Refinement and Romance

Chapter 5: Deerfield Salons for Men and Women

chapter illustration

This page from the recorded minutes of Deerfield's Young Ladies Literary Society shows the vote for a question about women and science. More topics and their votes can be found in both the Artifacts and Documents and Special Features sections. Image courtesy of Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association Library.

As the eastern states became more settled, many Americans yearned for greater refinement and intellectual polish. Small societies for learning and discussion sprang up in towns and villages across New England to consider philosophical issues. Such groups were usually separated by sex, just as schools were. Some groups took their educational mission so earnestly that they recorded the topics and their votes on each one.

Edward was a member of a small society of Deerfield gentlemen who met weekly in private homes and called themselves the Society of Literary Adelphi. Their choice of a classical Greek word ("adelphi," meaning brother or sibling) shows their lofty aspirations. The society was a useful connection for Edward to the leading families of the town, some of whom were Deerfield Academy trustees. He gained practice in clear argument and public speaking, which helped him later when he was a minister preaching from the pulpit, a college professor in the classroom, and a lecturer on the lyceum circuit.

Meanwhile, Orra was an active member of the town's Young Ladies Literary Society. Without the presence of men to make them self-conscious, women discussed various literary and social questions. One night, the topic was, "Would a spontaneous production of the fruits of the earth contribute to the happiness of man?" True children of Puritan tradition that they were, the answer at the end of the night was "Negative." Another night, "Do novels produce more evil than good?" was voted in the "affirmative", which means the ladies agreed that novels do produce more evil than good. But when the question was, "Is the curiosity of the sexes equal?", the meeting minutes say "Decided in the Affirmative". 

One evening, the topic was whether young women should “endeavour to excell in the sciences.” There is no record of Orra's reaction when, after much discussion, the young ladies voted “Negative,” but perhaps it spurred her to invent other ways to engage the interest of her students in her classroom.

Next chapter: The Love Notes

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