|"The Dinner Party" by Henry Sargent, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston|
Presented to the Club by Ronald Trabulsi on Monday evening, April 27, 2015
A few years ago, Ann and I were wandering through Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts when we noticed a handsome painting of a group of 18 men at what was clearly a nineteenth century dinner table, attended by two man servants. We jokingly commented that it looked like an historical version of our Monday Evening Club.
Well, be careful about speculation! Some research showed that the painting was of a dinner meeting of Boston’s Wednesday Evening Club. The artist was Henry Sargent, a Boston artist who was born in 1770 and died in 1845. The painting was done in 1821. Sargent’s paintings are known for giving intimate glimpses of Boston’s homes in the early 19th century and this painting certainly does.
All this, of course, then led to curiosity about the Wednesday Evening Club of Boston – and that is the subject of my talk tonight for it is a fascinating look at our forebears and the similarities with our Club that make for what seemed to me to be a captivating story.
Fortunately, for us, a committee of Club members was appointed in 1857 to “consider all and sundry matters appertaining to the interests of the Club,” and much of the following comes from this committee’s report.
As originally instituted in 1777, the Club consisted of nine members, all bachelors in their twenties.
Three were from each of the professions of Law, Medicine, and Divinity.
The founding members in 1777 were as follows (and I include them because several of the names are familiar). The lawyers were Israel Keith, Thomas Dawes and George Minot. The physicians were Thomas Welsh, Nathaniel Appleton, and William Greenleaf. And the clergy were John Eliot, John Bradford, and William Greenough. John Quincy Adams, Charles Bullfinch, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were later members.
Thomas Dawes, entering the Club as a lawyer, was of particular interest to me because, of course, of Henry L. Dawes, a founding member in 1869 of our Club. I was not able to trace the family connection but I strongly suspect it exists. Thomas Dawes (and my house is just off Dawes Avenue in Pittsfield) was a patriot who fought in the Revolution. His house was plundered by the British when they evacuated Boston in 1776. After the war he lived next door to John Adams and he worked primarily as an architect and designed many notable Boston buildings. He also held several state government positions and was a good friend of John Hancock.
The first expansion of the Club was about 1800 with the addition of three Merchants. Then in 1830 or so two or three other gentlemen were added whose occupations did not fit any of the categories. They were called Gentlemen at Large. In 1836 there was another enlargement by adding one to each of the occupational categories, as well as the at-large, for a total of 20 members. It was noted by the Committee in 1857 that there had never been a strict adherence to the membership rule so that by 1857 there were 23 members.
When it first began in 1777 the Club met year round, but with the introduction of the railroads bringing increased travel and the custom of spending the summer in the country, meetings were suspended in July and August.
The meetings were weekly, starting on the third Wednesday in October and continuing until the Wednesday preceding the last Wednesday in May, with approximately thirty meetings a year.
The assignment of weeks was alphabetical, but hosts could exchange with each other for more convenient dates. The custom also was that the host could invite one or two friends.
The Committee also noted that graduation from Harvard College was originally a condition of membership and that this condition was once considered “as immutable as the laws of the Medes and Persians.” But the Committee’s report goes on to note “this condition was originally intended to intimate simply that the Club should be composed of persons of education and generous culture; and as Harvard College was at the time of founding of the Club the chief, almost the only, source of this culture to the people of this community, the condition took this form. But this relation between Harvard College and our community no longer exists. Our city has become more metropolitan, the place where a large portion of the talent and culture of New England concentrates. Through the growth of our city there may be frequent inducements to disregard this membership condition in the future.”
The report goes onto say “If in the ranks of professional distinction and literary culture the sons of Harvard cannot hold their own in this community, it is not desirable that they should hold it in this Club by an exclusive condition. Your Committee therefore thinks this condition should be suffered to sink into oblivion, should, in fact, be considered extinct.” So there! (Yale must have felt encouraged.)
The Committee of 1857 next turned its attention to the question of adding new members since “we can easily name a number of distinguished or agreeable gentlemen (I’m not sure that’s an either/or proposition) whom it would be pleasant to have associated with us.” Furthermore the Committee wanted the Club to be large enough so there would be fifteen to eighteen at every meeting. But there was no interest in making so large as to “lose its harmony of spirit and character, and the feeling of intimate acquaintance and strong personal regard now produced by its limited number.”
The final recommendation concerning membership was to enlarge the Club to twenty-five. Without altering the character of the Club this would enable the adding of two or three gentlemen “in the meridian of life, whom we should be glad to have associated with us, and also to do what is perhaps more necessary – to increase the youthful element in the Club by the election of gentlemen who are, by a score of years or more, the juniors of the present members.”
So far as meetings went, this diligent Committee carefully specified that “the person at whose house the Club meets shall be expected to be ready to receive at half-past eight o’clock; and the supper, which shall be simple and without meats, may be served at any time after half-past nine, and is always to be served by ten o’clock.”
Thus ends the report of the 1857 Committee, but further research at the Boston Public Library (and a thank you to the librarians there) turned up a report written by the Club’s then secretary, Samuel Kirkland Lothrop, about the Club’s Centennial Celebration in 1877.
Lothrop was a noted New England clergyman – a Harvard graduate, thank heavens, pastor for forty-two years of the Brattle Square Church in Back Bay Boston. He was also a member of the Boston School Committee for thirty years.
Incidentally, the Brattle Square Church began in 1698 as Congregationalist. It moved into a new building in 1772 designed by our architect friend Thomas Dawes. John Hancock gave one thousand pounds toward its construction. Early parishioners included John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Joseph Warren, John Adams, and Abigail Adams. (Clearly these instigators of the American Revolution were close acquaintances.) The Church became Unitarian in 1805 and dissolved in 1878.
The connectedness among all these people is fascinating and the temptation to keep researching and digressing goes on and on.
But, back to the Club’s Centennial celebration in 1877.
In thinking about an appropriate commemoration it was found difficult to find a theme because the Club “has not aimed at action or influence outside of itself, and has done nothing but give a large amount of pleasure to its members and no small increase of that intellectual improvement which comes from intercourse with intelligent and cultivated minds.”
It was noted that members, past and present, included one President of the United States (John Quincy Adams), two Ambassadors to the Court of St. James, one Associate Justice of the Supreme Court (Holmes), four other noted court justices, two members of the Senate, and four members of the U.S. House of Representatives – one of whom was speaker, two speakers of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, and three Mayors of Boston.
One of the first questions to be settled was the date for the celebration. The first meeting of the Club had been June 21, 1777, according to the diary of John Quincy Adams. However, June 21, 1877, would fall on a Thursday which in the Committee’s words would “do violence, so far as the day of the week is concerned, to the whole history, usage, and name of the Club.
It also seemed inconvenient to celebrate in June when so many would be away from the City for the summer, particularly since Harvard’s graduation in 1877 did not fall close to June 21.
So, with marvelous practicality it was decided that there probably had been some weeks of preparation before the first meeting and therefore it would be reasonable to consider May as the real beginning of the Club and have the celebration in that month.
Having imaginatively resolved that weighty question, attention turned to the mode of celebration.
There was thought of a dinner at the Parker House or some other hotel with a prominent member as speaker to furnish the “intellectual and literary treat of the occasion.” That idea was speedily abandoned.
To quote from the report: “A dinner of thirty or thirty-five gentlemen [obviously no women] is of necessity rather stiff and formal, not to say sometimes a very stupid and tiresome affair, affording little liberty or opportunity for any real free, unconstrained social intercourse, and is therefore entirely incongruous and out of harmony with the habits, customs, and usages of this Club at ordinary meeting. It was felt that the members of this Club, if they found themselves seated at a long table with a magnificently variegated bill of fare before them would feel, as a Club, so queer and strange and out of place, that they could not possibly have a good time together.”
So it was decided that the Centennial meeting would be held at the home of their member Nathaniel Thayer, 70 Mt. Vernon Street. (He was a noted banker, railroad developer, and philanthropist – Thayer Hall at Harvard is one example of his generosity.)
Guests were to assemble punctually at eight o’clock. After fifteen minutes for gathering, there would be a member to speak from each of the traditional membership categories in the Club.
Half an hour would be given to each with the understanding that “however entertaining, instructive, or eloquent, the person designated to speak may be, he is not to occupy the whole of the half hour, but much so restrain himself as to leave eight or ten minutes so that others might put in a word if the spirit prompts.”
After the speeches the guests adjourned to Mr. Thayer’s dining room where, our faithful secretary noted, “it was soon determined that the ice cream had not melted, not the oysters grown cold, though it was a full hour beyond our usual time for partaking of these refreshments.”
And so this Club whose existence had spanned that of the United States, and whose members had significantly participated in the major events from the Revolutionary War, to the writing of the Constitution, to the War of 1812, the Abolitionist Movement, through the Civil War celebrated its one-hundred years.
The celebration was summarized by the secretary thusly: “Everyone who had been present felt it had been a goodly gathering, and cherished the conviction that they had been loyal to their ancestry, had done justice to the memories of the founders and fathers of their association, and had launched the Club upon its second century under auspices whose quickening influences would bear it onward to the close of the century, making it in the future, as in the past, an honorable and useful element in the social life of Boston.”
And the odd postscript to this talk tonight is that reasonably diligent research has found no further reference anywhere to the existence of the Club.