Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Monday Morning Reading Class, Part I

Monday Morning Reading Class, May 5, 1902
(Photo by George Glessner)

Today marks the 125th anniversary of the first meeting of Frances Glessner’s Monday Morning Reading Class on November 21, 1894.  As her husband John noted in a tribute written shortly after her death in 1932, “Perhaps the Monday Morning Reading Class was her choicest activity and the one in which she took most pride and pleasure.”  In this first of several articles about the class, we will explore the origins of the class and how it was structured.

In his tribute, John Glessner noted that the idea for the class originated in an activity begun several years earlier, while the family was residing in their home at the northeast corner of Washington and Morgan:

Library of Washington Street house

“While living on Washington Street, Mrs. Glessner arranged a series of meetings of ladies in our library and parlors to listen to talks and readings about the latest books by scholars and experts, which were well attended and interesting and became the nucleus and forerunner of the Monday Morning Reading Class, so that that afterwards vigorous society had its origination and beginning then and there.”

Addie Hibbard Gregory, a member of the class for its entire 36 years of existence, recalled in her book, A Great-Grandmother Remembers, that Frances Glessner renewed the idea of her earlier meetings at the request of William Rainey Harper, first president of the newly formed University of Chicago:

“Early in the nineties, President Harper of the University of Chicago had asked Mrs. Glessner how the newly arrived wives and families of the university faculty could become acquainted with Chicago women, and we with them.  This class was Mrs. Glessner’s answer.  We were all grateful for the opportunity of meeting as soon as we did those delightful and clever women.”

John Glessner painted the picture of the University families arriving and his wife’s response in more colorful terms:

“When the University of Chicago was started and the staff drawn from all over the world with their families, all cultivated people but strangers to each other, found living conditions almost unbearable in crudely finished houses, with seas of mud in street and sidewalks, she made life more bearable by social attentions.”

In her journal entry for November 18, 1894, Frances Glessner wrote, “I have invited some of the young matrons on the south side to come here once a week for a reading class this winter.  The first reading is on Wednesday next – when they will lunch with me.”  The following week’s journal entry noted, “Wednesday my twenty-five ladies came for the reading aloud.  Miss Gaylord read to us.  We had Meneval’s Memoirs of Napoleon the first hour and The Memories of Dean Hole for the second hour.  Then we had our luncheon.”

Memoirs of the Baron de Meneval

Membership in the class was by invitation only - with two rules set in place.  One was that only married ladies would be invited, although a few exceptions were made through the years.  Secondly, and equally important, was the requirement that the ladies reside on the south side of the city.  In an informal history of the class written by John Glessner in 1925, he humorously noted:

“Membership was confined to the South Side – the mudsills of the North were frowned upon and taboo – only the South Side aristocracy of letters and beauty and gracious manners were drawn upon.  (Alas how the mighty haven fallen!  Our best people have been driven over the divide and we, the saving remnant, are merely permitted in tolerance to enter the sacred regions of north latitude beyond the river.)”

Members would have been residents of the south side at the time they were invited to join the class but were permitted to remain in the class if they later moved elsewhere, as many had by the 1920s.

Library at 1800 Prairie Avenue

The structure of the first class was set – the first hour would consist of more serious reading, usually of a historical nature, the second hour would feature lighter reading.  A paid professional reader would read selections from the books.  John Glessner, in his history of the class, noted “the labor the reader must give to find what to omit, what to explain, what to emphasize.  Every book has some dull pages and pages of indifferent interest that must be cut out to make for speed and to avoid tediosity.”   The selection of The Memories of Dean Hole also shows how current the book selections often were.  The book had just been published in 1894 by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Reynolds Hole, an English Anglican priest, horticulturalist, and leading expert on roses.  As Louise Goldsmith, another life-long member of the class noted, “he had visited Chicago the previous winter and we were all anxious to hear what he said about it.”

A few adjustments were made as well.  The first class was held on a Wednesday, but the class shifted to Monday the following week, and soon after the name “Monday Morning Reading Class” was adopted.  Invitations were extended to additional women, and the class quickly grew to fifty.  Additionally, it was soon determined that Miss Gaylord was not the ideal reader to lead the class.  Louise Goldsmith recounted:

“Miss Gaylord’s reading was very good; but she was young and could not have the broad knowledge and experience necessary for a full understanding of the erudite books she was proposed to read, so Mrs. Glessner looked about for someone who had the lighted torch of knowledge with which to illuminate the printed page revealing the thought of the writer in all of its clearness and strength.”

Miss Ann Trimingham

The new reader for the class, starting on December 17, was Miss Ann Trimingham, a former teacher at the West Side High School, and a sister of Louise Goldsmith.  She remained the reader until May 1902, “missing only one of the two hundred or more meetings.” 

Regarding the selection of the books, it was a democratic process from the start.  Louise Goldsmith recalled:

“Mrs. Glessner has always consulted the class with regard to the books, the one thing insisted upon by her and our reader was that they should be good literature worth spending time on.  Usually at the beginning of each year, a list of books has been presented to the class from which to select.  These books have been recommended by some outsider of known literary ability, by our own members, or by our reader.  A vote has then been taken and the choice of the majority has decided the question.”

The Glessner library (Photo by Chris Tyre)

Regarding the selection of the books, Addie Hibbard Gregory noted, “I, for one, am most grateful for glimpses into books which I should not have dared even to begin, in my busy life.”  She also recorded a delightful barb from New York, “We surely did not deserve the comment (or inuendo) of the eastern society journal which stated that it was ‘glad that Chicago women were learning to read, for Mrs. J. J. Glessner has organized a class for that purpose.’”

On the first Monday of each month, the class was followed by a luncheon, which frequently included musical entertainment.  A typical menu, recorded in 1895, featured sandwiches, baking powder biscuits buttered, sweetbread patties, coffee, hot chocolate, ice cream, and cake.”  The ladies would sit at tables of six, set up in the parlor and dining room.  Frances Glessner purchased a special set of luncheon china in a delicate blue and white pattern, which was reserved for the use of the monthly class luncheons.  (The maker of the hard paste porcelain with transferware decoration is unknown, as the pieces are unmarked).

Reading Class china

The first season of the class concluded on May 13, 1895, shortly before Frances Glessner left Chicago for her summer estate, The Rocks, in New Hampshire.  She recorded in her journal:

“Monday, the Reading Class came to luncheon.  Each lady came walking in carrying a bunch of large long-stemmed American Beauty roses for me.  There were thirty ladies – and it was a lovely sight to see them coming in processions of six or eight carrying these roses.  Frederick and John (butler and footman) arranged them in large vases in the dining room – all on the table, sideboard and side table.  It was very beautiful to look at and certainly a lovely attention to me.  We read our Fyffe for an hour and then Miss Trimingham read her last Fortnightly paper to us – on Sydney Smith and his friends.  After that we had luncheon, then a little music, then goodbye for the summer.”

(Fyffe is a reference to Volume I of The History of Modern Europe by Charles Alan Fyffe, which by the third class had replaced Meneval’s Memoirs of Napoleon, as class members had found it to be “rather dry.”  Sydney Smith (1771-1845) was an English humorist, writer, and Anglican cleric).

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