Wittenaagemot withered away

Old clubs never die, they move to museums
By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2002


Oct. 6, 1946
Dear Agnes:
“May I present the name of Mrs. Mervyn E. Richards, 205 Pleasant St., Paxton, for membership in the Wittenagemot Club. She is a member of All Saints Church. She is a Wellesley graduate and has just completed two years as president of the Worcester Wellesley Club — She is owner and manager of the Muir Laundry — also my next door neighbor. Sincerely, Florence Abbott
With that note of sponsorship, Elisabeth M. Richards was admitted to the exclusive Wittenagemot Club, an elite group of women from Worcester and its environs who gathered to share friendship and engage in self-improvement through cultural and educational programs.
Mrs. Richards, who is now 88, was thrilled to be invited — “It was a great honor,” she said. Most of the members were older than she was at the time.
“I was still having children,” she recalled in a recent interview. “They were tickled to have a young member.”
The club was started in 1911 by 10 Worcester socialites who were about to be married. They were sewing their trousseaus and decided each would invite a friend and formally band together. The meetings would feature one member who would talk about a book of her choice, while the others went about their needlework. Later, guest speakers on subjects ranging from architecture to politics replaced the book reports.
Given a woman’s place in society in the early 20th century, these ladies lacked no confidence in choosing a name.
Club literature indicates they borrowed “wittenagemot” from the time of Samuel Johnson, when men would gather in English coffee houses to discuss literary and political issues. Those circles of pundits adopted the Anglo-Saxon words “witan,” meaning wise men, and “agemot,” the word for meeting. “And so did our young girls adopt this lofty appellation,” the literature states.
Through the years, Mrs. Richards served as president, vice president and program chairman. And, in the end, the sad duty of disbanding the club, which had met for 91 years, fell to her and the handful of members who remained.
Time had taken its toll. The members had grown old, and society had gone through a sea change. As large numbers of women entered the workplace and the push for gender equality picked up steam in every corner of life, such clubs became increasingly anachronistic.
So, on May 21, Mrs. Richards hosted the final meeting. Two other members turned up, and the invited guest was William D. Wallace, president of the Worcester Historical Museum. The business of the day was to turn the club’s memorabilia and records over to the museum, along with the contents of its coffers, $700.
Last week, Mrs. Richards and Mr. Wallace reflected on the club’s demise.
“It’s a time gone by,” Mrs. Richards said solemnly. “It will never happen again.”
Mr. Wallace noted the club belonged to “a different time and place, a different society.”
“It is, I think, very responsible of them to see that their history was preserved, and what better place than the Worcester Historical Museum, where it would be here for generations to come,” Mr. Wallace said.
It is significant, he added, that they also turned over their financial assets, which will pay for the records to be processed for access by researchers and maintained in an acid-free environment.
“We can’t do that stuff for free,” Mr. Wallace said. “It makes a big difference to us. They gave the resources to make the material accessible. That was very responsible of them.”
The surviving records recounting the history of the Wittenagemot Club now sit in a light blue archival box in the museum’s library. The box contains a black loose-leaf notebook that has the names of members as far back as 1940. Attached to pages with rusty paper clips are notes from members sponsoring friends for inclusion.
There are several stacks of annual programs going back some 50 years. They are small printed booklets with bright-colored covers, and they list the officers and members and each month’s topic. By the early 1980s, the programs were no longer printed; rather, they were typed and reproduced on a copy machine.
The box also holds a stack of index cards marked “Deaths,” a few newspaper clippings and a photograph from 1981, when the club celebrated its 70th anniversary. The members marked the milestone at a luncheon at Maxwell Silverman’s restaurant wearing white gloves and frilly hats, a bow to the clothing stylish in the era the club was founded.
Mrs. Richards said the group kept a scrapbook from its inception, but, sadly, it has been misplaced. She suspects it will never be found.
All too often, documentation collected over many years by civic and social organizations becomes scattered and is lost forever, said Robyn Christiensen, the historical museum’s librarian. The few records in the archival box are all anyone in the future will know of a club central to the lives of prominent Worcester area women for nearly a century, she said.
The notes, notations and printed matter reveal, as only original material can, the sense of time and place.
In 1943, Ruth N. Fielden wrote a note urging the admission of Elsie Jones because she was “one very fine person, eager to improve her status in life through the medium of lectures, music and new friends and she is a true christian.”
Three years later, in 1946, Mabel Kirkpatrick requested the induction of Lillian A. Porter, “a charming woman of splendid character, active in civic and church affairs … in charge of war bond sales both in the city as well as the state. She is vice president of the Worcester Woman’s Club and a Presbyterian. What more could you want!”
Several of the original members lived short lives, as was common in the early 1900s. In their 20s in 1911, Louise Nason and Ruth Woodward Wyman both died in 1917.
Tucked away in a small notebook is an obituary of Mary H. Payne, a charter member who died in 1962 at the age of 76. Mrs. Payne, the obituary states, was a trailblazer. A graduate of Wheelock College, she was the first kindergarten teacher in the Los Angeles public schools. She returned home to Worcester and taught kindergarten in the city’s schools for 35 years.
The 1950s seem to have been the club’s heyday. In 1952-53, there were nine meetings and 40 active members; four women were on the waiting list. The programs were on flower arranging, porcelain and Republican politics.
April’s offering was a talk titled “Women are People” by Miss Irene Gowetz. The program’s hostess was, appropriately, Mrs. Richards, a successful entrepreneur in her own right. She owned and operated Muir Laundry, a linen, laundry and dry cleaning business started by her father. She was in the process of building it into something of an empire, with eight locations and 150 employees.
There were 41 active members in 1968, but by 1976 the club was down to 29 participants, and the long, slow decline had clearly set in. In the early 1980s, 21 women claimed membership, and the frequency of meetings tailed off. It was not long before only four Wittenagenot programs were held a year.
In Mrs. Richards’s view, the membership grew old and fell off sharply 10 or 12 years ago.
“I’m the only one who doesn’t know I’m old,” she said, laughing heartily.
And it was Mrs. Richards who realized two years ago that the time to disband had arrived. The final meeting in the spring underscored the problem, she said. Not even half the tiny membership of eight attended.
“That’s ridiculous,” Mrs. Richards said. “If you can’t get eight people together you better give up. It has just disintegrated.”
That final group is talking about holding a luncheon next spring, but Mrs. Richards is not at all confident it will come off.
“The thing I think we all miss is the friendships,” she said.