150 years of Prismatic Club Records now open

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Prismatic Club, the Reuther Library has opened the records of the Detroit-based men’s private social club.

The Prismatic Club was founded by Samuel R. Bartlett on January 10, 1867, in Detroit. It was patterned after a Massachusetts literary society, The Social Circle of Concord. Still active as of 2017, the club has a cultural, social and literary focus. Members, known as Prisms, come from a wide range of professions and careers. They have included many prominent Detroiters and Michiganders including elected officials, university presidents, business leaders and clergymen; the club also elects selected honorary members from other parts of the country. Michigan governor John J. Bagley, sculptor Marshall Fredericks, poet Edgar Guest and labor leader Richard Frankensteen are among the notable members over the 150 years.

Weekly presentations on a variety of topics, including history, medicine, engineering, genealogy, art, literature and gastronomy, are a hallmark of the organization. Texts of many of these presentations are included in the records. They include enigmatic titles like “Carmina Prismatica,” from an unidentified writer in 1870; historical talks like “Fascist Italy” by Frank Lord, 1928, and “France at Wars' End,” by Charles Vibbert, 1948; as well as scientific and business presentations, like “The Industrialization of Medicine,” by Richard Smith, 1994.

The records include materials from club events, such as invitations, programs and photos, dating back to 1870. The administrative files of the club are extensive and represent the full 150 years of club history. Noteworthy is a hand-written, bound book of minutes and notes from 1867, which has been digitized.

Since 1928, the Prismatic Club has had its clubhouse at the former home of member Levi L. Barbour at 80 Eliot Street in Detroit, just off Woodward Avenue. Club records document the use of the house, including several renovations over the year. Photos are included. The club has commissioned portraits of club presidents since 1877 and therefore has one of the best portrait collections of the area’s civic, social and business leaders. Photographs, photocopies, and slides of these portraits and other artwork are part of the collection. There is a significant collection of original drawings and cartoons by Prismatic members, especially Lewis Thomas Ives and Percy Ives. These 19th-century works include political cartoons, caricatures of club members, and illustrations for original poems and satirical nursery rhymes.

Former Reuther Library director, Dr. Philip Mason, was instrumental in collecting and preserving this material, aided over many years by Prismatic member John T. Fillicaro. Two books of Prismatic Club history have been published: Prismatic of Detroit: Prismatic Club 1866-1966, by Philip P. Mason and Paul T. Rankin (1970), and Prismatic of Detroit: Prismatic Club 1969-1996 (1997).

To mark the anniversary, the Prismatic Club presented an exhibit of club artifacts and artworks in the Community Gallery of the Detroit Historical Museum for several weeks in September-October. In November, the Reuther Library hosted an anniversary dinner for club members where an exhibit of documents, art and photographs from the collection were on view.