1832, the year of New York University’s founding, also marked the establishment of two campus literary societies. There was the Philomathean Society and the Adelphic, which quickly renamed itself the Eucleian Society in 1833. The sixteen original students of this organization chose the name in honor of Eukleia, the Goddess of Repute, Glory, and War.
The Eucleian Society gathered every Friday evening on the 4th floor of the University Building at 100 Washington Square. It was an organization for students to improve their minds and wellroundedness in a way the University curriculum did not teach. The literary society was founded to help students achieve the Victorian ideal attributes of character and manliness. They trained themselves to read, think, and speak about current events both domestic and international. This came in the form of orations, debates, and poetry/prose readings. Debate was the most popular activity because as historian Louise Stevenson explains, “Oratory gave students not only knowledge of persuasion but also a sense of their future social and political role. They thought oratory linked their learning to public life” (164). During their one-hour weekly meetings, members would open with readings of essays and poems then listen to debates between other members who were assigned topics. The debates were often secular and linked to current issues, with discussions of such issues as the freedom of the penny press, immigration, and wealth. History was also a popular topic as it was not yet a standardized profession and therefore not discussed in university courses.
The second important function of the Eucleian Society was their library. Members were expected to present to the library one, if not more, volumes. In most universities restrictions on library books were extremely strict so often literary society collections were much more comprehensive and accessible than the universities’. At NYU students did not have a useful library and their only other option was to pay $5 to join the Mercantile Library by Astor Place containing over 25,000 volumes. Therefore, access to books was a prime motivator in joining the Eucleian Society. Membership was either active or honorary. Honorary membership was given to prominent figures not only to boost the society’s reputation but because even honorary members were expected to donate books and finances. Very detailed library catalogs were produced highlighting the society’s collection of biographies, histories, voyages, and novels. Their library grew even larger as a result of the intense rivalry with the Philomathean Society. Each wanted to have a bigger library than the other, which was useful in providing more books for its members, but also created a duplication of books in their libraries.
Since membership in both the Eucleain and Philomathean organizations was forbidden, there was constant competition for members. In the early years students were sometimes discovered to belong to both societies for which they were punished. Officers were highly coveted positions and they enforced the society laws strictly. Tardiness and disruptions during the weekly meetings were not tolerated and the Censor would impose fines for such offenses. The competition between the two societies lead to many joint debates. The debates between societies became even more intense in 1875 with the Intercollegiate Literary Association. It created the opportunity for debates between NYU, Cornell, Rutgers, Williams, Princeton, and Lafayette. On January 7, 1875 the first competition was held at the Fourteenth Street Academy of Music, at which, NYU performed well.
However with the advent of an Intercollegiate Literary Association came the advent of intercollegiate sports. Originally the Eucleian and Philomathean Societies were the only extracurricular activities, enjoying a full monopoly on the students’ time. Yet in the post-Civil War period sports and other clubs became popular and membership declined. Additionally there was a change in the university’s library and curriculum mentality. In 1876 the American Library Association formed and the United States Bureau of Education conducted a survey entitled “Public Libraries in the United States”. It not only included public libraries but those of colleges and literary societies. This both drew attention to the Eucleian’s library and marked the beginning of a movement for the improvement of libraries nationwide. Curriculum changes made public speaking a more integrated part of university curriculum and the development of “majors” turned the focus towards profession-based learning.
However, the Eucleian Society hung on past the Philomathean’s demise in 1888 by turning their focus away from oratory towards the written word. In the 20th century the Eucleian Society sporadically published their own magazines including the Knickerbocker from 1900-1901, and two humor magazines entitled The Medley and The Geyser from 1913-1916. It seems the society survived on interest from an 1877 donation of $2,500 by A. Ogden Butler. However, the decline of the society was complete by 1942, the last time it is mentioned in the Palisades Handbook.
Thomas Frusciano, New York University and the City, (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
Thomas Harding, College Literary Societies, (New York: Pageant Press, 1971).
J.W. Hudson, The History of Adult Education, (London: Woburn Press, 1960), 218.
Louise Stevenson, “Preparing for Public Life: The Collegiate Students at New York University 1832-1881” in The University And The City, ed. Thomas Bender, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).