On October 19, 1894, a group of women in Walla Walla meet and organize the Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club. The club is committed to the "critical study of such writings as may be deemed best to promote the literary culture of its members," but literary and other interests will lead the club to became active in a number of civic improvement projects. Most significant among these will be the club's work to establish a free public library in Walla Walla, which will open in 1897, and help it obtain a suitable building, which will open in 1905.
A Women's Club
The Walla Walla Woman's Reading Club was organized after a group of women met on October 19, 1894. The stated purpose of the group was to "promote the literary culture" of its members through the "critical study" of books. Initially limited to 25 members, the club met weekly in members' homes to discuss books and literary topics. Food was served -- early on it became necessary to limit refreshments to "three eatables" -- and sometimes music and recitations were heard. The club also organized public lectures, which were given by members of the Whitman College faculty, local clergy, and other Walla Walla professionals. The initiation fee was 10 cents and dues were 50 cents, payable semiannually. During its first year, the club studied Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Joaquin Miller, Edgar Allen Poe, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The Woman's Reading Club's motto, taken from the last of these authors, was: "We all must read, you see, before we live." But books were scarce in Walla Walla and an immediate concern of the club was the development of a free public library for the city. Earlier attempts to establish public libraries -- by the Walla Walla Library Association, begun in the mid 1860s, and the Walla Walla Library and Lyceum Association, begun in the early 1870s -- had not been sustainable.
Reading and Activism
Soon after it was organized, the Woman's Reading Club sponsored a bill that would enable citizens to petition municipal governments to start and finance free public libraries. The state legislature passed this bill in 1895, and the club quickly raised the $1,000 needed to start a library by hosting literary, musical, and other events. The Walla Walla Public Library opened in November 1897. In 1903, the club found a location for a building for the library and two years later, with support Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919), the library moved into its first building, located at 109 South Palouse Street.
The Woman's Reading Club was part of a national women's club movement. In 1896, joining other clubs in the state, the club became a charter member of the State Federation of Woman's Clubs. As was the case with other such clubs, reading led to action: In addition to its work securing books and a building for the Walla Walla Public Library, club members agitated for public trashcans and parks and supported other local efforts and organizations. In the 1930s, by which time there were a variety of strong civic clubs and organizations, the Woman's Reading Club refocused on its original mission of reading and study, although it did continue to support the public library and other book-related activities.