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Student life, 1840s-style

February 6, 2013

It’s the spring semester on college campuses. Facebook feeds are filling up with photos of smiling young people who have rushed their favorite sororities and fraternities, but what was student life on campus like before the rise of Greek organizations? The staff at the Indiana University Archives has been answering this question with Student Life at IU, a multimedia project designed to depict and describe the cultural, social, and political activities of students during their time at IU. 


It’s a fascinating and wide-ranging project, including in-depth coverage of  IU Student Life and Culture in the 19th Century. This exhibit reaches back to the mid-1800s, when tuition was around $20 to $25 and “good boarding” was available at “prices to suit the hard times.” The online exhibit also focuses on the 19th-century literary societies that were “as necessary to student life as sports and fraterernities and sororities came to be in the 20th century.”

The Athenians and the Philomatheans became the dominant literary societies on campus. The IU Archives has been digitizing the records of these rival societies, providing an instructive and entertaining look at what life was like for IU’s early students. As members of these literary societies, students practiced public speaking and writing through orations, essays, and debates. The societies held contests in which members would read or recite. Here’s an excerpt from an 1845 letter, written by Homer Wheeler, an IU student from 1844-1846, who was a member of the Philomathean Society. Evidently, his Monday night oration on March 26, 1845 met with an Assembly-Hall like reception:

 “The exhibition of the Philomathean Society took place last monday [sic] evening and came off with thundering applause, and is acknowledged to be the best performance that was ever had in the rostrum of the Indian[a] University, …When I took my seat–the house jarred with stamping of feet.

Wheeler’s membership in the Philomatheans also seems to have met his social needs:

I have lived very reserved since I have been here, and very few individuals unconnected with the college were acquainted with me:–but all know me now and faces almost strange call me “Mr Wheeler”…Last evening after the exhibition a chosen company proceeded to the house of professor Wylie where a table of the richest viands was served up by the professor and his wife. We spent the remainder of the evening and one hour of the morning very pleasantly, and then dispersed…You may think by this that I am getting to be a galant [sic]–but it is not so. This is the first party that I have attended since I have been in Bloomington and till last night was unacquainted with every girl in town except one.”

By the turn of the century, literary societies had waned and were being replaced by the fraternities and sororities that remain active on campus to the present day. To learn more about more about student life gone by, visit the Student Life at IU website and the IU Archives blog.