.

Because few sources exist that offer testimony about the role of the society in women’s lives in the 1910s and 1920s, perforce, I focused on the editorial/production side by analyzing numerous statements made in the company’s various publications about education and the role of women. I also conducted a textual analysis not only of the 29 volumes devoted to culture, art, history, architecture, literature, drama, and music, but also of the company’s promotional/educational materials.

The study is buttressed by ethnographic information: I had the great luck to be able to lean on Abbey Brewer, the archivist of the Houston chapter, the last remaining chapter of the Society. She shed light on the relationship of the two sets of instructional materials, the first published in 1910, the second in the 1920s. She also provided information on the history of the Society and the make-up of the participants, and she offered insight into the Society and the Houston Chapter.

Narratives of Education

The completed article examines the publications of the Delphian Society and describes the 1910 historical backdrop in which the society was founded. It analyzes the importance of the adult-education and self-culture movements and places the Delphian publications within the progressive milieu and the development of women’s clubs. These publications were unique in the era, as no other texts, institutions, or organizations were devoted to women’s education at the highest level or fostered deliberative social interaction and civic advancement. The study identified an understudied organization and considered how its publications provided education to adult women at a moment in history when their roles in American social and civil life changed dramatically. The textual examination showed the construction of an imagined community and the function of the society as a cultural intermediary.

The Delphian Society’s publications, course format, and organizational structure were in conversation with a certain form of nation building, specifically regarding the “ideal” citizen-subject. The study makes ties to foundational citizenship narratives, including Republican Motherhood and the “ideal” citizen, both of which embodied the notion that educating women would aid in maintaining a stronger republic.

This analysis of the Delphian Society shows the myriad ways in which education is far from a neutral process, as well as how the practice of nation building occurs in and through individuals on a local scale. A study of the Delphian Society and its publications offers insight into a unique vehicle of early to mid-century adult education specifically directed to women. The length of its tenure is impressive and is a testament to the social and community aspect of its chapters.

The intriguing way in which the society experimented with pedagogical models, and in which it shared those experiments with its members, is evidence of the society’s need to have its members “buy in” to its approach. Yet it also shows the level of respect it afforded its members by sharing with them its pedagogical adjustments. The open discussion of methods also speaks to the rich environment of adult learning in the Progressive Era and later. Among all of the competing models of the time, including Chautauqua, self-study, and Cosmopolitan University, it managed not only to survive but also to make a profit, and its spirit and publications continue to engage women today.

A Century of an Educational Community

I have been particularly taken with exploring new media forms, along with the surrounding cultural factors that led to new media forms being accepted and adopted. This thread unites my publications, be it on the early years of Life, the first America pictorial; reader comments on Gawker, the first successful blog company; or the Reiman publications, in particular Taste of Home, a model of reader-submitted content which prefigured the internet. My article on the changing narratives in Woman Citizen, which launched just before women won the right to vote, examined how women leveraged a media source to enter the public sphere. This article on the Delphian Society continues that broader research focus, as it documents both the foundational years of the company as well as its decades of success. Thus, in this case, the examined time frame extended over many decades, into the present day.

1 Comment

  1. My grandmother was a charter member of the Tulsa OK chapter of the Delphian Society. I would like to know more about the history and if there are still any active chapters. Thanks. Anne Mockley O’Shea


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