Early Science Fiction Clubs: Your Mileage May Vary

Several fanwriters celebrated yesterday, December 11, as the anniversary of the first science fiction club meeting. Was it? Probably not.

Eofan Allen Glasser made the claim that his New York club, the Scienceers, was “the first of all science fiction clubs” in an article for First Fandom Magazine #4 (1961):

The exact date on which The Scienceers came into being was Dec. 11, 1929. The founding members, as I recall, were Warren Fitzgerald, Nathan Greenfeld, Philip Rosenblatt, Herbert Smith, Julius Unger, Louis Wentzler, and myself, Allen Glasser. With the exception of Fitzgerald, who was then about thirty, all the members were in their middle teens.

Glasser also reported the intriguing fact that the host and president of this pioneer club was an Afro-American living in Harlem:

During the early months of the Scienceers’ existence — from its start in December 1929 through the spring of 1930 — our president was Warren Fitzgerald. As previously mentioned, Warren was about fifteen years older than the other members. He was a light-skinned Negro — amiable, cultured, and a fine gentleman in every sense of that word. With his gracious, darker-hued wife, Warren made our young members welcome to use his Harlem home for our meetings — an offer we gratefully accepted.

(See Bill Higgins’ writeup about his efforts to track down the location of the meetings and more information about president Fitzgerald.)

When I read that the Scienceers club was founded in 1929 I gave a sardonic little laugh, because I remembered any number of Westercons where I heard another eofan, Aubrey MacDermott, harp about the Oakland club he’d co-founded in 1928. At the time I had the young fan’s tendency to scoff whenever some geezer fussed about fine points of ancient fanhistory. Now I’m no longer a young fan and I have to laugh because Aubrey managed to etch that 1928 date on my memory anyway.

MacDemott also did some of his fussing in a 1980 issue of Asimov’s when he thought Darrell Schweitzer had slighted his contributions to history:

I see by reading Darrell Schweitzer’s article in the December 79 issue of lASFM that I founded an “impure” Science Fiction club in Oakland in June 1928.

We had over twelve “impure” members to start. Among them were Clifton Amsbury, Lester Anderson, A. S. Bernal, Louis C. Smith, Ray and Margaret St. Clair, Fred Anger, Vincent Brown, and later Forrest J Ackerman. We had the imposing name of East Bay Scientific Association until Forrie joined. Then we changed the name to Golden Gate because Forrie lived in San Francisco. Since he was only twelve years old, his mother would not let him take the long trek across the Bay to East Oakland, by street car, ferry, red train and then again a street car. So we on occasion all went over to Forrie’s Staple Street home.

We read, discussed, traded magazines, wrote letters to magazines and authors. We even put out a hectograph sheet each month for the members.

I know only too well that at that time East Coast fans considered any activity more than 100 miles from New York to be non-existent. But surely not today. As a matter of fact Sam Moskowitz in his Immortal Storm mentions Clifton Ansbury, Lester Anderson, and myself.

Moskowitz’ Immortal Storm testifies to both MacDermott and Glasser’s Scienceers“Aubrey McDemott” is mentioned in connection with the Science Correspondence Club – which was in general, as its title states, a club that did all its activity by mail, begging the question of in-person meetings.

Ordinarily I rely on Harry Warner Jr. to referee these disputes. Unfortunately, his book All Our Yesterdays mentions neither Glasser, MacDermott, the Scienceers nor the Eastbay Science Correspondence Club, despite all he has to say about scores of other eofans and their controversies. He only discusses the international Science Correspondence Club. Jack Speer’s early fanhistory Up To Now also is silent about Glasser and MacDermott, though his original Fancyclopedia has a short entry on the Scienceers.

Fortunately, another historian has reconciled the international correspondence club and the in-person meetings of the Oakland chapter. John Cheng’s Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America says:

In 1928 Aubrey Clements of Montgomery, Alabama formed what he called the “Science Correspondence Cloub,” announcing the club in the pages of Amazing and gathering members as responses came in.  In the same year, while corresponding among themselves, Walter Dennis and Sydney Gerson, c/o 4653 Addison, Chicago, Illinois, also set upon the idea of a correspondence club, which they also called the “Science Correspondence Club,” to disseminate “science and scientific thought among the laymen of the world.” They announced their idea in the pages of Amazing Stories Quarterly and by the next year their group claimed two dozen members while Clements’s had twenty-five members. Membership was not mutually exclusive and indeed overlapped. Although he was the founder of one SCC, Dennis was also the sixth person to join the other, where he served as chairman under Clements’s presidency.

…In 1928, Aubrey MacDemott, Clifton Amsbury, Lester Anderson and Louis C. Smith on the Berkeley-Oakland side of San Francisco Bay began meeting monthly as the Eastbay Science Correspondence Club (ESCC). Raymond Palmer, originally a Chicago SCC member, suggested a national merger between the various organizations. By late 1929 the two original SCCs and willing members of the ESCC, which had reorganized as the Eastbay Scientific Association, merged into one club under a constitution drafted by Dennis, Clements, and A.B Maloire of Chealis, Washington.

Both the Scienceers and Eastbay Science Correspondence Club may have leaned more towards science than sf (some of the Scienceers would be drawn away to join an amateur rocket group) but their members were part of the social network of earnest teenaged readers of Gernsbackian magazines, many of whom became inextricably linked to 1930s sf fandom. Glasser and MacDermott each claimed the club they helped found was the first sf club to meet regularly in-person — one in December 1929, the other in June 1928 – and it seems, of the two, MacDermott’s group has the best claim.

11 thoughts on “Early Science Fiction Clubs: Your Mileage May Vary

  1. Aubrey MacDermott was indeed a fine old guy with great stories, which I was yet a young guy. I met him in 1963 and listened to many stories of the Grand Old Age of sf.
    No matter who was first; they were all quite original.

  2. Awesome.

    I’ve always been fascinated by Gernsback’s decision to position his magazines closer to the cultural eco-system of popular science than to the cultural eco-system of conventional literature but I have never really understood the context in which that decision was made.

    Literary history is well documented and it is easy to become at least passingly familiar with the institutions supporting literary culture in the 1930s (particularly in New York) but the history of popular science is much less well documented and so it was never clear to me what Gernsback was trying to cosy his magazines up against. The existence of organisations like the ones you mention do help to fill in the picture for me.

  3. In 1976, I was asked by that year’s Worldcon chairman, Tom Reamy, to write a history of the Worldcons. Forry Ackerman let me rummage through his vast collection of fanzines for Worldcon history. I took advantage of the occasion to read much older fanzines, including The Scienceers’ “The Planet” which started in June 1930. Its third or fourth issue mentioned holding a birthday party on the anniversary of its first meeting on December 11, 1929.

    Yes, its pages showed that it was much more an amateur science club than a s-f club.

    Aubrey MacDermott used to regale me regularly for years that his Science Correspondence Club was older. But yes, as far as I could tell, it never had any in-person meetings. Its members sometimes got together for museum trips and similar outings, but they were not regular club meetings like The Scienceers’ fanzine documented.

    I also met Cliff Amsbury. He said that, yeah, MacDermott and other S.F.-area teenage s-f fans often got together in 1928, so they were first. But those were all one-shot social meetings. They did not hold club meetings.

  4. “In 1976, I was asked by that year’s Worldcon chairman, Tom Reamy, to write a history of the Worldcons.”

    I believe the chair was Ken Keller. Tom Reamy was head of publications. He also was “the department head of the convention’s ambitious film program department that developed another first: a comprehensive, 80-hour, all 35mm science fiction film retrospective within a World Science Fiction Convention. The concept included a movie theater-style concessions area that offered freshly popped popcorn, selections of soda, and candies.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Reamy

  5. It would make sense that Reamy was the 1976 Worldcon’s head of publications, because he asked me to write a history of the Worldcons for publication in their progress reports. I got carried away with detail, and only got up to 1948 when they ran out of progress reports.

  6. Based on what I’ve read and been told by my elders, I still like the Scienceers claim best. But additional data is always welcome. Now let’s kick another dead horse around some more; what was the first-ever Science Fiction Convention? Leeds in 1937, right? Right…

  7. Has anybody read the earliest issues of The Planet? I’d like to find out if they describe the Scienceers’ setup. Frankly I suspect both Glasser and MacDermott may have embellished things in the interest of being first. And 40-50 year old memories are not the best anyway.

  8. And, to embellish Gregory Benford’s point with my own feelings, I’m just happy knowing these guys existed, and a little about what they were like, without caring overmuch about which was first. 🙂

  9. If the Scienceers were not the first SF club to hold regular meetings, and we have only sketchy information about meetings of the Eastbay Science Correspondence Club or other claimants (how can we know that the Chicago gang didn’t hold meetings?), then we are left without a date and an address for the moment when fans began to meet with one another.

    That being the case, I would be comfortable with continuing to celebrate 11 December 1929 as the birthday of fandom– at least until better information turns up.

    We can gather every year and remind each other of all the qualifications and contrary evidence that cast doubt upon the 11 December as the time and 211 West 122nd Street as the place. For is not squabbling over minutiae an activity in which many of us take delight? And is it not an appropriate way to celebrate proudly those minutiae-squabblers who preceded us in the long history of fandom?

  10. Surely, I read all of the 1930-1932 or ’33 issues of the Scienceers’ “The Planet” that I could find in Forry Ackerman’s collection. Yes, they definitely held regular club meetings, and they retrospectively dated their first meeting as being held on December 11, 1929.. Yes, they definitely did amateur science stuff, not science fiction stuff, although they did call themselves a science fiction club.

    And yes, Aubrey MacDermott and Clifton Amsbury insisted that they often met as a science fiction club around the San Francisco area during 1928. But the name of their club was the Science Correspondence Club, and their meetings were all one-shot museum and planetarium visits, picnics, and the like. I assume that they discussed “Amazing Stories” and the other s-f magazines of the day, but none of what MacDermott and Amsbury described sounded like a s-f club holding regular meetings to me.

    Unmistakably, both the San Francisco area in 1928 and NYC in 1929 were hotbeds of early s-f fan activities. The Scienceers held the first formal, dated, regular meetings beginning on December 11, 1929, but the Science Correspondence Club held irregular, informal, undated get-togethers earlier.

  11. The celebrated Fred Patten writes:

    The Scienceers held the first formal, dated, regular meetings […], but the Science Correspondence Club held irregular, informal, undated get-togethers earlier.

    Which is more fannish?

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