Before the Civil War, voluntary associations of women existed in Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville, as well as in some rural areas. Most groups organized through local religious institutions to provide charitable services to the needy. With the establishment of these early groups, women also began meeting informally to share information and discuss books. The Ingleside Club of Memphis held its first meeting on March 4, 1837. This early example of a women's literary club purchased books and distributed them among the members.
One of the effects of post-Civil War urban growth was an increase of educated women with leisure time. These women gathered in their homes to exchange books and discuss academic topics. Although these early literary clubs were often short-lived and lacked continuity, they established an organizational pattern that became widespread in Tennessee in the 1890s. Literary clubs generally limited membership and confined activities to the study of literature and other academic subjects. Meetings followed a set agenda centered on a formal presentation by a club member and group discussion. Some literary clubs expanded their focus to current events and local community problems, eventually evolving into the broader realm of women's clubs.
The Thackery Book Club organized in Memphis in 1876. Like the earlier Ingleside Club, this organization limited its membership, purchased books, and rotated them among the members. The Women's Club of Memphis traces its origins to 1892, when members of the Nineteenth Century Club established an organization for cultural and literary discussion.
When the Ossoli Circle was founded in Knoxville in 1885, its members studied authors and presented papers at club meetings. Although it had its origins as a literary club, Ossoli Circle is regarded as Tennessee's first women's club and became active in the advocacy of a number of women's issues, including woman suffrage.
Between 1885 and 1898, Nashville women established three literary clubs, with membership limited by marital status and religious views. In 1885 the Query Club was founded for unmarried women who wanted to continue their education. Seven years later, a similar club, the Review Club, emerged for married women. In 1898 Nashville's Jewish women established the Magazine Circle.
Six women who exchanged books established Kosmos, Chattanooga's first women's literary club. When the Tennessee Federation of Women's Clubs was established in 1896, many of these literary clubs joined. Literary clubs continued throughout the twentieth century, and bookstores report a recent upsurge in literary societies and clubs.