In this post, we’ll take a closer look at the history of Greek Life and the origin of organizations that we today know as Fraternities and Sororities. This information may be helpful to understand the history and traditions of Greek Life.
During the second half of the 19th century, there were several students who started to form their own organizations for discussing and debating literature and current events, mainly as a reaction to the strict culture and often limited curriculum that was presented by their colleges.
These students wished to learn more about a wider variety of subject areas and topics than were addressed in their classrooms. They wanted to study more academic subjects in greater detail than was possible in the time allotted during their courses, and they wanted to express themselves in a free manner. So they started their organized literary and debating societies. There were actually quite a few universities that fostered these liberal organizations and encouraged their students to learn how to best think for themselves.
The students that participated in these groups often developed deep relationships and were depending on one another for considerably more than merely intellectually stimulating debating and conversation. By the end of the 19th century, intellectual development was still at the center of this fraternity life, though members were increasingly involved in activities such as partying, dancing, and sporting events.
The Chapter House
Sometimes, these group members were living together in boarding houses or college dorms, but the Chapter House was actually not common until the late 19th century. Before the 1890’s, the majority of fraternities were relatively small, and included usually less than 30 members, so they could hold their meetings in a dorm room or a campus hall. Those small numbers, though, caused the financial impossibility to run a house just for their members. They just didn’t have enough student members to afford the renting cost or owning their own house.
By the late 1890’s though, some of these groups already included many alumni who turned out to be professionally successful and who were donating enough services and money to their fraternities to secure their chapter’s own house. The development of these Chapter Houses was marking a period of increased growth and prosperity for the fraternities. In those days we also saw a change in how the fraternities were organized and how they shifted their priorities. Until then, fraternities used to gather together for special occasions, but now, they started to get together on a more regular basis, no longer just for special events.
This led to increased interaction, but it also implied that a more substantial part of the fraternity’s attention needed to be targeted towards the house itself, and alumni needed to set up boards to get incorporated and deal with legal matters, mortgage payments, and maintenance, repair, or improvement issues. Other chapter members were required to deal with the every day business, and this included no longer merely intellectual issues, academic exploration, free expression, or a lot of daydreaming. Now they had to focus on maintaining, cleaning, and paying for the house, or sometimes even building their houses.
Since they now were spending a lot of time together under one roof, recreational and social activities became more important, and economic and financial concerns became a priority because after all they needed the financial resources to own and take care of their property. Owning their own Chapter House, however, also offered the members the chance to develop more practical and economic skills, to become more responsible, and gain important leadership skills.