Flowing on the same wave as the women’s suffrage movement in the United States, education for women was a prominent ideal and goal for a modern U.S.A. among progressives. The Delphian Society was formed in Chicago around 1910 to promote education in the arts, literature, and history in a specially-designed format directed at women specifically. Chapters of the Delphian Society opened across the country. This ‘Delphian Course’ was a combination of book club and correspondence course, involving a condensed library/encyclopedia, and course guides for running a meeting and how to discuss their scheduled readings. The meetings were deliberately non-scholarly; while the members were required to present what they’d learned during their assigned readings, prepared notes and outlines were discouraged and members were encouraged to speak briefly from direct knowledge and understanding rather than reciting a prepared speech.
I first encountered the Delphian Society at an antique shop in Columbia, Missouri. I was always a sucker for the antiquarian booksellers, despite my destitute college student status, so I stretched my dollar as best I could. Because there were only volumes 1 and 5 present, the books were relatively cheap. I was intrigued by the fraternalistic style of the books, thinking the Delphian Society something like the Order of the Eastern Star or Degree of Honor, a women’s auxillary of some beneficial association. Over the years, I’ve acquired most of the series.
As textbooks go, the Delphian Course textbooks are very finely done. I am unsure exactly how much the Course cost, but it couldn’t have been cheap. Each edition is hardbound in green cloth, embossed and gold-leafed, which rides the line between cheap textbook and fine edition. The pages are uncut in two sides, with an (in my opinion) overly rough deckle edge, although the top edge is uniformly clean-cut and gilded on all the editions I have. There is a full-color frontispiece, complete with vellum, and the description of the frontispiece printed directly on the vellum separator. Plates are also scattered throughout the volumes, sometimes with vellum in the same format as the frontispiece, and the plates could either be in color (primarily maps) or just black-and-white. Black-and-white illustrations are also included throughout the text as well. Overall, I’d rank the craftsmanship a few steps higher than encyclopedia sets of the time, but below finely bound ‘limited edition’ books from the same period. From the condition of the books I own, I would say that it is likely one set was shared between several members of the Delphian Society, rather than each member purchasing their own set.
The content of the Delphian Course is surprisingly thorough, and not insulting to the intelligence of their intended students. The books do lean heavily on quotes and sections taken from other books (particularly the literature volumes), but they are not useless padding, and their inclusion is explained in the course for their relevance. In my jaded eye, I’d say the books do dwell a bit too long on the mysticism and mythology of ancient societies, but such topics were a popular subject at the time and may have been included with historical context to help keep the interest of the students of the Course. Me, I prefer a detailed, dry history book over a fluff quasi-prose history book, so the volumes I’ve read sections from have been quite good.
The books themselves were organized in a relatively chronological order, but the intention was not to read each volume from cover to cover. The entire Course encompassed six years — a lofty goal, seeing most women at the time rarely spent that long in grammar school, let alone while keeping a home or helping in the fields. I only have the instructional booklet for Year One, which I suspect is the most common one to find, as the numbers of guidebooks sent out probably dwindled as years progressed. Year One covered the first three volumes, primarily ancient history. The Course guide ties together several chapters, not necessarily consecutively, into once-a-month discussion points, so it appears that the volumes were a reference, rather than linear reading material. The appeal, to me, for these books is in the tying together of the historical threads that produced the Delphian Society: progressivism in education and equality, growing public interest in the arts and humanities, the suffrage movement, and the beneficial society movement of the early 20th century.
[Editor's note, 9/20/2011 :
Reader Andre Smith writes in with some interesting information!
"There is a great deal of introductory information about The Delphian Society and some of its publications in the catalogue of The Library of Congress. LC catalogues document only what is held in the collections of LC. Worldcat, however, will give an accounting of what is held in all the world’s libraries that subscribe to it. Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) in now probably the world’s largest research catalogue online. The Newberry Library in Chicago (hometown of the Delphian Society) may contain information, of interest to the devoted Delphian searcher, held in the Ann Barzel Papers. Although the catalogue of The Chicago Public Library is very lean on Delphian Society book publications, its vertical files and clipping files should be a rewarding lead to pursue. The Library of The University of Chicago is, perhaps, the holder of the largest collection of Delphian Society publications. Four Delphian titles are held in The Library of Columbia University.
I wish you all good luck in your searches! AMS"