Do we need more "Thought and Work Clubs"? - a look back

By Maggi Smith-Dalton, Globe Correspondent

"Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations…. religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools. If it is proposed to inculcate some truth or to foster some feeling by the encouragement of a great example, they form a society. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association." - Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America"
Summertime, Salem, 1891.  

Two days before Independence Day, on July 2, author, activist, and inveterate organizer Kate Tannatt Woods, "an officer in the General Federation of Women's Clubs and a member of the New England Woman's Club" opened the door of her house to greet seven guests. The group included Mrs. Grace Atkinson Oliver, a member of the Boston Woman's Club.  

The lively gathering of ladies meeting in Woods' home that afternoon planned to form yet another of Salem's numerous public associations. At a second meeting later that month the fledgling club boasted 30 attendees.

With the adoption of a constitution and the founding of the new association (Mrs. Woods suggesting the name "Thought and Work Club") Salem gave a significant contribution to one of the great social developments of the 19th century. Women's clubs were the driving force in so many of the era's cultural, political, and charitable achievements and organizations that their importance to the development of the modern United States can hardly be exaggerated.

Kate Tannatt Woods (1836–1910), who was elected president, and Grace A. Oliver (1844-1899), elected vice-president, were, as indicated, well-versed in the ways and methods of club organization. Corresponding secretary Ellen A. Brown, recording secretary Abbie L. Read, treasurer Emma S. Almy, auditor Sarah Davis, and five more directors filled out the rest of the early Thought and Work Club's official governing group, according to "The History of the Woman's Club Movement in America," published in 1898.

The aims of the association were broad, yet meshed with the goals of the larger, contemporary nationwide movements. Author and journalist Jane C. Croly (1829-1901) wrote: "The club was established on much the same lines as the New England Woman's Club in Boston, with points taken from various other organizations and some methods of its own. It was the object to make it broad in its work and liberal in its aims."  

Since the president and vice-president were published authors, it comes as no surprise that the club did much "good literary work." But, added Croly, the club was also "active in civic affairs. It has labored to improve the schoolrooms, to cleanse the street-cars, and elect women upon the school boards. It has won a half holiday for the clerks in the stores, and presented to the schools a number of fine pictures. It has brought many famous men and women to the old town, and established a headquarters in one of the historic houses, where classes are held and the committee work done."

The Thought and Work Club produced literary publications, and established a "book review class." It also sponsored language classes and a civics class which was "addressed by prominent city officials and State senators." Thus, through all these endeavors, the club assumed an active role in the local community; and, since its organizers were also active in larger spheres (for instance, Woods was a founder of the Massachusetts State Federation of Women's Clubs) Salem's women also enjoyed influence beyond city borders.

Eventually, the group expanded to more than three hundred members. Its motto was "Lofty thoughts and kindly deeds" and the club chose, as its emblem, the pansy.

The pansy has symbolic significance, then as now, for in the Victorian language of flowers it indicates "thoughts of you" or simply "thoughtfulness." The flower symbol can be seen as a nod to the literary associations of its founders, as a book on horticulture published in 1893 indicates: "The flower is always alluded to as the Heartsease in the Floricultural Cabinet, but in the volume for 1835 I find the word Pansy first used. This was even then an old name, as Shakespeare makes Ophelia say in her mad scene, "There's Pansies, that's for thoughts," and it is well known that the word is derived from the French Pensee or thought."

Meeting twice monthly, The Thought and Work Club had, by 1898, committees for art and literature, history, education, and "home improvement."

We'll turn next to looking at the lives of two of the energetic women who founded the "Thought and Work" Club, and some of the more interesting contributions it made to Salem and Massachusetts culture during its existence.

Musician, educator and lecturer, Maggi Smith-Dalton is the president of the Salem History Society. Author of “Stories and Shadows from Salem’s Past: Naumkeag Notations” (The History Press, 2010), she is working on her second book of Salem history for 2012. She and her husband, Jim Dalton, are also co-authoring a book on music in Salem's history and have released two new albums of 19th-century music. Reach her at For information on joining the Salem History Society, go to

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The pansy was chosen as the emblem of Salem's "Thought and Work Club." Illustration from "Hardy Perennials and Old-fashioned Garden Flowers" by John Wood (London, 1884).

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