University of Rochester Library Bulletin: The Delphic and Pithonian Societies

Volume IV  ·  Autumn 1948  ·  Number 1
The Delphic and Pithonian Societies

The University of Rochester opened its doors in the old United States Hotel on the first Monday of November, 1850. On the afternoon of the preceding Saturday, a few students were already looking to their extracurricular activity. Before adjourning, they had taken the initial steps toward the formation of the Delphic Literary Society for the "promotion of the literary improvement of its members." At about the same time, another group of University of Rochester students was forming the Pithonian Literary Society. Its aim was, like that of its rival society, to afford opportunity to its members for the development of the arts of writing and public speaking. Both groups shared the responsibility of securing orators for annual Junior Exhibitions and for other important public meetings.

Following adoption of a constitution and bylaws by the society, these were then submitted to the faculty for approval. A committee was appointed by each society to confer with the faculty with regard to the admission of new members.

Although membership in either society was by invitation and subject to a favorable vote of two-thirds of the members, no one having an interest in the ends of the society seems to have been rejected. The college literary societies of this period have sometimes been compared to our modern collegiate social fraternities, and it is true that the competition for new members of rival societies like the Delphic and Pithonian was in some respects comparable to present-day rushing practices. But there was at least this difference between the literary societies and modern fraternities: the membership of the literary societies comprised nearly the whole student body, excepting those few who had no interest in belonging to a literary society. The membership of the Delphic Society numbered forty-eight in the Spring term of 1851. No figure is available for the membership of the Pithonian Society, but the two groups were usually of approximately the same size. The total enrollment of the University at this time was eighty-two. Thus, the membership of the two societies must have comprised the whole, or very nearly the whole, student body.

The Pithonian Society dedicated its room on January 10, 1851. Invitations to the exercises were extended to the entire college.

The Rochester Daily Democrat reported:

Their hall is most tastefully decorated. The carpets, rostrum, lamps, chairs, reading desk, etc., are suitable and beautiful. The dedicatory exercises were highly interesting…After the regular exercises were over, there was a running fire of wit and wisdom from Messrs. Dewey, Raymond, Richardson, Smith, Conant, General Gould, Everard Peck, Esq., Sage, Wilder, and others. The beautiful and good goddess Pytho having been duly installed, the assembly separated, delighted with the evening's entertainment and the future prospects of the University of Rochester.

A similar dedication was held by the Delphic Society on the evening of January 30, 1851.

Meetings were held regularly every Saturday morning during the academic term. Parliamentary procedure was scrupulously observed, following Cushing's Manual. The prescribed order of exercises was: (1) Roll call, (2) Prayer, (3) Literary exercises, (4) Miscellaneous business.

The "literary exercises" were of two general types, each held on alternate meetings: these were formal debates on the one hand, and orations and essays on the other. Meetings lasted three to four hours, most of which time was spent in hearing orations on "The Relation of the Religious to the Poetic Nature in Man," "Truth and Its Advancement," "Conscious Immortality, Its Influence on Intellectual Efforts," and like subjects. The following paragraphs, quoted from one of the Delphic orations, are typical:

Woman! how incomprehensible! Who can portray her character truthfully? Who can unfold the hidden mysteries of her soul? At times changeful as the shadow of April clouds that chase each other over the plain; again fixed as the storm-beaten rock.

Though despised and forsaken, however cruelly maltreated by him who should be her protector, - she still loves, remembering those halcyon days, when first in the spring-tide of life, in the hope and promise of youth, she gave her spotless affections to him who has proved so unworthy. To love is to be woman...

The formal debates were no less serious in content. The minutes of the Society record questions for debate, such as, "Is the Advancement of Civil Liberty More Indebted to Mental Culture than to Physical Suffering?" "Is Popularity a True Index to Merit?" and "Is the Influence of Foreign Emigration Deleterious to the Political Interest and Institution of Our Country?"

In addition to requiring that its members prepare orations and engage in oral debate, each society edited a paper. It requires imagination to liken these in any way to present-day college papers. They were not printed nor issued in a form suitable for distribution. They contained no news items nor any articles that could conceivably be called reporting. The staff consisted of an editor and his two assistants. Society members were urged to submit essays, humor, and poetry, and these original contributions were copied into a bound notebook.

The editors of the Delphic Oracle appealed to the members of that society as follows:

...Give us not only your sympathy, but your assiduous labors. Give to our paper a strong instructive voice, by your substantial prose, - let every word be full of meaning. Infuse into every sentence the fire and vigor of your soul, which only can make it effective. Let it sparkle with brilliancy of truth, and move on resistless as the deep fathomless waters. Adorn also your paper with real ingenuous poesy. Search where the Muses live. - Drink the inspiring waters and then write poesy sweet and natural. It consists in no jingle of the ultimates. It exists in every word, - in every sentiment. It rests on the bosom of the fleeting cloud and rides the crazy billow. Its throne is in the highest, wildest mountain top and in the humblest valley. Snatch it from the cloud, the billow, the mountain and valley, and then enroll its beauty with a true poetic pen. But we want not only the stern prose, and flowing poesy, - we solicit that which will break up the monotony of both, - that which is calculated to shake our sides and make us roar with laughter. Give us flashes of wit, - the pure exalted order of fun, not the low and shameful.

From time to time, the editor or one of his assistants entertained the Society with readings from the Oracle.

For some time after the founding of the University, the literary Societies constituted the sole extracurricular activity available to students. But in addition to the services of the literary societies to their own members, those performed for the university were many. Not only the responsibility, but the cost as well, of securing an orator for commencement exercises was undertaken by these two groups jointly. Men of prominence were invited to give the oration and to read the poem at commencement exercises. The Delphic Society minutes record the extension of such invitations to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Senator Chase of Ohio, Senator Choate of Massachusetts, William Henry Seward, and other men of prominence.

The society members themselves furnished the entertainment at various public meetings that were of less importance than the commencement programs. These were the Junior Exhibitions, the Anniversaries, celebrated by the two societies jointly, and occasional public meetings of either society. For such meetings, a public hall (usually the Corinthian Hall, "pronounced by competent judges the most splendid and commodious in the United States, for the purposes for which it was designed") was often secured. At these times the regular program of orations and readings was enlarged and interspersed with music.

These performances by the members of both societies before the public constituted the main tie between the University and the people of Rochester. It was largely on this basis that the University and its students were judged. Thus it would not be far-fetched to presume that the amicable relationships between the school and the city of Rochester have in some measure grown out of the public meetings held by the Delphic and Pithonian Societies.

The details necessary for a reconstruction of the history and growth of these student societies are found in records preserved in the University Archives at Rush Rhees Library. Here are bound manuscript volumes of the Delphic Oracle for the years 1850-1863, similar volumes of the Pithonian Caduceus, 1851-1860, and the constitution, bylaws, and minutes of the Delphic Society, 1850-1865. These records, like many others in the archives of the University, taken altogether, enable us to form an accurate and interesting picture of the University in its earliest period. It is much like looking at the mid-nineteenth century general store, reconstructed in life-size detail in the Museum. It is like seeing the reconstructed apothecary shop with its many stoppered bottles and neatly labeled medicine cabinets, its huge pestle and mortar and its little balance scales. Even though, in our earliest childhood, we have never visited a shop remotely similar to this, still we experience a certain nostalgia for those days when life ran its measured course, free from the complications it has attached to itself during the last hundred years. Even though there is no image in our memory that can be called up by this picture, still we are able to project ourselves into this scene with a certain sympathy for the society that, lacking our automobiles, our electric wizardry, our steel and stone grandeur, yet enjoyed the blessings of a birthright we were too eager to pawn.

So it is with the reconstruction we make from these manuscript records. We may find the values and manners of that day so alien to our own that our first feeling is one of amusement; but the mature mind rises above this to an understanding and sympathy with this culture.