Question of the Week

What was the Browning Society of Philadelphia?

Saturday, 5/1/10

A literary society founded in 1887

Poet and playwright Robert Browning was born in London on May 7, 1812. During his lengthy career, he produced dozens of works include Sordello (1840), Men and Women (1855), and The Ring and the Book (1868). Browning’s works are still studied today, and many literary societies across the world bear his namesake. The Browning Society of Philadelphia was among the earliest of its kind in the country.

The Browning Society of Philadelphia was established in 1887 by the New Century Club, one of Philadelphia’s first social clubs for women. The New Century Club held a class on Browning’s works, and that class proved so popular with members that it was separated from the club’s regular activities and made into its own organization. While the society’s primarily goals were to read and study Browning’s works, members also examined works by other poets and dramatic writers, studied forms of writing and poetry, and held staged performances. Meetings were held every other month at the New Century Club, which was originally located on Girard Street (now Ludlow Street) and later moved to 1520 Chestnut Street and then to 124 S. 12th Street. According to old society yearbooks and member lists, its membership regularly numbered into the hundreds. Among its early leaders were Mary Cohen, Florence Earle Coates (she also helped established Philadelphia’s Contemporary Club), and Emily Sartain. Though it is unclear as to when the club disbanded, due to funding problems, its meetings ended in October 1925.

HSP has a small collection of the Browning Society of Philadelphia’s records (#1232), which consist mostly of programs, financial records, and clippings.  We also have a collection of records from the New Century Trust (#3097).  The trust grew out of the New Century Guild for Working Women, itself an offshoot of the New Century Club.  The trust’s records document its own history and significantly add to the history of women’s organizations in Philadelphia.

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