The Cobweb Club of Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat

October 27th, 2011 by Catherine Fisher

A couple of weeks ago, when the sun was still managing full swing by 6 instead of remaining tucked away for nearly another hour, I noticed in my back yard a large cobweb resplendent in early morning light. So magical was it in both its size and complexity that I tried to capture its brilliance with my phone. Although the image doesn’t do it justice, it’s a souvenir of a moment of awe at one spider’s glorious expression of ingenuity, artistry and survival.

Here at work a day or two later, I went into the Margaret Jane Mussey Sweat Collection for a researcher and noticed the folder containing The Annals of the Cobweb Club, a handwritten record of the meetings of a private women’s organization founded and led by Sweat in the early 1890s. I slipped the fragile journal from its envelope and began to leaf through the very detailed log, spying more than a few famous surnames and eye-catching keywords in my brief scan while hunched between the stacks.

I remembered that a few years ago Portland artist Alex Sax had created an installation piece entitled “The Cobweb Club,” inspired by this volume and exhibited first at the Portland Museum of Art and then in the smaller space of our library’s walk-in display case. Sax’s cast paper spiders and jaguars and other three-dimensional components of the installation created such a colorful, interiorizing tableau of the story of the group, and I knew I wanted to spend some time with this journal myself. She described the history of the group in her museum exhibit brochure:

So, with spiders and webs crossing my path now twice, I decided to take that more in-depth look at the annals to find out just who these women were and what went on at their weekly meetings of the mind. With the motto of  “The cobwebs of one generation make the cables of the next,” the serious nature of their collaboration was declared. The first pages of the log deliver the founding principles and mission, followed by the list of initial members:

“A preliminary meeting was held at Mrs. Sweat’s rooms at the Richmond on Saturday morning, January 11 (1890). The ladies present were Mrs. Hawley, Mrs. Hornsby, Mrs. Sweat, Miss Seward, Miss Horner, Miss Upton and Miss Bell.

The following constitution and by-laws were agreed upon:

1. The club shall be called The Cobweb Club.

2. The number of its members shall be limited to twelve.

3. Its meetings shall be held every Monday morning, at the residence of a member, at 11 o’clock.

4. Each member shall have the privilege of bringing one friend to any meeting, except business meetings.

5. The utmost freedom of discussion shall be permitted.

6. Each member is expected to furnish her contribution to the general entertainment—the subject and method of presentment to be of her own choice.

7. Conversation and discussion to be encouraged.

8. The details of the organization to be kept a profound secret from the public; and a pleasing air of mystery to be allowed to form a halo around the proceedings.

9. The officers of the club shall be a President and a Secretary – to be elected by the embers in council.

10. Vacancies in membership shall be filled by balloting for proposed candidates; one adverse vote being sufficient to exclude.

11. The duties of the President or First Eye to be chiefly esoteric – those of the Secretary or Second Eye to be chiefly exoteric.

12. The names of candidates for membership shall be proposed at one meeting and voted for at the next meeting.

List of Members:

Edith A. Hawley

Harriet B. Bancroft

Rebekah Black Hornsby

Aileen Adine Bell

Sara Carr Upton

Beatrice Hornor (returned to England)

Olive Reilly Seward

Margaret J. M. Sweat

Misina Blair Richey

Sophie Markoe Emmons

Phoebe A. Hearst

Susan H. P. Dyer

Mary Chandler Hale

Alice Worthington Winthrop

Edla Jean McPherson

As much as I was interested in getting to the intellectual papers that the women presented at these meetings (sin and remorse, suicide, George Eliot, chastity, the War of 1812, Browning and Tennyson, cremation, suffrage, personal identity…quite an array!) I was first curious about the weavers themselves who had come together to create such a circle.

A little Internet research revealed that they came from California, Washington, Maine, Connecticut, Kentucky, England, etc. In addition to being a mixture of authors (Sweat, a novelist and literary critic; Upton, the author of a book on mysticism; Emmons, a poet; Winthrop, author of a book on diet and convalescence,) as well feminists, suffragists, travelers and philanthropists, they were also mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of prominent people.

Phoebe Apperson Hearst was the mother of William Randolph Hearst and founder of what is now known as the Hearst Museum;

Aileen Adine Bell was sister to Alexander Graham Bell;

Rebekah Black Hornsby was the daughter of Judge Jeremiah S. Black, Attorney General and later Secretary of State in President Buchannan’s cabinet;

Edith Ann Hornor Hawley was the wife of Joseph Roswell Hawley, Civil War Union Brevet Major General, Connecticut Governor, US Congressman and US Senator;

Harriet B. Bancroft was an art collector and wife of John Chandler Bancroft, also known as Bancroft Davis, who served as Assistant Secretary of State, United States Minister to Germany and Judge of the U.S. Court of Claims;

Olive Risley Seward was the (controversially) adopted daughter of William Henry Seward, United States Secretary of State under Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. She was a travel writer and author of children’s stories in her later life;

Mary Chandler Hale was the daughter of Senator Zachariah Chandler (a leading force in the founding of the Republican Party in Michigan,) the widow of Republican Senator Eugene Hale of Maine, and the mother of Republican Senator Frederick Hale of Maine.

Finally, Minna Blair Richey was the daughter of Montgomery Blair who served as Dred Scott’s attorney in Dred Scott vs. Sanford, as well as US Postmaster General under Andrew Jackson.

These women and their guests (Susan B. Anthony among them) brought to their roundtable of  intellectual probings such a richness of opinion, experience and exposure, as well as connections to an outer world of powerful doers and achievers. How might have their connections informed their opinions or impacted their selection of topics to be discussed? Did the group perhaps function as a place for them to escape limitations experienced in that outer web? Could a map be made of their constellation of ever-widening interconnections, and what might such a schematic reveal of the ingenuity, artistry and survival woven into the web from so many angles, all to arrive at a central, convening circle? Lots of think about from social, political and geographic perspectives.

And if you were to create a map of the co-weavers in your own personal web of connections, who would they be and to what aspects of the world would they connect you? Who are the members of your own Cobweb Club?