Clubs and Salons

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Writing in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that "Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations" (vol. 2, bk. 2, chap. 5, p. 106). Tocqueville rightly identified America as a nation of joiners. Key figures throughout American history have been club members, from George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, who were Masons, to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, who have been members of San Francisco's secretive and elite Bohemian Club. Writers, artists, and their patrons have also formed private clubs, breaking the romantic notion of the starving artist as social outsider, isolated and misunderstood.

As Tocqueville forecast, club popularity expanded throughout the nineteenth century, and by 1910 about one-third of all adult males belonged to at least one club. Many joined for the life insurance policies clubs offered their members, but the need to join went beyond insurance benefits. Clubs, most of which excluded women, offered their members a refuge from the melting pot of American culture; they were (and remain) places where people of similar social and economic backgrounds could enjoy the security of brotherhood. Like-mindedness, however, can sometimes become narrow-mindedness, as Sinclair Lewis shows in Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922), novels satirizing the overly earnest, backslapping mentality then part of businessmen's clubs, such as Rotary (1905), Kiwanis (1915), and Lions (1917). In spite of outsiders' suspicions, clubs endured as centers for political, economic, intellectual, and artistic leaders to gather, share ideas, and form alliances, thus helping shape the American political and cultural landscape.


An important intellectual club during this period was the Radical Club of Boston, which began meeting in 1867. In keeping with the earlier Transcendental Club (1836) started by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), the Radical Club invited women as well as men to join the group. The group's chronicler, Mrs. John T. Sargent, notes that there were thirty "persons" who attended the first meeting that spring. Emerson, himself a member of no less than five clubs, gave what was presumably the inaugural talk, "Religion." The Radical Club continued meeting at its Chestnut Street, Boston, home until 1880, covering issues ranging from Darwinism to Don Quixote, and women were among the presenters. Julia Ward Howe (1819–1910), for example, famous for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," spoke on "Limitations," stressing the importance of personal restraint. Other important Radical Club members included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry James Sr. Radical Club meetings provided Emerson and other members what good clubs give all their members: a sustaining blend of easy relaxation and mental stimulation among friends.


As wealth accumulated and centralized in the nineteenth century, so did memberships in elite social clubs. The most venerable of these is New York's Union Club, founded in 1836. The image of the mustachioed clubman seated on a leather wingback chair, smoking expensive cigars, drinking imported liquor, and boasting and laughing among his friends can be traced to the Union and other exclusive clubs that began in the nineteenth century. Membership was limited to around a thousand men, which proved too restrictive toward the end of the century as New York's population of wealthy people ballooned. The Union began capriciously blackballing applicants, an act that "murders a man, socially" (Fairfield, p. 58). One such applicant was the railroad baron John King, a self-made millionaire who allegedly offended Union Club members because he ate his food off his knife. King's sponsor, however, was J. P. Morgan, and King's rejection sent a clear message about how the club's old guard felt about the newly rich, including Morgan himself. Fed up with this and other insults, Morgan started a new club, famously (and perhaps apocryphally) telling his architect, "Build a Club fit for gentlemen. Damn the expense" (Porzelt, p. 9). The result became the Metropolitan Club, a dramatic, $2 million marble and gilded iron response to the Union Club's snub. The clubhouse's interior remains one of the most opulent in New York.

The Harvard Club, another of New York's prestigious social organizations, had only sixteen members in 1865 but grew to more than five hundred by 1888 as Harvard graduates headed to the city for work. The club built its headquarters at 11 West Twenty-second Street, in a neighborhood soon to house the New York Yacht, Century, and Yale Clubs. Like other clubs at the time, the Harvard Club became a kind of surrogate home by accommodating most its members' daily needs. The clubhouse expanded to include a bar and formal dining room, two floors of bedrooms, squash courts, and high on the top floor of the seven-story building, a swimming pool nicknamed the "Plunge."

Gender discrimination would have prohibited the writer Edith Wharton (1862–1937) from clubs such as the Union, Metropolitan, and Harvard, but that did not stop her from imagining the experience in her short novel The Touchstone (1900). In it, the main character Stephen Glennard decides to publish two volumes worth of very private letters from a famous woman author who once loved him but who has died. The story begins inside a club where men look out windows cursing the "difficulty of there being no place to take one's yacht to in winter but that other played-out hole, the Riviera" (p. 6). The club, its members, and their moneyed society become catalysts for Glennard's morally questionable decision to anonymously publish the letters. Doing so allows him to marry and lead a comfortable life, but the ethics of what he has done wrack him with guilt that leads to crisis. As Wharton characterizes them, clubs were just another place for those of privilege to gather while they exploited and corrupted the aspirations of the lesser classes, and particularly those people grasping at the fringes of high society.

While high society people on the East Coast gathered at the Union, Metropolitan, Harvard, and other exclusive clubs, San Francisco's elite joined the Bohemian Club. It was started in 1872 by a handful of friends from the San Francisco Examiner, and early members included the writers Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914) and Joaquin Miller. Mark Twain (1835–1910) and Bret Harte (1836–1902) were made honorary members; Jack London (1876–1910) and Frank Norris (1870–1902) later joined the club as well. By 1878, when the group held its first campout in the redwood forest, a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, membership among the artists, writers, and musicians of the club had become coveted by businessmen and politicians, who soon came to dominate its ranks. By the time the English author Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) published American Notes (1899), he would write, judging from the San Francisco clubhouse's grandeur, "It was hard to realize that even twenty years ago you could see a man hanged [in San Francisco] with great pomp" (p. 26). Despite his instinctual sense of cultural superiority, Kipling was impressed by the four-foot statue of an owl, the club's mascot, perched on the banister of the club's staircase and by the soft carpets, the smell of expensive cigars, and the fine paintings, many of which were done by club members. He was highly entertained by the stories he heard (some of which he retells) and by the "dinner the memory of which [would] descend with [him] into the hungry grave" (p. 43).

The Bohemian Club became famous for its annual campout, where more than two thousand members and their guests stayed in one of the 129 "camps" along the Russian River. The camps themselves appear as if they were constructed by wealthy Boy Scouts under the tutelage of Disneyland's design team. Members began holding a ritualistic Cremation of Care ceremony in which robed "priests" set fire to an effigy symbolizing worldly cares. The ceremony takes place beneath a twenty-foot statue of an owl and signals the official opening of the encampment. Bacchanalian revelry ensues as friends move from camp to camp in a continuous party where no one has to drive home. The club maintains its literary roots partly by staging two commissioned plays, one an intellectual drama called the "high jinks" and the other a comedy called the "low jinks." The performances take place on two outdoor stages and include set designs on par with those seen on Broadway. In a nod to Shakespearean custom and because the club traditionally did not allow women, male actors play the roles of both men and women, often to great comic effect in the low jinks performance. Professional actors play the lead roles, while club members fill in as extras.

One of the early members involved in the productions was Frank Norris, who used the Bohemian Club as the backdrop for his somewhat autobiographical early novel Blix (1899). In it, the narrator describes Conde Rivers (Norris) as "one of the younger members, but [who] was popular and well liked, and [who] on more than one occasion had materially contributed to the fun of the club's 'low jinks'" (p. 127). The novel has the Norris character using the Bohemian Club's library as a place to work on his writing, but the attraction of the card room, where smoke from expensive cigars fills the air and the poker games last past four in the morning, entices him away.

The Bohemians Jack London and Ambrose Bierce also used the Bohemian Club in their writing, although not extensively. In a lone paragraph of his travel narrative The Cruise of the Snark (1911), London mentions "crack sailors" who were part of the Bohemian Club. But London, an adventurer and "man's man" who grappled early with poverty, was always a little scornful of high society people who had never known real work or the common struggles of lower classes. As the Bohemian Club grew and became known more for its wealthy power brokers than for its artists and writers, London must have questioned some aspects of his membership. In The Cruise of the Snark, members of the club haughtily dismiss the Snark's construction, believing the boat will be too slow. Then London writes, "Well, I wish I'd only had those crack sailors of the Bohemian Club on board the Snark the other night for them to see for themselves their one, vital, unanimous judgment absolutely reversed" (p. 27). It is an old story: poor underdog triumphs over wealthy aristocrats. In his tone here, however, London conveniently overlooks the fact that this "triumph" involves the rich man's sport of yacht racing and that he was himself a member of the rich man's club.

Such attitudes are even more difficult to define in Ambrose Bierce's mystery story, "The Realm of the Unreal" (1893), which tells of a Bohemian Club member being cuckolded and otherwise abused by the "disagreeably engaging" Professor Valentine Dorrimore, a hypnotist from Calcutta (p. 107). The two are introduced among several men in the Bohemian Club's library, and when the protagonist calls hypnotists "pretenders," Dorrimore makes him the fool and beats him up in the process. Bierce's dis-position toward the club is more playfully ambiguous than London's Snark in part because of the narrative point of view. In both cases a club member or members are proved wrong, but because readers tend naturally to sympathize with the narrator, the tone in "The Realm of the Unreal" seems less antagonistic; with its happy resolution (the narrator gets married), the story may even be considered comic. It would be easy to imagine Bohemian Club members reading the story in their library—or even having Bierce reading it to them—and enjoying it with impunity.

Not unexpectedly, discussing almost all issues in addition to literature was commonplace at the Bohemian Club, but one topic remained surprisingly off-limits. As with most exclusive clubs, the Bohemian began a policy against talking business on club grounds, going so far as to post the line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, "Weaving spiders come not here," on several redwood trees in their Bohemian Grove retreat as a reminder. Members took the admonition seriously, loudly and teasingly pointing out "weaving spiders" on the rare occasions when they heard a conversation drift toward business. Like most types of clubs, elite clubs cherish their members' friendships—the deals that are undoubtedly made as a result of those friendships can only take place outside the clubs' well-guarded gates.


Among the elite clubs at the turn of the century, some were devoted to bringing together artists and wealthy benefactors. The Century Association was founded in 1846 by the poet and editor William Cullen Bryant (1794–1878) as a club for artists and, unlike the Bohemian Club, remained true to that intent. In 1891 the club moved into its West Forty-third Street clubhouse, a building designed for them by Stanford White, who had designed some of the most elite clubs in New York, including the Metropolitan. The group held regular meetings and dinners, hosted presentations and discussions, and had a library and reading room. The club also had an art gallery where it displayed works of its members, which included some of the most important nineteenth-century painters, Albert Bierstadt most famously.

Less exclusive but therefore generally more accessible to younger, more progressive men in the arts, the Lotos Club began in 1870 when six New York newspaper men decided to form a club "to promote social intercourse among journalists, literary men, artists, and members of the theatrical profession" (Fairfield, p. 217). By starting their own club, the journalists were likely reacting to the social stigma against their profession, one strong enough to prevent their inclusion in more elite clubs. In the eyes of high society, journalists were working class and hence not "clubbable" men.

This elitism extended to the Authors Club, a group started in 1882 by the poet and Century Magazine editor Richard Watson Gilder. According to club policy, only "the author of a published book proper to literature" was allowed to join; newspaper reporters and authors of "technical books and journalism as such" were specifically told they were not eligible (Osborne, p. 5). Andrew Carnegie, himself an author of at least three books on political and social issues by the time he joined in 1886, endowed the club with $10,000 to be used to help starving writers and their families. The club seems to have stretched its own definition of literary authorship to make Carnegie a member, but his support allowed it to resist the kind of wealthy patron that came to "dilute" the ranks of other artistic clubs, like the Bohemian and Lotos, as their popularity increased.

For dramatists, there was the Players Club, begun in 1888 by the actor (and brother of Abraham Lincoln's assassin) Edwin Booth (1833–1893). With redesign work by Stanford White, Booth made his home at 16 Gramercy Park into the clubhouse. The club's reputation as the East Coast headquarters for actors continued to grow as notables like Mark Twain and Sir Laurence Olivier became members. In addition to the socializing that took place under John Sargent's portrait of Edwin Booth, club members produced and acted in charity performances of classic plays.

Not to be outdone by New York, Boston had its own coterie of artistic clubs, including a chapter of the Authors Club, presided over by Julia Ward Howe, who had also been a Radical Club member. For painters and sculptors, there were several choices, including the Boston Art Club, the Paint and Clay Club, and the St. Botolph Club, which takes its name from the city's patron saint. Formed in 1879, the St. Botolph Club had 450 members by 1890 and became famous for organizing early exhibits by Claude Monet and American impressionists. The club was not limited to the visual arts, playing host to Walt Whitman in the spring of 1881, where he was received by the founding member William Dean Howells (1837–1920). Other founding members include the politician and author Henry Cabot Lodge and the publishers Henry Houghton and George Mifflin.

Howells, like other men of his social class at the time, was involved in several clubs, helping to found not only St. Botolph but also the Tavern Club. It began as many clubs then did with a group of men who regularly got together for dinner. A now legendary story describes the group's disgust when some of P. T. Barnum's traveling circus performers came into the restaurant where future Tavern Club members were already seated. One of the troupe, who was armless, ate with his toes. As the story goes, the fellow who then suggested a private club was himself not invited to become a member, thus quickly cementing the club's reputation for exclusivity (De Wolfe Howe, p. 4). The first election committee met in August 1884, and Howells became club president, serving until 1888.

In the early days, the Tavern Club hosted monthly dinners for an invited guest. Several dinners were given for important actors, such as Henry Irving, but in March 1885 the club also hosted Howells's good friend Mark Twain. Twain was a regular on the club lecture circuit, giving talks at the Lotos, Savage, and Authors Clubs, among others. (Some of these talks were collected in Mark Twain's Speeches [1910].) In January 1901 Twain returned to the Tavern Club for another dinner in his honor. One of the club's members dressed as a Twain impersonator and greeted the author as he entered the dining room. Playing on his dual personas as Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens, the author is reported to have said, "All my troubles in life—and I have had many—have been caused by that man!" The happy evening that followed is "secure in its place among the best moments in the life of the Club" (De Wolfe Howe, p. 119).

A man of great diplomacy who was highly praised by Tavern Club members for his early presidency, Howells wrote less about club life than his very active participation might suggest. He mentions clubs only briefly in A Hazard of New Fortunes (1890) when a club jokester "feigned to drop dead from his chair" (p. 197) as an enthusiastic manager of a new magazine begins promoting his publication yet again and once more a little later when the magazine becomes "the talk of the clubs" (p. 221). The fictitious Saratoga Club makes a short appearance in chapter five of The Day of Their Wedding (1895): "In fact, with its discreetly drawn curtains, its careful keeping of grass and flowers, the club-house looked in the bright morning sun like the demure dwelling of some rich man who did not care to flaunt his riches" (p. 57). Here and elsewhere in his work, Howells emphasizes understated displays of old-money society.

Of his novels, Howells's most revealing use of clubs is found in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), the story of the newly rich Lapham family's encounter with Boston's elite. Early in the novel Silas Lapham says in disgust:

I like to see a man act like a man. I don't like to see him taken care of like a young lady. Now, I suppose that fellow [Corey, his daughter's suitor] belongs to two or three clubs, and hangs around 'em all day, lookin' out the window,—I've seen 'em,—instead of tryin' to hunt up something to do for an honest livin. (P. 58)

Lapham's perspective is that of the outsider, a person who has only seen clubmen as they stand behind glass, observing Lapham and the rest of the masses as they pass by uninvited and unwelcome. Quickly in the next chapter Howells contrasts this view with that of a club insider: "'It's astonishing what a hardy breed the young club-men are,' observed his [Corey's] father. 'All summer through, in weather that sends the sturdiest female flying to the sea-shore, you find the clubs filled with young men, who don't seem to mind the heat at all'" (p. 63). Howells writes that these two conversations take place almost "at the same moment" (p. 62), as if to emphasize the difference in worldviews brought by social status. In none of these descriptions does Howells, ever discreet, take readers inside a club with any detail; this area remained "for members only," even in fiction.


Women's clubs also increased in numbers in the nineteenth century, and by 1880 there were roughly nine hundred such clubs across the nation (Charles, p. 25). While many groups were religiously based, a significant number were secular, focusing on social issues, such as education, public health, and suffrage. Edith Wharton reveals the social snobbery and petty oneupmanship some clubs experienced in her satiric short story "Xingu" (1911), which describes a women's lunch club and its efforts to entertain an arrogant author. However, many women's clubs engaged in important philanthropic work, and such efforts yielded vital social improvements, including establishing libraries, reforming New York's filthy slaughterhouses, and helping all women earn, in 1920, the right to vote.

In Europe women had been hosting clublike gatherings, or soirees, since the eighteenth century. In France, Madam de Staël's intellectual "salon" became such a threat to Napoleon that he forced her into exile. In Henry James's short story "Brooksmith" (1891), about an especially adept servant who subtly ensures guests' happiness at his employer's salon, the narrator wistfully describes the salon experience: "We never were a crowd, never either too many or too few, always the right people WITH the right people—there must really have been no wrong people at all—always coming and going, never sticking fast nor overstaying, yet never popping in or out with an indecorous familiarity" (p. 761). A good salon was an almost impossibly perfect combination of painters, writers, and intellectuals regularly gathering for cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, and (most important) conversation in the home of an artistically inclined socialite. In America, however, James complained that "our women have not the skill to cultivate it [the salon]—the art to direct through a smiling land, between suggestive shores, a sinuous stream of talk" (p. 760).

Despite James's misgivings, America has had successful salons, beginning in 1845, when Anne Lynch Botta (1815–1891) arrived in New York, hosting the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, William Cullen Bryant, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe in her home. Botta opened her doors to her artistic and bohemian friends—and almost any interesting people they cared to bring along. Sometimes there would be formal topics and presentations, such as the evening in 1879 when two members of the Ponca Indian tribe delivered a talk. Botta was a master of both bringing creative people together and keeping the conversation from stagnating.

Botta was one of the first people consulted in 1868 about founding a club exclusively for women. The then-radical idea began when women writers were excluded from a dinner for Charles Dickens, who was completing a reading tour, hosted by the New York Press Club. The new group eventually chose the name "Sorosis," a botanical term describing fruits that are formed by the merging of many flowers. The pineapple became the club's emblem. However, despite the avant-garde nature of the Botta salon, Botta's husband opposed her collaboration with the all-women group. Notwithstanding Botta's absence, the Sorosis Club quickly expanded in members and stature by working, according to their constitution, "to establish a kind of freemasonry among women" and "to exert an important influence on the future of women and the welfare of society" (Croly, pp. 8–9).

In mock homage to the slight involving Charles Dickens, the Sorosis Club hosted an annual dinner to which men and women were invited, signaling the progress made between the sexes. Such meetings were not on the agenda of the Heterodoxy Club, a notably more feminist organization. From 1912 to the 1940s, this group of "unorthodox women," as the member and New York socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879–1962) fondly described it in her memoirs, met in Greenwich Village. Their founder, Marie Jenney Howe, had read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's book Women and Economics (1899) and recruited Gilman (1860–1935) as a charter member. The ranks were filled with educated women, many of whom had careers as well as families and children, divorced single mothers, and women who were openly involved in lesbian relationships. In addition to Gilman, there were several writers among them, including Mary Austin and Susan Glaspell, whose work was shaped in part by their membership in Heterodoxy.

In late January 1913, at about the same time she joined the Heterodoxy Club, Mabel Dodge began hosting regular "evenings" among her artist and intellectual friends. During the next two years, her Greenwich Village living room became one of the most important intellectual salons in twentieth-century America. "Mabel," as she was known, played a behind-the-scenes role in the winter of 1912 helping to prepare the 17 February opening of the Armory Show, the modern art exhibit highlighting European Impressionists that transformed the art world. When she began her salon, Mabel seemed to know all of New York's bohemian intelligentsia. The group debated avant-garde ideas about art and literature, the philosophies of Nietzsche and Henri-Louis Bergson, the merits of socialism and Marx's communism. Sex was a regular topic, as was psychoanalysis. The journalist Lincoln Steffens, upon whose suggestion Mabel began her salon, later claimed that it was in her home that he first heard Freud's and Jung's theories discussed.

Mabel Dodge's salon began to wind down as World War I began. When the Fourteenth Amendment passed in 1922, women's clubs celebrated, but the victory removed an important common cause and recruiting tool, and memberships declined. Memberships in clubs of all kinds suffered during the Great Depression and World War II, when many clubs collapsed. These events helped to end the boom years for American clubs, which reached their zenith at the turn of the century.

See alsoLiterary Colonies; Literary Friendships


Primary Works

Bierce, Ambrose. The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce. Edited by Ernest Jerome Hopkins. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

Howells, William Dean. The Day of Their Wedding. 1895. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896.

Howells, William Dean. A Hazard of New Fortunes. 1890. New York: Modern Library, 2002.

Howells, William Dean. The Rise of Silas Lapham. 1885. New York: Penguin, 1986.

James, Henry. "Brooksmith." In his Complete Stories 1884–1891. New York: Library of America, 1999.

Kipling, Rudyard. American Notes: Rudyard Kipling's West. 1899. Edited by Arrell Morgan Gibson. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.

London, Jack. The Cruise of the Snark. 1911. New York: Penguin, 2004.

Norris, Frank. Blix. 1899. In A Novelist in the Making: A Collection of Student Themes and the Novels "Blix" and "Vandover and the Brute," edited by James D. Hart. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Wharton, Edith. The Touchstone. 1900. London: Hesperus Press, 2003.

Secondary Works

Beckert, Sven. The Monied Metropolis: New York City and the Consolidation of the American Bourgeoisie, 1850–1896. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Bender, Thomas. New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time. New York: Knopf, 1987.

Birmingham, Doris A. "Boston's St. Botolph Club: Home of the Impressionists." Archives of American Art Journal 31, no. 3 (1991): 26–34.

Charles, Jeffrey A. Service Clubs in American Society: Rotary, Kiwanis, and Lions. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Croly, Jane C. Sorosis: Its Origin and History. 1886. In The Leisure Class in America, edited by Leon Stein. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

De Wolfe Howe, Mark A. A Partial (and Not Impartial) Semi-Centennial History of the Tavern Club, 1884–1934. Boston: Tavern Club, 1934.

Fairfield, Francis Gerry. The Clubs of New York. 1873. In The Leisure Class in America, edited by Leon Stein. New York: Arno Press, 1975.

Ferguson, Charles. Fifty Million Brothers: A Panorama of American Lodges and Clubs. New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1937.

Lombard, Charles. "An Old New York Salon-French Style." New-York Historical Society Quarterly 55, no. 1 (1971): 38–51.

Osborne, Duffield. The Authors Club: An Historical Sketch. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1913.

Porzelt, Paul. The Metropolitan Club of New York. New York: Rizzoli, 1982.

Quennell, Peter, ed. Affairs of the Mind: The Salon in Europe and America from the 18th to the 20th Century. Washington, D.C.: New Republic Books, 1980.

Schwarz, Judith. The Radical Feminists of Heterodoxy: Greenwich Village, 1914–1940. Lebanon, N.H.: New Victoria, 1982.

Williams, Alexander. A Social History of the Greater Boston Clubs. Barre, Mass.: Barre Publishers, 1970.

Michael Smedshammer