The Adelphic Union, a literary society, was established at Williams College between 1793 and 1795. The date of its official organization was recorded as November 5, 1795, and as the first extra-curricular organization at Williams, its membership claimed all of the students in the College. The Adelphic Union split into the Philologian and Philotechnian Societies when it outgrew its quarters in West College in 1795/6.
The Philologian and Philotechnian were created due to the Union’s increased size, not because the two societies subscribed to different ideals. According to the 1883 revised edition of the Philologian constitution, “The object of this society shall be the literary improvement of its members.” The object of the Philotechnian Society, as stated in the 1873 version of its constitution, was “…the intellectual culture of its members.” Membership numbers in the two Societies were fairly evenly distributed, with only slight fluctuations in popularity from one Society to the other.
The Societies moved into East College when the building was completed and, in this way, obtained separate halls for their meetings. Members contributed faithfully to funds that went towards books, furniture, and upkeep of their quarters. The Societies remained in East until a fire destroyed the building in 1841. After the fire, which destroyed many of their early records and books, the Societies moved into South College (now Fayerweather).
The Adelphic Union and the Societies were known for their library collections, and the Union produced its first library catalogue in 1834. Originally, the Adelphic Union library consisted of about 100 books; the library later boasted 7,532 volumes. The collection was initially under the control of the Adelphic Union through joint participation of the two societies, but after 1841 each society maintained a library of its own. The book purchases of the two societies were strikingly similar, and popular subjects included history, travel, voyages, metaphysics, and fiction. In 1850 the Adelphic Union was incorporated under state law and a Board of Trustees was formed to oversee the libraries and other property of the Societies. In 1963 the corporation was formally dissolved, and the College obtained custody of the libraries. The Philotechnian and Philologian libraries are currently located in the College Archives and Special Collections.
The rivalries between the Societies were at times intense. The Philologian and Philotechnian Societies alternated years of Presidency of the Adelphic Union and control over exhibitions. The first Public Exhibition of the Adelphic Union was in 1796. The Societies participated in the exhibitions twice a year until 1829, at which time the spring exhibition was discontinued and the Societies began to hold their exhibitions only at Commencement of each year. The program of events usually included debates and orations on topics such as prohibition, emancipation, the worth of fiction, and the role of the United States in world affairs. They often invited well known figures to speak at these exhibitions, notably Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1865. In 1831 the Union took over The Adelphi, a literary publication, and the two Societies alternated authority over content and production. In this manner, the Union published about a dozen issues, each one an attempt to surpass the last issue, a product of the other Society in the Union.
Attempts were made at starting rival societies to the Union. In 1843 the Clionian was formed and in 1844 the PhiloRhetorian; both died young. No other literary society in Williams history was as long lived as the Adelphic Union.
For more information on student literary societies, see Frederick Rudolph’s “The Extracurriculum.” The American College and University: A History, p. 137-145. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1962.