Carleton’s Greek Life? – Uncovering the Literary Societies

Created by Clay Haddock, Scott Hudson, and AJ Ristino

Carleton College has enjoyed a long history. The school was originally founded in 1866 through the Minnesota Conference of Congregational Churches, and in its early decades emphasized a paternalistic, religious morality in its classes and social life. This focus seems a far cry from Carleton’s current emphasis on student support, freedom of inquiry, and robust discussion; indeed, much has changed over the past 157 years. One such largely forgotten jewel from Carleton’s past, which seems antithetical to the school’s modern ethos of inclusivity, is the presence of a sort of Greek Life Lite in the form of the Carleton Literary Societies, which thrived on campus in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Philomathian Crest from 1891
Philomathian Crest in 1891, Courtesy of the Carleton Archives

The first permanent literary society to form on campus was the Philomathian Society, which was chartered in 1873 and was open to men and women. The Philomathians, in these early years, furnished reading rooms with books and magazines, hosted literary discussions and debates, and began publishing The Carletonian, still Carleton College’s flagship student newspaper, in June 1877. The Philomathians’ success led to a number of other societies being created, such as the Beltonian Society in 1874, Alpha Beta Phi in 1877, and the men’s only Adelphic Society as well as the short-lived women’s only Chrestomathian Society, both in 1880. In their debates, dances, meals, and other events, these societies offered unique social opportunities across gender lines that were unique on a Carleton campus that was still very stratified according to ideas of religious morality. Eventually, the faculty and administration had enough of this subversive socialization, and decreed in December of 1882 that such coed societies were immoral and unallowed on campus. The societies were divided according to gender, and students transferred to those in which they were allowed. In the two main literary societies on campus, female Philomathians transferred to Alpha Beta Phi, while male members of Alpha Beta Phi became “Philos.”

Photo of Alpha Beta Phi
Members of Alpha Beta Phi in 1910, Courtesy of the Carleton Archives
Photo of Philomathian Society
Members of the Philomathian Society in 1910, Courtesy of the Carleton Archives

In the late 1880s and 1890s, a period when secret Greek societies (today’s fraternities and sororities) were being established at colleges and universities across the country, students petitioned to bring this secret Greek life to Carleton, too. Carleton’s faculty and administration, however, repeatedly denied these requests because they saw the secret societies as immoral organizations that were detrimental to community cohesion. The literary societies were destined to remain at the center of Carleton’s social life.

These societies did a lot of good for their campus community. Despite the fact that they were stripped of coed membership, they still hosted coed events and parties with other societies that were important to many students. In the 1880s, the literary societies banded together out of a shared distaste for exorbitant third-party textbook sellers to establish a book firm that would purchase required texts straight from publishers and sell them to students with a small profit margin to clear expenses – this was the origin of the Carleton Bookstore. Although the religious service attendance requirement would not be dropped at Carleton until 1964, the literary societies played an important role in voicing student discontent with the requirement since the 1890s. Finally, their literary events also built public speaking and other social skills, and the societies amassed libraries with hundreds of volumes which were available for student use and research.

Photo of Gamma Delta Society
Gamma Delta Society in 1896, Courtesy of the Carleton Archives

However, the literary societies also maintained an exclusive aura which many non-members at Carleton found distasteful. Carls had to apply to join the societies, and the blackbox admissions process rejected plenty of applicants for unclear reasons. As time went on, the societies became more and more fraternity- and sorority-like. They played a large role in freshman hazing rituals, including hosting a battle royale between freshmen and sophomores every year for possession of a navy-blue wrapped cane and “blanket bouncing,” where society members would find a sheet, place a first-year in the middle of it, and bounce them up and down repeatedly. These were all parts of what came to be known as “Hell Week,” an initiation period during the first week of fall term every year.

Paddle in use
Photograph of a Paddling from the Adelphic Society, Courtesy of the Carleton Archives

Perhaps the most violent form of literary society initiation was paddling, when members of the societies would craft wooden paddles and adorn them with society symbolism. Then, they would find first-years, targeting those who wanted to join their society, bend them over, and beat their rears. Below, you can find an example of a paddle owned by a member of the Adelphic Society, which would have been used for this purpose.

Despite distaste with some of these practices, the Carleton literary societies remained the most influential social organizations on campus through the First World War. New women’s societies (Gamma Delta in 1887, Delta Phi in 1889, Alpha Delta in 1891, Sigma Lambda in 1906, and Kappa Theta in 1912) and men’s societies (Athenian Society in 1897, Delian Society in 1909, Corinthian Society in 1913, and Alethan in 1914) were formed throughout this heyday. Faculty members could also be granted honorary membership of these societies, and representatives of the major groups helped form Carleton’s first student government in 1920. 

This new decade also heralded a downturn for the literary societies, though, as campus opinion turned decisively against their fraternity-like organization, exclusive tendencies, and extreme hazing rituals. Through the 1920s and 1930s, membership fell, events like “Hell Week” were banned, and many societies closed down altogether. Only six groups remained by the mid-1930s, including the Philomathian Society.

The tension between the increasingly small literary societies and the rest of Carleton’s campus community came to a head in 1948, when an op-ed in The Carletonian, once a bastion of the Philomathians, published an op-ed by a senior denouncing the remaining literary societies’ exclusive tendencies and calling for their dissolution. The article sparked an antagonistic debate on campus which could only be settled by the Carleton Student Association. The CSA held a debate on the subject, where the societies were both defended and attacked. In the end, the student body voted 528-335 in favor of the disestablishment of the literary societies. This decision was confirmed in a concurring vote by faculty members in 1949.

With that, the literary societies and their fraternity-like culture were gone from Carleton campus life. The students had made it clear that they stood against exclusive groups, a position held to this day and embodied in Carleton’s inclusive club policies.