Harmon’s Histories: Can social clubs be restored to their glory days?
By Jim Harmon/Missoula Current
How many of you belong to a club or organization (of any kind) today? Probably very few, I suspect.
Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis – even my own favorite, the Missoula Senior Forum – are all trying to boost membership, but it’s a struggle.
Back in the 1980s, when the Senior Forum began as the Golden-K Kiwanis Club, membership was in the 30s. By the early 1990s, the roster had grown to more than 40, and in the 2000s had topped 50.
Today, only about 20 attend meetings, on average.
To be sure, the pandemic was largely to blame. Our members are a vulnerable age group. Many stopped attending during the shutdown, and never rejoined.
But it’s more than that. Club life is becoming a thing of the past.
Back in the late 1800s, social clubs were omnipresent. New York boasted the Manhattan Club and the Union Club. Chicago had the Iroquois Club and the Union League.
There were so many clubs that some bordered on the silly.
According to newspaper articles in the 1890s, there were the Whitechapel Club (a rather ghastly group) and the Argonaut Club, which built a clubhouse in the shape of a sailing ship.
There was the “Holland Society” based in the “settlement of New Netherlands” to honor the Dutch; the “Salmagundi, an old and famous organization of artists (and) the Triple Alliance (which) had nothing to do with Germany, Austria and Italy, or with American politics. It was simply a union of dealers in carpets, furniture and upholstery.”
Pick a subject, and there was a club especially designed for it.
“The objects of the Players, Press, Mineralogical, Turtle, Chess, Authors, Glee, Jockey, Driving, Riding, Fencing, Jersey Cattle and Merchants’ clubs are showing in their names, and there are separate clubs devoted to raising and improving the breeds of fox terriers, spaniels, mastiffs and collies, aside from the innumerable kennel clubs.”
“The Cremation Club wants mankind to dispose of the dead by burning, and its members agree to thus being disposed of after death.”
“The Titans consist of first class business men and good fellows, not one of whom is under six feet high.”
Total nonsequitors included “The Sea Serpent Club ... composed of news reporters of the New York dailies and the Argonauts of Chicago consisting largely of railroad men.”
The Argonauts built their clubhouse “at the end of the Illinois Central Railway’s pier, dubbing it the Argo. The membership was limited to 51, the number assigned by Greek mythology to the famous crew which made the often-sung voyage in search of the golden fleece.”
“Since June 1, 1891, the Argo has stood at the pier’s end looking as if just ready to be launched – a two storied structure with a roomy deck, where the Chicago Argonauts enjoy themselves and keep cool in the hottest weather.”
Then there was the Lakeside Club, which was established in 1884 and grew to 256 members by 1892. Their five-story building housed “handsome parlors, and (had) a banquet hall 54 by 92 feet, and an assembly hall 70 by 121 feet exclusive of the large stage.”
The press reported, “The structure will be chiefly buff Bedford stone and will rank among the finest buildings in Chicago.”
“Still another Chicago institution worthy of note (was) the Gaelic Club, devoted to the study and culture of the Gaelic language and literature.”
And finally, there was the “Shaw-wa-nos-so-way Club, so named from the Indians who once ranged around Lake Shawano in Wisconsin.”
Of course, “the name had no particular bearing on the nature of the club, as it was almost purely a social affair, and (would) study Indian antiquities only when it has no lively amusement.”
So perhaps that’s the key to success in modern times: Give your club a name that has absolutely no bearing on the purpose of the club, but has a broad and inviting sound to it.
So I hereby suggest that our club, the Missoula Senior Forum, be renamed the “No Requirements, No rules, No Obligations Society of Youthful Spirits.”
That ought to do it.
E-mail me if you’d like more information.
Jim Harmon is a longtime Missoula news broadcaster, now retired, who writes a weekly history column for Missoula Current. You can contact Jim at firstname.lastname@example.org. His best-selling book, “The Sneakin’est Man That Ever Was,” a collection of 46 vignettes of Western Montana history, is available at harmonshistories.com.