Edith Wharton’s Description of an Old-time Lecture

18-year-old Helena Muffly wrote exactly 100 years ago today:

Thursday, February 26, 1914:  Ruth and I went up to the Institute held in the town hall this evening. Told some things I had heard before, so they really weren’t new to me.

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The Institute may have been held at the McEwensville Community Hall.

Her middle-aged granddaughter’s comments 100 years later:

Today people listen to TED talks online for information and inspiration.  A hundred years ago there were institutes and traveling lecturers who entertained and educated the people who attended their presentations.

Grandma attended several lectures during the previous few months. For example, on December 9, 1913 she wrote:

Went to a lecture with Ruth this evening in Watsontown. Fortunately we didn’t have to walk. We rode in a carriage. The lecture was real good and I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Edith Wharton wrote a short story more than a hundred years ago called The Pelican about a young widow who became a lecturer.  Here’s  how a lecture was described in the story:

The only way of paying her husband’s debts and keeping the baby clothed was to be intellectual; and, after some hesitation as to the form her mental activity was to take, it was unanimously decided that she was to give lectures. They began by being drawing-room lectures.

The first time I saw her she was standing by the piano, against a flippant background of Dresden china and photographs, telling a roomful of women preoccupied with their spring bonnets all she thought she knew about Greek art. The ladies assembled to hear her had given me to understand that she was “doing it for the baby,” and this fact, together with the shortness of her upper lip and the bewildering co-operation of her dimple, disposed me to listen leniently to her dissertation. Happily, at that time Greek art was still, if I may use the phrase, easily handled: it was as simple as walking down a museum-gallery lined with pleasant familiar Venuses and Apollos.

You can find The Pelican on The Literature Network website.

15 Responses

  1. Hmmmmm…I wasn’t familiar with “lectures”. Sounds as though Grandma considered this one a waste of her time!

  2. Interesting! We have it easy, nowadays, with the TED talks, but I guess this could also be a social event..

  3. When you think of no TV, radio, etc., it’s easy to see how the lectures were a source of entertainment and a good excuse to get out and see people.

    • I wonder if people got “cabin fever” back then. The lectures would have provided a nice excuse to get out of the house on a cold winter evening.

  4. I still love live presentations with engaging speakers!
    Diana xo

  5. Institutes, lectures, TED, blogging…they all seem in the same category. People have a desire to tell others about stuff. Others want to hear it.

    Near us is a place called the Cosgrove Institute. It is not the same as what you are describing today. But, I thought you’d appreciate the history lesson.

    http://www.thecosgroveinstitute.org/history.html

    • Thanks for the link. It’s wonderful that they was able to save the building, and find a good use for it. It sounds like there were some people at Cosgrove who cared deeply about their community.

  6. Our town receives many visiting lecturers and although they do not speak in living room parlors, I think the concept is the same. It is a place to learn new things, confirm others, and socialize. I wish Helen had written more about the content in her diary though.

  7. Sounds the same as today with really good speakers few and far between.

  8. I wonder what the topic was…as she didn’t find much food for thought.

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