Administrative Information

Historical Sketch

Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing


1⁄2 file box
.13 linear feet
Processor: Michael O’Connor
Date: May 14, 2009

Acquisition: The journal of the Irving Literary Association was purchased from a book dealer and its acquisition was announced during a Cambridge Historical Society meeting on October 26, 1926.

Access: There are no restrictions on items in this collection.

Permission to Publish: Requests for permission to publish from the collection should be
made to the Executive Director.

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society holds copyright on the materials in the collection.


Historical Sketch:

The Irving Literary Association was formed by a group of approximately 50 men on May 18, 1855 in Cambridgeport, Massachusetts. Naming their association after the celebrated author, Washington Irving, they engaged in literary pursuits such as taking turns at declamations, hiring speakers, and debating. They also acquired books and maintained a library. There is no evidence to indicate that the organization officially disbanded in 1859. Therefore, it is likely that there are missing records for later years during which the Irving Literary Association was active.



Scope and Content Note:

The Irving Literary Association records consist of one leather-bound ledger containing the minutes of the club’s weekly meetings from 1855-1859. Members started each meeting with an attendance call and then discussed administrative matters, regulations, and motions proposed by members. A heavy amount of detail is recorded about these administrative matters. A publication of literary criticism was read before each meeting, and members then chose a subject for debate for the following meeting. Subjects for debate were both historic and contemporaneous to the time of the association. Irving Literary Association members occasionally planned social activities together, such as chartering boats on Boston Harbor.

Though the Irving Literary Association’s debates include an array of significant topics such as slavery, American Indians, and women’s rights, no detail of the debates’ content is noted. The secretary succinctly notes the number of votes cast in favor of one side of the debate or the other.

The vast majority of debate topics are national and international in scope, with few centering just on Cambridge. Nevertheless, the ledger provides a glimpse into the world and worldviews of mid-19th century Cambridge residents. Later entries note that debates took place in Cambridge City Hall and were well attended by the public, indicating that the Irving Literary Association provided a popular form of entertainment.

A sample of subjects that the Irving Literary Association debated includes:

  • May 17, 1855: Which deserves our sympathy most- the American Indian or Southern Slave?
  • December 4th, 1855: Which is the greater evil Slavery or Intemperance?
  • December 11, 1855: Is Corporal punishment advisable in our schools?
  • April 22, 1856: Was the Constitution of the United States intended to support slavery?
  • October 21, 1856: Can the Union be perpetuated in connection with Slavery as it now is?
  • March 28, 1857: Should Catholics be allowed to hold civil offices in our government?
  • October 1, 1857: Is India justified in her attempts at throwing off the British yolk?
  • January 7, 1858: Will it be for the future interest of the City of Cambridge to purchase the Cambridge Water Works?
  • October 19, 1858: Would a division of the United States be beneficial?
  • April 12, 1859: Would the construction of the proposed Five cent Horse Railroad be beneficial to Cambridge?

There are references to the use or potential use of buildings then extant in Cambridge. These include Cambridge City Hall; Wood’s Block; Webster School House; Douglass Block (located on Main Street in Cambridgeport); Washington Hall; Webster Institute; Lawson’s Hall (located on Main and Norfolk Streets); Buckley’s Hall (located on Main Street).

While this ledger clearly documents the founding of the Irving Literary Association in 1855, there is no indication after the last entry that the Irving Literary Association officially disbanded. Therefore it is likely that there are missing records of a later date.


Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Cambridge (Mass.) – Social life and customs
  • Cambridge (Mass.) – Societies etc.
  • Debates and debating – United States
  • Literature Societies, etc.


Series Description and Folder Listing:

Irving Literary Association Records, 1855-1859

Box Folder
1 1 Record Book, 1855-1859