Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association Records, 1882-2006

Administrative Information

Historical Sketch

Related Collections


Scope and Content Note

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Series Description and Folder Listing

1/2 document box
.21linear feet
Processor: Christopher J. Lenney
Date: March 2006

Acquisition: Acquisition records for this collection are lacking; both the content of the collection and the bulk dates suggest that most may have been donated sometime after publication of the first club history in 1940. If such was the case, then Lois Lilley Howe, the principal author, would be a likely donor.

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

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

Copyright: The Cambridge Historical Society does not hold copyright on the materials in the collection.

Historical Sketch:

The Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association (O.C.S.A) or Cambridge Shakespeare Club, as it has long been familiarly known, was founded in 1880 and formally organized two years later. It still meets to this day (2006). While the club quickly proved to be a perfect fit in a cultivated, academic community, the idea itself was not original to Cambridge. The notion was directly imported from Concord, New Hampshire by a relative Cambridge newcomer, Mrs. Jacob G. Cilley. Shakespeare Clubs were also a widespread cultural phenomenon in the United States and Great Britain at the time. Similar clubs were formed as early as the 1830s in New Jersey; closer to home, Medford, Mass., organized its club in 1867. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections contains references to over thirty such groups, not all organized along the same lines as that in Cambridge. Many were specifically women’s clubs, and some were full-fledged dramatic societies, or college student organizations. Locally, the Wellesley College Shakespeare Society was founded in 1877 and still exists; the Harvard College Shakespeare Club flourished 1884 – ca. 1900.

O.C.S.A. meetings were held fortnightly, on Tuesday evenings, from October through May. The principal business of these meetings was the dramatic reading of a Shakespeare play or other work. Plays were chosen (and abridged, if necessary) by a rotating three-member “casting committee;” parts were assigned at the meeting prior to that at which they were scheduled to be read aloud. Annual meetings were held in January, and were generally the occasion of a formal paper read by a club member on a Shakespearian topic, or more rarely, of a theatrical excursion.

Candidates for membership were first proposed by two members in writing, then approved by the Council (i.e., club officers), and finally voted on by the Association. Five negative votes were sufficient to exclude. Originally, yeas and nays were cast by kernels of corn and black beans in a ballot box; voice vote is now the norm. In the early years candidates were evaluated on three criteria: residence in Old Cambridge, reading ability, and social congeniality. [SIC32] The residence requirement was subsequently dropped, by 1980 membership extended as far as Concord, Sudbury, and Boxford. Capsule biographies accompanying the List of Members appended to Shakespeare in Cambridge suggest that Harvard and Tufts professors, teachers, librarians, ministers, and ministers’ wives were typical of the social classes represented. A small but noteworthy percentage were relatives (or descendants) of other members, and are cross-referenced as such in the List of Members. Among the better known family “dynasties” was that of Walter Deane and his niece, Mary Deane Dexter, who together held the O.C.S.A. secretaryship for a total of sixty years running.

Related Collections:

Records of the Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association (uncatalogued).
Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
“They include business papers and correspondence, playbills, clippings, photographs, books, objects, from the 19th and 20th centuries (at least) and fill 2 paige cartons, 8 ms bxs, 1 cardfile, and several scrapbooks.” Elizabeth Falsey, Readers’ Services Librarian.

Clubs and Associations Collection.
Lynn Historical Society (Lynn, Mass.)
Includes records of the Shakespeare Club (Lynn, Mass.).

Social Clubs Collection, 1806-1934.
Stockbridge Library Association (Mass.).
Includes materials relating to the Shakespeare Club (Stockbridge, Mass.).

Records of numerous other out-of-state Shakespeare Clubs (the typical term) are listed in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections.


Shakespeare in Cambridge: The First Hundred Years of the Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association, 1880-1980. Cambridge, Mass.: Published by the Association, 1980.

Scope and Content Note:

The Records of the Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association sparsely document the organizational, cultural, and publication activities of the club from 1880 to ca.1930. The main body of O.C.S.A. records is held by the Harvard Theatre Collection, as referenced above. Virtually no original archival materials for the years following 1930 exist in the collection, with only scattered additions made thereafter until 1980. The organizational records include annotated copies of the constitution and a note by George Henry Browne on who had custody of various O.C.S.A. records in 1930. Membership records consist of draft and final membership lists and addresses for various years from 1882 to 2006. Correspondence relates mainly to the preparation and publication in 1940 of the club’s history: The Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association, 1880-1940. Also found is correspondence regarding return of the Association’s silver bowl, a scholarly exchange of letters on the subject of Hamlet between two prominent club members, George H. Browne and William James Rolfe, and the draft of a 1981 letter on the clubs centennial history, Shakespeare in Cambridge. Club cultural activities are documented by scattered cast lists for plays read and an annotated program of the Shakespeare Tercentenary (1916).

A significant portion of the collection consists of research notes and several partial handwritten and typed drafts, believed to have been created by George H. Browne and others in preparing the first club history. Browne died in 1931, leaving what Lois Lilley Howe described as “a collection of notes and details lacking in form or sequence. It was necessary to rewrite and edit, which took some months.” The final version was published in 1940 as The Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association, 1880-1940. Strangely, no printed copy of this 1940 history was found with the draft material. However, a largely verbatim reprint appeared in the club’s centennial history, Shakespeare in Cambridge, a copy of which exists in the collection. Shakespeare in Cambridge also includes a historical essay for the years 1930-1980 by Milton E. Lord, Recollections of 1930-1955 by Lois Lilley Howe, profiles of officers, capsule biographies of members, and other appendices. An additional essay by Howe, Reminiscences of the Early Years of the Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association, published in 1957, is also included.

It should be noted that the draft material for the 1940 history is believed to contain some sections, such as “Tribulations of a Casting Committee,” not found in the published version.

Miscellaneous material includes a few unrelated personal items which appear to have been mixed in with club papers by officers of the club. Among them is a marriage reception invitation and seating plan, and an internal Harvard College Library memorandum on use of the Farnsworth Room written ca. 1920. The handwriting is that of Florence Milner, longtime curator of the room, as identified by Susan Gilroy of the Lamont Library reference staff. Milner’s supervisor was Benjamin Briggs, who served as secretary of the O.C. S. A. from 1927 to 1929.

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

  • Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 —Societies, etc.
  • Clubs— Massachusetts —Cambridge.
  • Cambridge (Mass.) —Social life and customs.

Old Cambridge Shakespeare Association
[table colwidth=”5%|5%|90%]
Box |Folder
||Series I. Records (1880-1980)

1|1|Organizational Records

1|2|Membership Records


1|4|Readings and Programs

1|5|Draft Histories

1|6|Draft Histories

1|7|Draft Histories

1|8|Draft Histories

1|9|Draft Histories

1|10|Research Materials and Notes

1|11|O.C.S.A. Publications