Phi Beta Kappa, established in 1776 at the College of William & Mary, was the first Greek-letter group for college students in the United States. In its early days, it was more a social fraternity rather than the honorary group it is today. The Kappa Alpha Society, established in 1825, was the first solely social fraternity. While a few colleges opened their doors to female students and several groups were established prior to the Civil War (The Adelphaen Society, 1851), it was not until the post-Civil War period of the 1870s that many colleges welcomed female students. These young women sought to establish support networks on their campuses via the social fraternity, particularly important as female students were greatly outnumbered by male students.
While there is no comprehensive history of Greek-letter organizations, several works look specific aspects of the history of fraternity and sororities. Many individual groups have published a history of their organization. For general overviews, you may want to look at:
- Ross, Lawrence C. 2000. The divine nine: the history of African American fraternities and sororities. New York, NY: Kensington Books.
- Sanua, Marianne Rachel. 2003. Going Greek: Jewish college fraternities in the United States, 1895-1945. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.
- Syrett, Nicholas L. 2009. The company he keeps: a history of white college fraternities. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Torbenson, Craig L., and Gregory Parks. 2009. Brothers and sisters: diversity in college fraternities and sororities. Madison [N.J.]: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.
- Turk, Diana B. 2004. Bound by a mighty vow: sisterhood and women's fraternities, 1870-1920. New York: New York University Press.
Many universities and colleges are establishing programs to actively collect the history of Greek-letter groups on their campus (as well as other student organizations), so individuals should check with the university archives or special collections if they are interested in student life on a specific campus.