Hamilton Book Club celebrates 100 years of friendship, enlightenment

May 23, 2011

The walls in Donna Norton’s home are lined with antique photo albums, yellowed newspaper clippings and stacks of books. As the current secretary and archivist for the Hamilton Book Club, she played hostess for the club’s centennial celebration and luncheon May 10.

The club, which was begin in spring 1911 by a Mrs. A.B.C. Whitacre, is exclusive to women with a Hamilton address. Its purpose, established by the 13 original members, was to make “good books available” and to “foster interest and appreciation of literature” for women.

A hundred years later, the small-town club has 25 members whose ages range from the early 50s to 92. It retains nearly all of its early traditions.

“I suppose our attire has altered slightly,” Norton said, pointing to old photographs of women in floor-length sundresses and elaborate hats at their monthly meetings. “We wear slacks now for the most part, but you’ll still see a large hat in the crowd somewhere.”

Anne Frazer — at 92, the club’s longest-serving active member — noted another change: Annual dues are up these days, and are now $2 compared with the original 25 cents.

Attire and dues aside, the club has remained steadfastly consistent. As always, the women gather in a member’s homes every second Tuesday from September through June, taking July and August off for summer vacation. Unlike other book clubs, in which all members read the same book before meeting, the Hamilton club serves as a mini-library. Each member takes a book of her choice to the kick-off meeting in September, along with with a brief synopsis and review. Over the course of the year, the books change hands each month in a literary round-robin.

“We are more of a social and literary circle than a service organization,” Norton said. “We’ve always been that way.”

Frazer, who joined the club in the early 1930s, agreed: “It is an opportunity to make lifelong friends. The point is just to share books and enlighten one another.”

Meetings have followed the same procedure for a century, beginning with a social hour and then moving into a business discussion and concluding with the trading of books. A guess speaker or musical performance is often included.

The hostess, always accompanied by a co-hostess, is responsible for coffee, tea and light refreshments, as well as the entertainment.

Every year, the club selects a theme, upon which the meeting’s discussion topics and guest speakers are based. Past themes have included household hints, poetry quotations, war-time recipes and Armistice Day. Old programs illustrate that the discussions have always been subtly topical, with mentions of war menus and housekeeping shortcuts during World War I, voting rights during the era of the women’s suffrage movement and the effects of music and favorite radio stations during the Depression.

Most noteworthy is the club’s transformation during World War II. In a brief chronicle of the club’s history, Norton described how the women heightened their community involvement, making Christmas favors for the men at Fort Belvoir and bedside bags for patients at Walter Reed Hospital, and shifted their discussions to food shortages and home defense.

Popular books over the years have included O. Henry’s “Cabbages and Kings,” Wallace Irwin’s “Suffering Husbands,” Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” and Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”

In her research, Norton discovered that three women brought in Peter Kyne’s “Kindred of the Dust” in fall 1920.

“I figured, that’s got to be interesting,” she said, “so now I’m halfway through it!”

In keeping with the founding members’ policies, the club remains invitation-only. To join, a woman must be invited to a meeting by a current member so that she can socialize and observe the proceedings. She does not attend the following meeting, during which the members decide whether to accept her. If chosen, she is sent a handwritten invitation and must reply accordingly.

The Hamilton Book Club will wrap up its centennial season June 14 at the home of Florence Colman, the club’s president.

“We have always been simple and old-fashioned, which is nice,” Nancy Cocroft, a 45-year member, said in a video tribute compiled for the centennial. “The world is moving so fast. It’s nice to enjoy the past every now and then.”

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