Volume XXXXI · 1989-1990
The History Class: 1890-1990
Part I: Reminiscences of Twenty-Five Years—1890-1915
--ALICE WHITTLESEY McKOWN
(An address presented December 7, 1914.)
One of our number spoke of this, our twenty-fifth birthday union, as a "family party." It seems to me a most fitting description of it, and as at a family gathering, the grown-up children love to dwell upon their youthful joys and sorrows, and the possibly sordid details of their early days are glorified by distance, so I hope we will be interested in the very plain and simple annals of our unambitious Class. Some of us are charter members, older children of this rather large family circle. To us surely the story of our early days should be interesting, and you who have more recently been adopted into the family are, we trust, sufficiently fond of your newly acquired relatives to be pleased to hear of their childhood and youth.
At a family party there is great informality and little criticism. I intend to be most informal in what I say, and beg that the critical spirit be left out of our happy meeting.
"The American History Class" (for so it was called until after eleven years we had learned all there was to know of our native country and went forth to conquer other worlds) had two sources or springs. One was Professor Morey.1 On numerous occasions, mostly dinners of the Reynolds Library Committee, he planted a deep interest in American History in the mind of the present chronicler. His words and influence were powerful, but the soil wasn't very good, or, at least had little of the material in it of which organizers and pioneers are made. But during the same period seed of a similar nature fell on more prolific soil. Miss Nelly Banks visited Miss Marguerite Montgomery and talked much with her of an American History Class in which she was interested. The deep interest inspired in the same subject from different sources in two persons, whose lives were lived much together and with kindred tastes and pursuits, produced the American History Class. But to Miss Montgomery belongs the real honor of being the founder of the Class. Her executive ability and original mind needed nothing but a firm supporter and interested silent partner, and such secondary place I gladly filled.
During the summer preceding the forming of the Class, Miss Montgomery and Miss Florence Hart were my guests at a cottage on Canandaigua Lake. It was an excellent place for discussing details and members, and many an hour we spent in this interesting manner. Those of you who were charter members little know how your characters, ability, family connections, inherited tendencies and habits, were noted, weighed and passed upon! Those of you who came through that test may feel quite satisfied with yourselves. One night especially, I can almost see it now, we were in a boat, beautiful Whale's Back cast its shadow in the blue water, and the stars shone like "tea trays in the sky." The world was at peace and still; not so the trio in the boat. Discussion of the eligibility of one and another came up. Miss Montgomery with her clear-headed logic relentlessly black-balled one after another. I generally acquiesced, but poor Miss Hart! Can you imagine a harder position for her? She couldn't get away, we had her where escape was impossible and she, to whom criticism of others was so painful, had to listen to the undermining of many characters, as unsuitable for our beloved circle. I wonder she joined the Class with such iconoclasts as founders. But "love suffereth long and is kind" and I don't believe that she laid it up against us. On the whole, however, I think you will all admit that thanks to this very sifting and weighing of ingredients, the result has been satisfactory, and the precedent set in the original members has been religiously followed, so that in all our twenty-five years of existence we have had almost no misfits. We certainly have not at present; not one without whom our circle would seem complete. This seems a rather unusual condition, and we like to think that our founders builded better than they knew.
Having indulged in this little self-glorification—forgivable we hope in this family party—we will go on to the first meeting. Members had been invited early in the fall. A program had been made out, and, on October 10th, 1890, we met at the home of Miss Marguerite Montgomery, who was then living in the First Church2 parsonage, since removed to give place for the new Parish House. The charter members were twenty-one in all. Three of the original Class have died; five have left town; four have resigned; the others are still active members. The first business was the election of officers. I suppose Miss Montgomery preferred to be the power behind the throne; at any rate I was elected President, Mrs. Samuel Porter, Secretary and Treasurer. The papers for the day were Colonial History of Virginia, Miss Lattimore; Maryland, Mrs. Rogers.3
It was decided to hold the meetings at Mrs. Thomas Chester's, who at that time lived on Atkinson Street; this was during the first of the year, but later Mrs. Chester resigned, and we returned to Miss Montgomery's, our first home. One little item of this year's history shows how unfitted by nature and education for a maker of programs I have been. I wrote to Miss Harris that her topic was "Impressment of American Seamen." She read it "Improvement of American Science." Fortunately the mistake was rectified before she had dipped very deeply into abstruse scientific text books. I see in this first year's program that it is "Imprisonment" instead of "Impressment," showing that I am not only an execrable writer but a poor proofreader as well.
A good beginning is a good thing in the life of a family or a class, and this first year was an auspicious one. We had a few resignations, but on the whole the enthusiasm did not wane. The second year Miss Hopkins was elected president, and again we met with Miss Montgomery. Miss Griffith was too modest to mention her own election, but from this time on our neat, accurate, and illuminating chronicles are mostly in her clear handwriting. I fancy no organization of equal age and size ever had such a duodecimo edition of its history, but it is "multum in parvo" and contains all we need to remember. Happy is the people that has no history, and happy is the Club that has a record so compact and condensed, or, to paraphrase it better, happy is the Club that has Miss Griffith for its secretary.
Our third president was Mrs. Hopkins, our meeting place with Miss Grace Otis, and Miss Kendrick. Miss Gamwell was next in office and for two years we met at Mrs. Howard Osgood's, moving from there to the Reynolds Library.
Miss Curtis now held the presidential chair for three years. Whether she was so much better as president than the rest of us, or whether the honor was beginning to go begging, I cannot remember, but at any rate the records show her to have been the first president to set the dangerous fashion of not only a second, but a third term! Sometime during her administration we moved to Mrs. Ely's, where we fell to the seductions of tea and wonderful cookies. Up to this time it had been our fond boast that no creature comforts were needed to hold us loyal to our Class, nothing but mental nourishment was required to draw us together, but Mrs. Ely tempted us, and we did eat. No one has ever dared to send the Class away hungry. Our present hostess offers us a beverage which might not only cheer but also inebriate. So far, however, no cases of advanced inebriety have occurred in the Class! This move to Mrs. Ely's was a final departure from our childhood's home, the old Third Ward. The tide of empire is said to move Westward, but not so with Rochester, and the History Class followed the crowd Eastward. I wonder will our fiftieth anniversary be held at the Friendly Home on Allen's Creek?
Mrs. Ely's hospitality was extended to us so graciously for so many years that it seems only fitting that in this family gathering we express our gratitude for all she did to make the Class at her home such a pleasant memory to us all. In 1897 Mrs. Wickes4 was elected president. She was so acceptable that she was re-elected for several years, and latterly has become so necessary that we have given up elections and have allowed our president to become a wise and kindly Dictator like Diaz, or a strong and efficient Protector like Cromwell. It is now a life office; whether it also becomes hereditary remains to be seen. During our latter years we have come to look upon Mrs. Morey's hospitable house as a sort of permanent abiding place. We hope when she grows tired of us she will gently let us know, but we hope that sad time is still far off.
After eleven years of American History and during which time we were "The American History Class," we dropped the 'American" from our name and from our studies and became more cosmopolitan. Since 1901 our title, "The History Class" has announced to all that we, members of said Class, were the real fountains of historic lore, and our dicta were not to be lightly gainsaid. For fourteen years we have given our valuable services to English history, and this year turn our attention to France's busy, varied, dramatic story. Probably we shall be still deep in Parisian fashions on our fiftieth birthday.
As a nation we are altogether too prone to fill our statute books with laws which no one obeys. Our Class has not fallen into this mistake. Is that an argument for women suffrage? If it is, I should not have mentioned it here, as any allusion to that subject might prove as fatal as the Apple of Discord but if anyone considers it such, please, don't mention it until our anniversary has passed. I wonder if some of our younger members know that we have any rules? I will read them; it won't take long. The original rules are as follows:
"Any member who is unable to prepare a paper must give four weeks' notice to the Club."
"Anyone who is unable to read a paper must give one week's notice and send the article to the President."
"Any member who shall be absent three times without excuse (consecutively) shall be dropped from the roll of membership."
"The meetings shall begin at 3 o'clock P.M."
"A fine of ten cents is imposed upon tardiness."
At this time our present heavy yearly dues were not imposed, so that if you were a strictly prompt character the privileges of the History Class were as free as air, or water, or Lowell's perfect June day. It seems too bad we had to change this plan; we like to be classed with all the nice things Lowell tells us are given away; it all comes from the high cost of living and the general depravity of the present age.
In 1894 the fiat went forth that twenty-five cents should be the annual due, and the hours of meeting 3:30 instead of 3:00. Also this drastic measure: 'Any member failing to write a paper or find a substitute, shall be expected to resign," which so far as I know has never been enforced. Once we did enforce the rule; in regard to unexcused absences, but I fancy this would never have been done except that the delinquents never fitted very well into our environment, and the rule, having served its purpose, was soon rescinded. There is a tradition that mothers of young children were debarred from our early ranks; that isn't literally true, as there are several such on our first list, but I fancy that the founders did rather frown upon those whose home cares might interfere with the chief end of life, writing history papers! Miss Griffith has a page in the first little book entitled, "Record Matrimonial." I will read it.
- Miss Alice Whittlesey, Mrs. McKown, 1892
- Miss Cogswell, Mrs. Charles Boynton, 1892
- Miss Kendrick, Mrs. Cooper, 1893
- Miss Osgood, Mrs. Belden Day, 18935
- Miss Gamwell, Mrs. Ely, 1894
- Miss Louise Hooker, Mrs. Dodge, 1894
- Miss Harris, Mrs. Webber, 1895
- Miss Comstock, Mrs. Neff, 1898
- Miss Strong, Mrs. Sewell, 1900.
On the next page is a list of "Historical Babies."
Dear, dear, dear! These babies make us feel the years are slipping by more than any amount of the twenty-fifth anniversaries can do. Men and women now, some of them ready for their places in the world. Wouldn't you like to hear the list?
- Frederick & Samuel McKown
- Richard, James, Martha and Charles Boynton
- Charlotte, Howard, Florence and Edward Day
- Charlotte and Eleanor Dodge
- William Ely, Robert Lee
- Philip, Elizabeth, Harold and Alice Wickes
- Hester Hopkins, Harvey Osgood, John Webber
- Henrietta and Rush Rhees6
- Thomas Estey, Grenville and John Sewell
- John Neff, Emily Strong.
There seem to be more boys than girls but Mrs. Hopkins's Hester, Mrs. Dodge's Charlotte, and Mrs. Rhees's Henrietta will have to be getting ready to carry on the Class for twenty-five years more, and possibly the wives of some of the boys may also be included.
The deaths are only four, a small number, for twenty-five years. But what a void in the lives of many of us, those deaths have made. Clarice Jeffrey, one of our charter members, and such a bright, loyal one, died in 1892, only two years after we were organized. Alice Bacon was the next in 1903, then Louise Comstock Neff, a charter member, in 1909, and last, in 1912, Florence Osgood Day, who was one of the founders of the Class, and until her marriage in 1893 one of its warmest supporters. No gathering of this sort can be free from an undertone of sadness; necessarily some must have slipped from our physical touch; beautiful lives like those that have gone are an inspiration and incentive which cannot be lost.
When the American History Class was founded I fancy the fondest dreams of its promoters never reached to a twenty-fifth birthday. We all know how much longer the years are in anticipation than in retrospect, and probably we charter members hardly expected to live so long ourselves and certainly had no such anticipation of longevity for our Class. Two reasons for its continued prosperity occur to me. One, I have already mentioned, the care always observed in selecting its members. The other is that it was founded at a time when the social and intellectual life (of women at least) in our city was much more simple and restricted. These twenty-five years have seen Rochester grow from a small provincial town to a city of considerable size; the position of women has changed in the same time quite as much. It seems that our Class was founded at the psychologic moment, before the members were swamped with all sorts and conditions of Clubs (I am glad this has never been a club) when we had more time. Then as cares and engagements increased our Class having been through its first few years unscathed (for a society of this sort is like a child; the first four or five years are the critical ones), had become so dear to us that whatever else was slighted this would never be.
It is no part of my program to play the prophet. A plain, unvarnished tale of bare facts is all I am capable of. We can't answer for our daughters, but so long as our present membership remains, I believe we shall "all hang together" although the alternative of "all hanging separately" seems hardly in the range of possibility.
For us conservative old members, at least, "Time cannot wither, nor customs stale" our well-loved History Class.
- William C. Morey, professor of history at the University of Rochester.
- First Presbyterian Church, Plymouth Avenue.
- Fanny Rogers' daughter Alice Montgomery Rogers Roby was a later member of the History Class.
- Mother of present member Mrs. Haywood Parker.
- Miss Florence Osgood before her marriage lived in the Harvey Ely House, 11 Livingston Park.
- Rush Rhees, Jr., whose father was president of the University of Rochester from 1900-1935.