Grab bag: Letters edition

Virginia Glee Club in the 1870s and 1880s

I’ve often complained that the founding era of the Virginia Glee Club is the most obscure, the hardest to get information on, the time most shrouded in mystery. (The uncertainty around the founding date of the group is just one example here.) Part of the challenge for the first twenty years of the group’s existence is the lack of primary materials: Corks and Curls came along in 1888, and College Topics (later the Cavalier Daily) was first published in January 1890. So where does the UVa historian turn for information about anything earlier than 1888?

Fortunately, students were still writing about their own activities in the 1880s and 1870s, in the only venue at hand: the Virginia University Magazine. Founded in the 1850s as the University Magazine, it continued under the sponsorship of the Jefferson and Washington societies as the V.U.M. or the University of Virginia Magazine through the 1920s. Up until the publication of Corks and Curls, it was one of the few outlets that talked about student activities in print, and its column “Collegiana” provides snapshots of student life during the period.

Now that Google has added quite a few issues of the Magazine to Google Books (most pertinently, 1870; 1877; 1878; 1879; 1880; 18861887; 1888; 1890, among others), we have a better view of the life of the Glee Club during those first twenty years. In particular, we now know:

  • The Glee Club faded in and out of existence in the 1870s, with its prototype emerging in 1870, the first official group forming in 1871 and the emergence of the “Claribel Club” in 1874 and 1875
  • We now also know that Glee Clubs went away entirely during the 1876-1877 and 1877-1878 seasons, then re-emerged in 1879-1880 (the year Woodrow Wilson was a member). Reassuringly, the Cornell Glee Club went through a similar patch in its early years, according to chronicler (and one-time Virginia Glee Club conductor) Michael Slon.
  • In 1880-1881 the Glee Club was seeking “a tenor” (only one? then the group was probably a quartet) after Wilson’s departure from Virginia, and may not have re-formed.
  • In 1886-1887 the Glee Club got more ink in the Magazine than any year before or since, probably explaining why in the 1930s they thought that this was its founding year. The group (re-)formed and went on tour in the “Northern states,” though nothing else is known about this tour.
  • 1886 is also the earliest year where we know the name of a Glee Club president: Sterling Galt. (Alas, we know almost nothing else about him.)
  • The group had a moderately successful 1887-1888, apparently enough so to swell their heads, since the magazine joked that, regarding the proceeds from an upcoming concert, that “Some think that the club will give the Ladies’ Chapel Aid Society enough to complete the chapel, and that all the rest, excepting probably a small amount which will be given to purchase four or five boats for the boat club, will be used to construct a Glee Club building. The building will be located at the foot of the Lawn.”
  • After 1887-1888, the group fell back into a swoon during 1888-1889 and did not organize at all, according to the Magazine.
  • This backsliding was remedied in 1889-1890, with a group that toured as far as Lynchburg and Richmond. This time things caught in earnest, and, save minor hiatuses in 1906-1909 and 1912-1914, things kept going from here.

It’s taken a lot of digging to build this timeline, and there are still quite a few blanks to be filled in. But I think at this point that things are relatively solid regarding the earliest history of the Virginia Glee Club.

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