NEWTON — For a book lover, the long and intertwined histories of the Newton Public Library and Ladies Reading Circle of Newton are fascinating stuff.
The reading circle came first, in 1880, making it one of the oldest continuously-meeting women’s groups in Kansas. The library opened in 1886, and many members of the reading circle have served on its board in the decades since.
First housed in rented rooms at Fifth and Main, the library moved to a structure built with funds from industrialist Andrew Carnegie in 1904. That red brick, neoclassical structure at 203 Main now holds the Harvey County Historical Society. The library moved to its current home on North Oak Street in 1973.
The reading circle was part of the women’s club movement that spread across the United State into many cities and smaller communities after the Civil War. The clubs gave women who might not have had access to higher education a chance to educate themselves and take part in civic discourse.
“They studied lofty subjects at club meetings, everything from electricity to Shakespeare,” the Newton club’s treasurer, Jane Jones, wrote in a 2013 article for the historical society entitled “Ladies, The Meeting Will Please Come to Order.” “Clubs promoted self-education and philanthropy. Daughters watching their mothers prepare for club day would be the first generation of college students.”
Jones’ article continues: “The Bible of the club woman was the Program Book. It contained the year’s program. There was a theme, usually chosen by the President. A Literature Committee developed the program with members assigned to topics. The local Library and Librarian became important to the club members as they gathered study material to develop the assigned topics. As a result, a close association developed.”
The reading circle still donates a book to the library in honor of any member who dies.
According to another article, in the Aug. 25, 1921 issue of The Newton Republican, “The club, as is often the case, began in a more informal basis and so continued for the first ten years.”
“History, literature, travel, current topics, art, music, science and household themes have engaged the thoughts of the women throughout the years. They have kept abreast of the times discussing topics in their season.”
As time went on, club members also organized around such issues as temperance, voting rights for women and access to education, making it more than strictly a book club. Club members were encouraged to debate and criticize one another’s ideas.
Early in the group’s history, there was a debate as to whether or not “women can and do engage in public discussion without indulging personalities.” Subsequently, members adopted a policy which has “included those of various creeds and political beliefs” and “the spirit has always been kind and everyone is most careful not to utter a word that might hurt or offend.”
Three boxes of records kept at the historical society add more details to the reading circle’s history.
In 1893, 32 members paid annual dues of 50 cents each. By 1931, dues had increased to $3 per member, plus 35 cents each for the “Flower Fund.” Records were maintained in impeccable handwriting.
The artfully constructed Program Books show that members were not interested in trivial matters. The earliest, from 1894-95, dealt with “Egyptology.” Here is a typical meeting agenda: The women answered roll call with the name of “A Kansas Bird.” The program for this meeting related to “The Rise of the Feudal System” and “France created by the Capetians.” Mrs. Fisher was deemed responsible for the topic “The Evolution of a Statue,” and Mrs. Pattins finished with “Provincialisms.”
The reading circle currently has 21 active members. The only qualification is the ability to meet in the afternoon of the first Thursday of each month, October through May. New members are suggested by current members and legacy memberships are not uncommon. One member, Sue Harper Ice, followed her husband’s mother and grandmother into the club in 1961 when she moved to Newton with her husband, who had just graduated from law school.
Club meetings consist of a short business section followed by a program fitting into a theme for the year chosen by the president and literature committee. The most recent theme was “Flowers are Earth’s Gift of Happiness.”
Circle presidents are chosen for one-year terms by seniority so everyone is eventually expected to serve.
The Newton Library is currently raising $2.7 million for a new library. Not surprisingly, the reading circle donated $1,000 to the effort.
“The Ladies Reading Circle wanted to enhance the Newton Public Library’s mission of becoming an important place in the community for everyone,” Jones said. “A new building will help bring them closer to their goal.”
Contact Ted Ayres at email@example.com.