MS - 006: Papers of the Philomathaean and Phrenakosmian Societies

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MS - 006: Papers of the Philomathaean and Phrenakosmian Societies

(27 boxes, 10.94 cubic feet)

Inclusive Dates: 1831-1924

Processed by: Melodie Foster & Christine M. Ameduri

March 2000

Link to Full Finding Aid - PDF


The papers of the Philomathaean and Phrenakosmian Societies were given to the College when the societies disbanded in 1924.

Agency Sketch:

In the mid- to late nineteenth century, literary societies were an important part of college life. Committed to moral and intellectual pursuits, they were seen by faculty as a supplement to regular studies, and many campuses founded two to foster competition. The Philomathaean and Phrenakosmian Societies were founded on February 4, 1831 at the Gettysburg Gymnasium and carried over into Pennsylvania College in 1832.

Membership was open to all students of the College and the Theological Seminary and to all preparatory students over twelve (later raised to fifteen). Faculties were granted honorary membership in both societies, an honor also bestowed by invitation upon men of note in nearby cities. The societies were each given a hall and library room on the fourth floor of the new College building in 1837 and 1839 which were moved to the New Recitation Building in 1889 and 1890.

Members were required to compose and present essays at weekly meetings in addition to participating in the annual inter-society contests that included essays, oration and debate. The purpose of the two societies always remained centered on improvement in these areas, but was altered over the years to include the fostering of friendship, moral and liberal principles, and a mastery of parliamentary procedure. The societies sponsored speakers and founded libraries whose collections rivaled the College’s own and were, in many cases, more relevant to the curriculum. The use of the books was a privilege granted to members only.

Though membership remained high into the twentieth century, the societies saw a decline in popularity after the 1870s. The arrival of fraternities and the YMCA and increased social emphasis on athletics and dramatics drew students away from the strictly intellectual pursuits of the literary societies. The issue of saving the societies came up frequently in student publications between 1900 and 1910, but the final verdict was that they had changed too little since their formation in 1831 and no longer fit into campus life. The Phrenakosmian and Philomathaean Societies were officially disbanded at a joint meeting in the spring of 1924. Their meeting rooms and libraries were turned over to the College.

Series Description 

The collection is divided into three Series. Series I:  Philomathaean Society, Series II: Phrenakosmian Society, and Series III: Inter-society. Each Series is arranged into categories: Constitution, Recording Secretary, Accounts, Library, Correspondence, Activities and Miscellaneous.

Scope and Content Notes:

The bulk of the collection consists of the official record books of the two societies and their libraries. Constitutions, minute books, account books and library circulation records cover the period 1831-1924 (with gaps). There are several library catalogues, arranged both alphabetically and numerically. Also included are correspondence spanning the societies’ years of existence in the form of letters received and copies of letters sent, and evidence of society activities including event programs, debating topics, and copies of essays, poems and addresses delivered before the societies.

Series III consists of inter-society correspondence from 1852-1890, programs of inter-society contests held between the 1830s and 1914, a bound volume of speeches given before the societies and a typed report of the Joint Committee on the Betterment of the Societies. 

Link to Full Finding Aid - PDF