On February 26, 1885, nine women gathered in the Houston home of Mary Jane Harris Briscoe to seek “intellectual and social culture.” They formed a club, which they named Ladies’ History Class. By early April 1885, having expanded to about thirty-five members, they changed the name to Ladies’ Reading Club and drafted a constitution. The members’ primary purpose was to expand their knowledge of art, science, literature, and history, and, after devoting their first few weeks of study on the topic of Egypt, “it was determined to so divide the time that one week each month, in regular rotation, should be devoted to the discussion of subjects included under the general heads of Art, Science, Literature, and History.” Members were assigned topics for papers they prepared and presented. Because there was no public library in Houston to provide reading materials for their research, the club began acquiring their own library by purchasing books and subscribing to periodicals. Members could check out the club’s books for a small fee that was then used to purchase additional materials for their library. By 1895 the club’s library contained 148 books and several volumes of bound magazines.
Mayor S. H. Brashear appropriated money in 1899 for a free public library, yet took no action to establish one. Andrew Carnegie agreed to give the city $50,000 for a library building, but no property was acquired on which to erect a building. The Ladies’ Reading Club invited members of the Woman’s Club, the Current Literature Club, the Shakespeare Club, and the Mansfield Dramatic Club to a meeting on January 8, 1900, that resulted in the formation of the City Federation of Women’s Clubs. The Federation, under the presidency of Ladies’ Reading Club member Adele Briscoe Looscan, accepted responsibility for raising money to purchase a lot. Federation members sponsored musicals, lectures, ice cream socials, and bazaars. Their efforts, combined with individual gifts, raised $7,880 that was used to purchase property at the corner of McKinney Avenue and Travis Street. On March 2, 1904, the Houston Lyceum and Carnegie Library opened with 14,000 volumes awaiting the public. Elizabeth L. Ring, a Ladies’ Reading Club member, was named to the first board of trustees, a position she held for forty-one years until her death.
The Ladies’ Reading Club continued to offer financial support and volunteer services to the Houston Public Library, as it was renamed on October 11, 1921. Members developed a traveling library in which books and periodicals were packed in cases and sent to neighboring communities without a library. The reading materials remained for a specified time, after which they were returned to Houston and circulated among other small towns. The traveling libraries were also sent to schools in the area through the county school superintendent. In 1917 club members assisted with opening a library for soldiers at Camp Logan, the city’s World War I military encampment. In the 1950s, club members volunteered to compile scrapbooks from the library’s vast file of newspaper clippings on Texas and Houston history. Many months were spent on this project and resulted in providing library patrons with easier access to these materials. The Ladies’ Reading Club’s own records, dating to 1888, comprise the earliest women’s club collection at the Houston Metropolitan Research Center. Among the items are century-old keys from the cases of the traveling library. Adele B. Looscan, the Ladies’ Reading Club’s first president, left her personal collection of 1,500 books to the Houston Public Library upon her death in 1935.
There are two branches of the Houston Public Library named for early members of the Ladies’ Reading Club: Adele B. Looscan Library, opened in 1956, and Elizabeth L. Ring Library, opened in 1964. The 1926 Julia Ideson Building, which houses the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, is named for Houston’s first librarian, Julia Ideson, who was a longtime honorary member of the Ladies’ Reading Club.
The Ladies’ Reading Club celebrated its 132nd birthday in February 2017. Members continue to support the Houston Public Library financially with a gift each February and through a memorial fund maintained throughout the year. Members also lend support by participating in Friends of the Texas Room, an organization incorporated in 2002 to support the Houston Metropolitan Research Center through advocacy, financial support, volunteerism, and public relations.
The Handbook of Texas Women project has its own dedicated website and resources.