Philo History

A Brief History of Philo

By Emily Kern (C’ 12) and Andrew Kincaid (C ’10)

Philo’s Founding
One October evening in 1813, the thirteen members of the senior class at the University of Pennsylvania convened to form a literary society that would serve as both counterweight to and an expansion of their academic coursework. The following month, the Trustees approved a resolution sanctioning the literary society, and guaranteed to provide it with quarters in perpetua. In the first meeting, the title of Moderator was chosen for the Society’s presiding officer; two Censores Morum were appointed by the third meeting, who were given the responsibility, maintained to this day, of fining members for various real or imaginary infractions. Philo’s first meeting was on Friday night, at which time it would remain up to the present day. The Society’s Library was established so as to give members access to contemporary works, and rivaled in size the University’s own library. Minutes of the Society’s Meetings have been kept (relatively) faithfully in large leather-bound volumes since the first Meeting. Members still sign the Recorder’s Roll upon their initiation into the Society, following the tradition started by the founders.

Early meetings were dominated by spirited debates and literary exercises where members would present original research, essays, or literary productions; both practices have continued through the present day. As the Society grew and expanded, committees of members worked together on different projects, publishing informal literary reviews and humorous magazines such as the infamous “Mummy Monster”.

When the University of Pennsylvania moved its campus from Ninth Street to the far-flung suburban idyll of West Philadelphia in 1872, the new campus consisted only of College Hall. Other early buildings, such as Medical Hall (subsequently Logan Hall and now Claudia Cohen Hall) and the old University Hospital building, were not completed until 1874. Despite the relative dearth of space, four rooms at the top of College Hall were specifically built for the use of the Society and granted to it in perpetuity. After the first collapse of the Zelosophic Society in 1872, the former Zelo rooms were used by the Scientific Society and then reverted to Philo. The move to West Philadelphia had been largely motivated by a desire on the part of Provost Charles Janeway Stillé to increase the student population and to expand the educational offerings of the University. In his scheme, it was crucial that the student literary societies also be granted adequate space to add to the learning of the students outside the lecture room on the new campus.

Philo in the Nineteenth Century: The Center of Penn Life
Cover of the Rosetta Stone ReportAfter the Society received “a rosetta stone,” as recorded in the minutes from September 22nd, 1856, three members collaborated to produce the first definitive English translation of the Rosetta Stone texts. After its publication in 1857, Philo reeived congratulatory letters from intellectual luminaries such as Washington Irving, Irving Washington, and the Baron Alexander von Humbolt; more recently; the “Report,” as it is known, was honored by the British Museum as one of the most important translations of the stone ever produced.

In 1875, another Philomathean committee was appointed to produce the University Magazine. Originally a literary review, the Magazine expanded to include information about the burgeoning campus scene, including athletic events, class events like the Bowl Fight, and the Sophomore Cremation, and even taking on an activist role as the editors petitioned the University leadership for greater elective offerings, a student gymnasium, and the establishement of a research liberary for student use. Such was the influence of the Universtiy Magazine that in 1885 it was dissolved by Philo and a newspaper was begun, one open to all students. Originally titled the Pennsylvanian, it was soon published on a daily basis, and continues to this day.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Philo branched out into dramatic productions, beginning with the “Greek Play” co-produced with the Zelosophic Society, in 1886. As had happened with the University Magazine, the dramatic efforts spawned other groups which dedicated themselves exclusively to dramatic productions; Mask and Wig, Penn Players, and the now-defunct Drama Guild were all founded by dramatically-inclined Philomatheans. The Philo Plays increased in scale, and drew an ever-increasing number of students outside the Society to get involved. Even women were allowed to participate in the productions, a very radical move for the period, since women were  a very small minority on campus and still unwelcome in most extracurriculars. The Philomathean dramatic spirit culminated in the 1917 production of the Masque of the American Drama, which was staged in Rittenhouse Square and involved virtually the entire student population of Penn and nearly 10,000 costume changes.

In its internal governance, Philo reflected the progressivism of the early twentieth century by being, in 1916, the first Penn group to require its members take an oath not to discriminate on the basis of race, creed, and religion; in 1948 the Society voted to admit women as full members, prompting the headline “Philo hits rock bottom, admits women” in the DP. The Society vehemently defended the decision more than 25 years before women were admitted to the University proper.

The Time of Troubles: 1927-1951
The Shepard's PlayIn 1927, overcrowding at the University led the Philos to agree to vacate their space in College Hall in exchange for temporary quarters in Houston Hall until more class space could be found. Houston Hall was not an ideal location: space constraints and building policy, especially the 11.30pm curfew, severely limited Philo traditions. As a result, Society membership decreased, a trend further exacebated by the oubreak of World War II, when Houston Hall was taken over by the US Navy of part of its officer training programme, and former Philo rooms were requisitioned for storage. All of the Society’s furniture and artifacts were lost forever, save only its archives, deposited with the University by Moderator Jerome Mittelman in 1941 for safekeeping.

World War II destroyed almost every previously functioning collegiate literary society in the United States, as campuses were depopulated by the war and facilities were re-appropriated for military use. Of all of its peers, only Philo survived.

A Philo Renaissance: 1951-1967
The Society's Library during its stay in the Hare building.Even then, it was a close thing. The Society had dwindled to a single member, one Hilary Putnam, the last Junior Member on campus who had joined the Society prior to its expulsion from Houston Hall. Putnam, who would go on to become Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Harvard, tried to preserve the Philomathean customs and arranged informal meetings in Members’ apartments. After the war, the Society held more formal Meetings and grew in membership, but it was not until 1951, under the direction of Moderator Charles Fine Ludwig, that the old pre-war customs were revived.

Ludwig re-acquired the Philomathean archives and reintroduced academic attire, consistent meeting minutes, a regular literary exercise, and an official lecture series, among many other Philomathean customs. Ludwig also established the tradition of Philo’s graduates, or “senior members“, participating in the Society’s activities and taking an ongoing interest in the welfare of the Society.

In 1955, the Society secured a more permanent home on the fourth floor of the Hare Building (now the location of Williams Hall). Beginning with a collection of Japanese woodblocks, Philo established the first permanent University art gallery in 1963. The tradition of art shows continued over the subsequent forty years, with art gallery shows forming an essential staple of Philo activity up to the present day.

Finally, in 1967, after a determined campaign of lobbying University administrators for permission and senior members for donations, the Society returned to its beloved Philomathean Halls on the fourth floor of College Hall, where it has remained (with brief absences for maintenance) until the present day.

The Present Era: 1967-

Jared Diamond

Dr. Jared Diamond speaks at the Society's 2011 Annual Oration to a capacity audience in Irvine Auditorium. (Photo credit: The Daily Pennsylvanian)

Reinvigorated by its return to its historic home, the Society embarked upon an expanded set of activities, many of which continue to the present day. The alumni most responsible for Philo’s return also created an Alumni Association to ensure that the Society would always benefit from strong links to its Senior Members. Throughout its history, Philo has thrived by providing activities and opportunities not found elsewhere in the University, and continues to exist as an outlet for free thought, creative expression, and the unabashed pursuit of the intellectual life.

Where Philo will go in the future is, to an extent, up to you.


Published Histories of Philo

In honor of its one hundredth, 125th, and 175th anniversaries, the Society has commissioned official histories of itself, often written by committees of its members. These include:

In addition, the Society has been covered in a number of periodicals, often coinciding with its anniversaries.

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