The PBK Key
The present standard key, except for its smaller size and for the lower stem added by the branch at Yale, is substantially the same as the original medal of the Alpha of Virginia. On the obverse the medal bears the Greek letters ΦΒΚ, the initials of the words Φιλοσοφια Βιου Κυβερνητηζ, “love of wisdom-the helmsman of life." In the upper left corner three stars symbolize the aims of the Society: Friendship, Morality, and Literature. A pointing hand in a lower corner symbolizes Aspiration. On the reverse the letters SP represents the second motto of the Society, Societas Philosophiae (Sokee-ay-tas philosophee-i). Below them is engraved the historic date December 5, 1776; and above them the name of the member sometimes is inscribed.
On December 5, 1776 a group of young men, students of the College of William and Mary in Virginia, meeting in the Apollo Room of the Raleigh Tavern, Williamsburg, formed the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which they dedicated to high purposes with eighteenth century eloquence. In the Phi Beta Kappa Handbook you will find a brief account of the early days of the Society in Virginia, and of the fortunate establishment at Yale in 1780 and Harvard in 1781 of New England branches that ensured the perpetuation and propagation of the Society when the parent chapter became inactive. During the following half-century four more chapters were founded: at Dartmouth in 1787, Union in 1817, Bowdoin in 1825, and Brown in 1830. Then after a pause of fifteen years a slightly more rapid expansion began in 1845. At the end of the next half-century of growth twenty-five chapters had been founded. The need of a closer unity and greater uniformity of practices led, in 1883, to the organization of the national body, (the United Chapters of) Phi Beta Kappa. At present there are 262 chapters.
In 1875 the Society extended the privilege of membership to women. In 1926, the one hundred fiftieth anniversary was made the occasion for raising an endowment fund and for exploring ways of encouraging scholarship in the educational institutions of the country. More recently the Society has joined in the defense of freedom of teaching and inquiry and of the liberal ideal in education.