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The Female Benevolent Society building, site of the Clover Club Library from 1910-1917
The Female Benevolent Society
building, site of the Clover Club
Library from 1910-1917.


Book Club Corner logo

Book Club Corner

A Brief History
Book Clubs
by Dennis Adams,
Information Services Coordinator

Portrait of Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse  

Book discussions are as old as books themselves, and certainly became more frequent with the invention of the printing press around 1455. The literary salons of Paris helped shape the cultural scene of the 17th and 18th centuries. The Encyclopedia Americana defined them as "fashionable assemblage(s), generally of literary, artistic, and political figures, held regularly in a private home. " The hostesses were often authors in their own right, like Mlle. de Scudéry (1607-1701), Mme. Françoise Scarron (1635-1719) , and Mme. de Staël (1766-1817). Coffee houses were a humbler, but no less vital, forum. "Wherever men gathered to discuss the ideas circulated in print," wrote Anthony J. LaVopa ("The Birth of Public Opinion," in Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1991), "a network of 'enlightened' communities peopled by only a few thousand souls, invented public opinion as a way of talking about and validating itself."

Jacques Barzun ("Three Men and a Book," in American Scholar, Summer 2001) wrote that "in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, small groups of people clubbed together to buy books because they were expensive." In 1754, frugal readers founded the New York Society Library and, soon afterward, there arose the Boston Library Society (both institutions still thrive today).

Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse
founder of
Beaufort's Clover Club

(Photograph by courtesy of the Clover Club)




According to Brad Hooper ("The Mother of All Book Clubs," Booklist, Sept. 15, 2001) perhaps the earliest community book discussion club like those meeting in today's living rooms was founded in 1877, by the ladies in the small Corn-Belt town of Mattoon, Illinois (the club still meets). Beaufort, SC was not far behind: Mary Elizabeth Waterhouse founded the Clover Club
literary society in 1891. The thirty members of the Club founded a circulating library in 1902 (the first since Union troops confiscated the collection of the Beaufort Library Society in 1861). The Clover Club began its fund-raising project for a permanent library building in 1911, and when the Beaufort Township Library was built seven years later, the Clover Club donated a nucleus of 2000 books. Clover Club members are still active supporters of the County Library.

Kate Clifford Larson told of Boston's Saturday Evening Girl's Club (1899) in "The Saturday Evening Girls Progressive Era Library Club and the Intellectual Life of Working Class and Immigrant Girls of the Working Class and Immigrant Girls in Turn-of-the-Century Boston" (Library Quarterly, April 2001): "While most clubs for girls generally centered on sewing, cooking, and other domestic duties, some clubs began to emerge that addressed the intellectual needs of girls and young women," in this case "poor, young Jewish and Italian working women and girls living in the North End of Boston."

Indeed, F. Michael Perko ("Alternative Forms of Education," in the Encyclopedia of Social History) saw literary clubs as an important form of self-education. From 1880 to 1900, three times as many books were being published in the United States than before the Civil War, and in the 1870s and 1880s a growing number of books were being sold by subscription. The Literary Guild (1921), the Book-of-the-Month Club (1926), and the mass-marketing of publisher Nelson Doubleday (1889-1949) made finding a good book even easier, and whetted the public's appetite for discussion groups.

The Great Books Foundation was established in 1947, with more than 43,000 participants in 300 cities within its first year. Its heyday was the 1950s and 1960, after which book study clubs in schools, churches and communities took the lead. Around 1993, Perko noted that membership in the clubs "remains primarily female." Some clubs focus on specific genres, like
mysteries and romance novels. The Internet has taken the discussions out into Cyberspace and into a truly global community (see "Internet Site of the Week," below). Web sites like even post book reviews written by customers from their home computers.

No discussion of book clubs is complete without talk-show host Oprah Winfrey, whose "Oprah Book Club" (begun in 1996) made readers of millions of daytime television viewers. Quoted by Mary Ann Grossmann in "Why Did Oprah End Book Club" (St. Paul [Minn.] Pioneer Press , April 11, 2002), Oprah gave her reason for ending her first "version" of the Club in 2002: "It has become harder and harder to find books on a monthly basis that I feel absolutely compelled to share." Oprah soon had a change of heart, however, and started a new Book Club at "The book club is back and I am on a mission," said Oprah on the Web site. "My mission is to make this the biggest book club in the world and get people reading again. Not just reading, but reading great books!"

How many books clubs are there now in Beaufort County? That is a question the Beaufort County Public Library is working to answer. The collections at our five locations already provide books for club members, and the Friends of the Library in Beaufort and on Hilton Head Island sponsor annual series of book talks for the reading public ("Books Sandwiched In" and "Book Break," respectively). The Library's recent "One County, One Book" program (March-May 2003) started in March had readers throughout Beaufort County reading Pat Conroy's The Water Is Wide and attending programs and discussion groups.

Through its "Book Club Corner" program, the Library will be in touch with the many area book clubs, to make it easier than ever to read and share the titles on the reading lists.


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