The Rise of Clubland
The inexorable lure of exclusivity
“I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” — Groucho Marx, 1950
“I wonder if you’d join me for dinner at my club.”
This question, posed to me in an accent somewhere between British and East coast patrician, circa 1995 while I was a graduate student at Boston University, was to be my introduction to clubland.
At the time, I was almost completely ignorant of clubs (sometimes called gentlemen’s clubs—no, not that kind—or social dining clubs, or their suburban counterparts, country clubs). Growing up in rural Connecticut, I had golfed at country clubs, but hadn’t experienced dining at these exclusive locales.
My vague familiarity was mostly due to the Sherlock Holmes stories. In “The Greek Interpreter,” we learn that Sherlock Holmes has an older brother, Mycroft, who reliably went from his lodgings in Pall Mall, worked in Whitehall, and went to the Diogenes Club every day:
“There are many men in London, you know, who, some from shyness, some from misanthropy, have no wish for the company of their fellows. Yet they are not averse to comfortable chairs and the latest periodicals. It is for the convenience of these that the Diogenes Club was started, and it now contains the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.”
This is a reader-supported newsletter. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts and why I take the time to write. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to join the community and support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.
As improbable as it may sound, the internet (particularly social media) has mimicked much of this experience, and the evolution of the London coffee-house may offer some guidance as what we may expect to see in social audio.
But first, let’s get back to those old stodgy clubs…
“I wonder if you’d join me for dinner at my club,” was the proposition put to me by Dr. Howard Gotlieb, director of Special Collections at BU’s Mugar Memorial Library (now the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center).
The invitation was put to me at the stroke of seven o’clock in the library of his penthouse, after we concluded a pleasant hour of conversation over hors d’oeuvre and cocktails.
I graciously accepted, and he whisked me to the elevator, out the door, and down Commonwealth Avenue, where, a couple of blocks away, we entered the doors of the Algonquin Club.
The building was designed by the storied architectural firm McKim, Mead and White in 1884. The club was founded by Boston businessmen whose “new money” was found distasteful by the members of Boston’s storied Somerset Club, comprised mostly of blue-blooded Boston Brahmins.
Although many of their families were descendants of merchants who had a bourgeois origin, Brahmins came off as cultivated, urbane, and dignified. They were supposed to be the very essence of enlightened aristocracy. 1
Their attitude was aptly summed up in this piece of doggerel by John Collins Bossidy:
And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.
So you see, even among the elite, there were levels of exclusivity that determined their interactions.
You’ll recall that in the London coffee-houses, people began to gather to receive news, hear each other’s views, and become enlightened.
Coffee-houses were also known as “penny universities” because of the crowd that they attracted. Scholars and students alike were regulars, and anyone with a penny could enter and sit in on a lecture or have access to books or print news.
“[T]hese places make all kinds of people sociable; here the rich and the poor meet together, likewise the learned and the unlearned, whilst anyone in search of “good learning” or practical information has but to find out the right kind of coffee houses, viz., those frequented by the masters of that particular branch of knowledge which he affects, and “he may in short space gain the pith and marrow of the others’ reading and studies.” 2
It was an admirable pursuit. But with such a low admittance fare, you can imagine that it began to attract pretty much anyone, and the intermingling of so many interests was sometimes difficult to achieve at some of the coffee-houses:
“There were indeed other gaps seemingly impossible to be bridged over, and at the same time rendering unnecessary all artificial barriers : a stern Puritan could not have been tempted to cast in his lot with the fashionable nonentities at Man’s, and the latter would be equally careful to avoid places where their style of conversation must have met with an open rebuke. We have also seen that there were coffee houses containing, at different times of the day, guests who did not care to mingle, because they had little or nothing in common. Whilst Will’s was able to boast of its literary associations, a stranger entering the Grecian, so famed for its connection with the “virtuosoes” from Gresham and the Royal Society, would feel it desirable to possess some previous acquaintance with these worthies or with their particular studies.” 3
In this way, coffee-houses—and in one case a hot chocolate house—led to clubs. London’s focus on status and class wouldn’t support that intermingling of various strata of society. A discerning gentleman needed a respite from the public, and the need for exclusivity gave rise to the club.
White’s was founded as a chocolate house in 1693, and 50 years later, a kind of an inner club formed there that then led to the formation of London’s oldest and most exclusive club.
In turn, it gave rise to scores of other clubs, many of which still exist today.
The idea was to give gentlemen (and later ladies) a home away from home and a place where they could gather with like-minded people. The clubs naturally sorted themselves into categories: the Athenaeum for the intellectuals, the Garrick for thespians and artists, Blade’s for gamblers and gourmands, and so forth.
Exclusivity and clout were always part of the formula. Sometimes that meant discrimination, and it took the clubs a long while before that was corrected—some as late as the 1990s.
A Familiar Pattern
This kind of behavior is played out over and over, with the advent of each new platform online. There’s a pattern: awareness, ability, access.
First, it’s simply a matter of being aware that a new communications platform exists. Early adopters are brought on by word of mouth or by recommendation of existing members.
Your admission is limited by your ability to connect. If the new app is only made for iOS, then Android users are locked out at first.
Then, it depends on getting an invitation code or being bumped to the front of the line.
Once you’re in, then the race typically begins. Who can amass the most followers? Who can boast the most engagement? The peacocking is inevitable. And interminable.
Alex Kantrowitz writes the Big Technology newsletter and he aptly observed this phenomenon happening presently: “Nearly every early Clubhouse user I speak with brings up their follower count unprompted.”
It’s the age-old pattern.
What comes next? Well, this is where it gets interesting. Because part of the allure of a platform like Clubhouse is the ability to attract an audience. It’s perfect for performers, speakers, and people who want to have discussions on stage.
We can count on those with the most followers leading discussions that may color how we think about whatever topics on which they choose to hold forth. Just as with the coffee-houses and earlier clubs: 4
“Such clubbable elites laid down the cultural law. They ranged over fiction, biography, history, literary criticism, medicine and science, languages, political economy, travel, divinity and music. Together, the members of Johnson's club codified the culture and set its standards. Reynolds’ Discourses, Warton’s History of English Poetry, Johnson’s Lives of the Poets and his editions of the English classics established a canon, an authorised critical heritage. They told the people what to read, what to view and what to think. They set themselves up as cultural custodians to the nation. It was no accident that Shakespeare was just then being deified as a national institution.”
But without proper community management, you can count on the early adopters getting annoyed. Clubhouse already incorporates the concept of clubs: not only does its name reflect that, but users can form clubs within the app to afford themselves exclusivity and a concentration of people who are there for the same reason.
Amid the cacophony of the News Feed, driven as it is by the nameless, faceless algorithm, a place like Clubhouse is a welcome place indeed.
Let’s see if we can find like-minded individuals (and even unlike ones) and have more genteel discussions about the future of society.
Won’t you join me for dinner at my club?
Timeless & Timely is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
“I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: he fornicated and read the papers.” — Albert Camus, 1957
The 11-month-old app has exploded in popularity, even as it grapples with harassment, misinformation and privacy issues. (The New York Times)
Clubhouse, which centralizes creation and consumption into a feedback loop, will do for audio what Twitter, Stories, and TikTok did for text, images, and video. (Stratechery)
Social audio is the Goldilocks medium: text is not enough and video is too much; social audio is just right. Jeremiah Owyang offers a report from his consultancy on the landscape of the social audio industry, including nearly two dozen players: The Future of Social Audio: Startup, Roadmaps, Business Models, and a Forecast. (Kaleido Insights)
“Where loyalists brew fanaticks bake too
And the good will be mixt with the evil.” — Coffee Scuffle, 1662
“There are so many coffeehouses, I know not which to enter: where the sign is painted with a woman’s hand on it, ’tis a bawdy house, where a man’s, it has another qualification—but where it has a star in the sign, ’tis calculated for every lewd purpose.” — Thomas Brown, from Amusements Serious and Comical, Calculated for the Meridian of London. By 1700 there were two thousand coffeehouses in London. (Lapham's Quarterly)
The traditional gentlemen’s club and its etiquette. (The Timeless Gentleman)
It’s amazing how coffee can make you feel awake and alert. It also helped entire movements. How caffeine accelerated the scientific enlightenment. (Medium)
Recommended Listening / Reading
“Language! The blood of the soul, sir! Into which our thoughts run, and out of which they grow!” — Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1859
🎧 Hidden Mickeys is a podcast about the weird, obscure, mysterious, and lesser-known side of Disney. There is one episode that deserves your attention: Adult Disney Social Clubs and a Secret Tour.
📖 In 1763, the painter Joshua Reynolds proposed to his friend Samuel Johnson that they invite a few friends to join them every Friday at the Turk’s Head Tavern in London to dine, drink, and talk until midnight. Eventually the group came to include among its members Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, Edward Gibbon, and James Boswell. It was known simply as “the Club.” In The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age, Leo Damrosch conjures up the precarious, exciting, and often brutal world of late eighteenth-century Britain. This is the story of an extraordinary group of people whose ideas helped to shape their age, and our own.
Story, Ronald The Forging of an Aristocracy: Harvard and the Boston Upper Class, 1800-1870 (Wesleyan, 1980)
Robinson, Edward Forbes. The Early History of Coffee Houses, p. 206. (1893, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co.)
Ibid, pp. 204-5