ORGANIZATION PLACE OF MEETING LIBIRARIES EARLY INFLUENCE TWENTY FIVE YEARS AGO BADGES CAUSES OF CHANGES.
The Belles Lettres and Union Philosophical Societies have always been prominent features of Dickinson College. They date from the very earliest years of the institution, and have been maintained in continuous operation to the present time. As they have always been secret societies, their internal history is shrouded in mystery, but their external manifestations leave no doubt as to their utility in the development of intellectual and true manly character. Scarcely had the students begun to come together at the new College, before a number of them, under the American instinct of organization, founded the Belles Lettres Society in 1786, on the 22d of February, and. on the 3lst of August, three years later, the Union Philosophical Society was also organized for "mutual improvement in science and literature." The meetings do not seem to have been held at any regular place until 1791, when the use of Dr. Davidson's lecture-room was granted by the Trustees to the societies on alternate Saturdays. The Belles Lettres desiring to "transact business without interruption," in 1800 met in the old court-house, and continued to do so until the grant of the hall in West College, by the Trustees, in 1808.
In 1791 the nucleus of a library was formed by the Belles Lettres Society, the catalogue of which, however, in 1810, had not outgrown a sheet of paper posted on the door of the hall. Its rival was not long in taking similar measures for the benefit of its members. These libraries, by donations and purchases, have increased, until, combined, they number nearly twenty-one thousand volumes, many of them of great value. They are open twice a week, under common regulations of the Societies, to members of both.
The decided influence of these organizations at an early day has already been alluded to in Chief Justice Taney's account of his college days. Their public exhibitions and debates have always been matters of highest college interest, and although in later years the society feeling has not been so demonstrative, have continued their public exercises without intermission, and each year, at the usual time, have greeted their friends at their literary festivals. In the last few years there seems to have been something of a revival of the old interest. The alumnus of twenty-five years ago would, however, be somewhat disappointed in his successors. He would recall, perhaps, the earnest but generous rivalry, the warm electioneering at the opening of the term, the happy time for the first six weeks of the novitiate in college life, so free from care, so burdened by friends, so shadowed by the few who had him in charge, and how earnest life was allowed to become to him, how wide a circle of acquaintances he was permitted to make after the solemn initiation was over. He would look in vain for the long processions with their display of the red roses of the Belles Lettres, and the white wreaths of the Unions, displaced by the tasteful but less conspicuous gold badges. He would fail to recognize the brotherly ties of the olden time between members of the same society, hardly less earnest than those of fraternity to-day, with immeasureably more of dignity, and less of the intimacy
frequently demands disagreeable and, perhaps, ungenerous, or even Improper concessions.
Even the gold badges of Society, represented in the accompanying cuts, which were first introduced about 1852, and the wearing of which seemed, at one time, as obligatory on members as that of the roses they had displaced, are now rarely seen. Every member, at the time of their adoption, felt it his duty to submit his taste, judgment, and conscience to the infallibility of his Society on all points, and defend the beauty of the emblem of his Society, especially against all unfavorable comparisons with that of its rival. About 1855, the Belles Lettres, however, officially admitted the ugliness of their policeman's star, a combination of a Maltese cross, laurel wreath, jagged points, and a central topaz, by adopting the present far more classical and beautiful design, the facade of a Grecian temple, with its accompanying motto.
Various causes are assigned for these changes in regard to societies, and doubtless, many are operative. Fraternities may have had something to do with them, but they are not alone. Processions of all kinds went out when the extravagant floral displays on public occasions came in. Faculties and Trustees' combined have not been able to hold the students in line. The number and appreciation of his lady friends is a matter of highest importance to the possible future orator, and no under-graduate is without some aspirations in that direction. The removal of the anniversary exhibitions, from commencement week to the middle of the year, has also, undoubtedly, had as great an influence in imparting a peculiar character to these occasions, by rendering them affairs of almost purely local interest. But whilst the old Alumnus might find much to lament,
he might, on closer study, find that in many respects advances , and improvements have been made. Perhaps one of the most notable is the institution of prizes in oratory for their members in the Sophomore class, inevitably to be followed by the Freshman burlesque. He would still recognize, too, in all their public exercises, evidences of the same peculiar culture that they have always been credited with.