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Zelosophic Society of the University of Pennsylvania
Records, 1829 - 1942

UPS 44.2

5.5 Cubic ft.
Prepared by Jennifer Reiss under the direction of Mary D. McConaghy and revised by J.M. Duffin
July 2005, revised November 2005

Access to collections is granted in accordance with the Protocols for the University Archives and Records Center.


The collection was transferred from the University Library to the University Archives and Records Center in two parts, the majority in 1956 and one volume in 2004 (accession number 2004:15).



The Zelosophic Society records are organized in seven series: Constitution and by-laws, 1829 - 1940; Minutes, 1829 - 1864, 1892 - 1941; Membership, 1829 - 1942; Subject file, 1829 - 1941; Scrapbooks and clippings, 1862 - 1940; Financial, 1920 - 1942; Publications, 1833 - 1940. The series are arranged alphabetically, except for the minutes which are arranged chronologically.



The Zelosophic Society was formed in October 1829 as a response to the Philomathean Society, an exclusive literary society formed on campus in 1813. "Zelosophic" can be translated roughly as "endowed with a zeal for learning or wisdom." Commonly called "Zelo," the society's purpose was to discuss literature and conduct debates (much like the charge of its counterpart group). By the end of its first year, the original core of seven undergraduate members had blossomed into twenty-six and the organization was welcomed by the University faculty.

Debates against their rival the Philomathean Society, began in 1847 and drew large crowds to various Philadelphia auditoriums. On the eve of the Civil War, for example, a debate on slavery took place while pistols lay atop the lectern between the debaters. In fact, for a short time the two groups organized opposing football teams, with Zelo often emerging victorious. In 1862, a committee of Zelo members, including J.M. Power Wallace (twice treasurer, Class of 1865) succeeded in forming a union with similar literary organizations on other college campuses, including Columbia, Brown, and Lafayette. The umbrella group, called the United States Literary League was the first cooperative group of its kind in America, but it seems to have only lasted through 1866.

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Zelo's troubles would not end there. The University's move to West Philadelphia from the Ninth and Chestnut Streets campus in 1872 would cripple the Society. According to Robert Ellis Thompson (Class of 1865, once Zelo secretary and later University professor):

When I entered the University there was a Saturday session, which terminated at noon. Then the Zelo met by daylight. In 1863 or 1864 this was abolished, and the Zelo had to meet on Tuesday evenings, as the Philo[mathean Society] had pre-empted Friday evenings. This worked to the disadvantage of the Society, kept it from growing, and finally killed it, when to this disadvantage was added the necessity of coming all the way to West Philadelphia on a Tuesday evening.

West Philadelphia was then a suburb of the central residential section of the city proper and transportation was difficult in the evening in this pre-trolley, subway, and automobile era. Zelo also suffered from the competition for the student's interest with the Franklin Scientific Society, formed in 1876. There was not enough interest and students to support two literary societies and one scientific society. Membership in Zelo steadily declined and it cease to function after the 1874-1875 academic year.

By 1876 the Zelosophic Society discontinued. In the void created by Zelo's absence came the Franklin Scientific Society, which was formed in 1875 and eventually came to occupy the same rooms, to use the same library, and to conduct itself in a similar manner to the Zelosophic Society. For the next sixteen years, the University had only one literary student organization and two different scientific societies. When the last of the scientific societies, the Scientific Society of the University of Pennsylvania, began to lose steam in the early 1890s and eventually died, a group of former members of the Scientific Society decided to try to form a new public lecture and debate society. In the fall of 1892 two members of the class of 1894, Arthur Hobson Quinn and Cheesman A. Herrick, founded the Historical Society of the University of Pennsylvania. The initial response to the organization was encouraging and after a recommendation in an editorial in The Pennsylvanian, the society changed its name to the Zelosophic Society of the University of Pennsylvania in December 1892 and received an inheritance (in the form of a room in College Hall, library and archive) from the original Zelosophic Society.

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Photograph of Zelo members in 1904In 1893, Zelo began a campaign to promote intercollegiate debates, the first debate being held that year between Pennsylvania and Cornell University. By 1916 Zelo members formed the nucleus of an independent Debate Council to regulate all debates on campus, as well as those between the University and other schools. This organization remains a vibrant student group on campus nearly one hundred years later. A similar campaign was undertaken the following year to further the cause of intercollegiate oratory, and Zelo members subsequently founded the Pennsylvania State Inter-Collegiate Oratorical Association. In 1908 the Society branched out once again, this time into drama, an interest begun when Zelo offered to sponsor the Philadelphia performances of a touring English troupe called the Ben Greet Players. With the inspiration of these actors Zelo began to perform plays annually. In 1915, they produced "The Prince of Partha" the first English play published by an American-born playwright, Thomas Godfrey (a friend of Francis Hopkinson, Class of 1757). Two years later, and eighty-eight years after its inception, Zelo was officially incorporated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

Photograph of Zelo members in 1939Throughout its history the Zelosophic Society has produced two principal publications, literary magazines called The Critic and The Zelosophic Magazine. Each publication was alternately revived and became defunct throughout the history of Zelo. Notable members of Zelo included Herbert E. Ives, the inventor of the first cathode ray tube, which would eventually evolve into the modern television.

The rejuvenated Zelosophic Society existed as an independent group on campus until the mid-1940s. In early 1941 it ceased publishing The Critic and, like many student organizations, it had to suspend its activities during World War II. Though a former member, Oliver Crosby, revived Zelo in 1945, it was not able to compete with the various other student groups and eventually ceased to function sometime between 1947 and 1949.

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The records of the Zelosophic Society of the University of Pennsylvania are a rich source for documenting the creative energies of university students for part of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The publications of the Society, both in printed and handwritten form, cover a wide variety of topics. In the period of ca.1830 to ca.1870, the strongest one for this collection, one finds such literary forms as parody, humor, poetry, drama, short stories, historical sketches, and commentary on current events and culture. Though written primarily in English, there is frequent use of Latin and Greek phrases in the text, reflecting the strong classical training prevalent in nineteenth century undergraduate education. The early twentieth century writings in the collection cover much of the same forms as the nineteen century material except poetry. Additional copies of the printed publications of the Zelosophic Society can found in the general University publications collections of the University Archives.

The dramatics subject file and scrapbooks have correspondence, newspaper clippings, playbills, and programs which provide a glimpse into the strong performance art focus of the Society in the early twentieth century, particularly its major pantomime "Masque of American Drama" which was co-produced with the Philomathean Society. Some of these files also contain photographs of some of the actors and sets used in these productions.

The organizational structure of the Zelosophic Society and the manner in which it functioned are well documented in the minutes and constitution and by-laws which exist for most the history of the society (1829-1864, 1892-1941). A glimpse into the financial arrangement of the society during the 1930s can be found in its treasurer's account books and account statements as well as the membership fine book.

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Facsimile of opening page of minutes for the first meeting of Zelo, Oct. 29, 1829. Click image to view and read larger version
Minutes from the first meeting,
October 29, 1829




Agency History

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Inventory and entire guide available as a PDF file (49 kb, 17 pages)


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Caricature 'Getting over the difficulties of style' submitted to the Zelosophic journal in 1851.  Click image to see larger view with other caricatures
Caricature submitted to the Zelosophic journal,1851



Robert Ellis Thompson's handwritten 1865 report on books purchased for Zelo's Library. Includes volumes by Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child
Robert Ellis Thompson's report on new books purchased for Zelo's library, 1865



Handwritten announcement, c. 1870, of try-outs for Zelo debate on the repeal of the 15th amendment.  Click image to view and read larger version (2 pages) in PDF format
Announcement, ca. 1905, of try-outs for Zelo debate on the repeal of the 15th amendment



First page of program for 1907 debate between Zelo and Swarthmore College on the advisability of imposing a general income tax.  Click to view and read the entire program (4 pages) as a PDF file.
Program for Zelosophic Society debate with Swarthmore College,1907