Chautauqua Movement History

Guitar and Mandolin

“Chautauqua” is an Iroquois word with a few meanings— “a bag tied in the middle” or “two moccasins tied together,” and describes the shape of Chautauqua Lake, located in southwest New York. This area was the setting for the first educational assembly (Chautauqua Institution) and so provided the named to the movement.

In 1874, John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller rented a Methodist camp meeting site to use in the post-camp meeting season as a summer school for Sunday school teachers; this became known as the Chautauqua Institution and reflected a nation-wide interest in the professionalization of teaching.  Vincent and Miller were very clear that their intent was educational, rather than revivalist.  It should be stressed that the Chautauqua Institution was never affiliated with any one denomination; pretty much every faith group in the U.S. has a chapel or building on the grounds today.  Still, the sort of mild Protestantism that has informed much of American culture was an underpinning of the Chautauqua Movement.

Within a few years, the scope of the Chautauqua Institution had broadened to include adult education of all kinds, as well as a correspondence course–the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle, designed to bring “a college outlook” to working and middle-class people.  Along with the educational (and education was broadly defined to include the arts and public affairs) offerings at Chautauqua, its thousands of summer residents attended concerts and social activities.  By the last decade of the nineteenth century, the Chautauqua Institution was nationally known as a center for rather earnest, but high-minded, activities that aimed at intellectual and moral self-improvement and civic involvement.

The Chautauqua Movement, with which the Chautauqua Institution has had a maternal interest but never a formal relationship, grew out of that Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle.  As its members and graduates spread the Chautauqua idea, many towns–especially in rural areas where opportunities for secondary education were limited–established “chautauquas.” “Chautauqua” had a degree of cache and became short hand for an organized gathering intended to introduce people to the great ideas, new ideas, and issues of public concern.  “Independent assemblies,” those with permanent buildings and staff could be found throughout the U.S. by 1900, with a concentration in the Midwest.

After 1900, the “circuit chautauqua” became the principle expression of the movement.  The independent assemblies were somewhat wary of these travelling, tented chautauquas.  Still, at the height of the Chautauqua Movement, about 1915, some 12,000 communities had hosted a chautauqua.  Many of the lecturers and performers were contracted by chautauqua agencies–the most notable was the Redpath Agency in Iowa–and the quality of the offerings varied from Vassar-educated lecturers and Shakespeare to animal acts and vaudeville farce.

The movement pretty much died out by the mid-1930s.  Most historians cite the rise of the car culture, radio, and movies as the causes.  There were several other important, yet subtle, reasons for the decline.  One was the sharp increase in fundamentalism and evangelical Christianity in the 20s; the bland non-denominationalism exhibited at most chautauquas couldn’t accommodate these impulses.  Many small independent chautauquas became essentially camp meetings or church camps.  Another–seemingly contradictory influence–was the rise of the liberated, educated woman.  Chautauquas functioned for many lower- and middle-class women much as the elite women’s colleges did for upper-class women.  They were training grounds from which women could launch “real” careers.  When professional and educational opportunities increased, interest in chautauquas dwindled. Finally, the Depression itself made chautauquas economically impossible for organizers and audiences.

Today, chautauqua is experiencing a renaissance. People are discovering that lifelong learning is one of the keys to living a happy, fulfilling life. Throughout North America existing chautauquas are thriving and ones from the past are being resurrected. Learn more about all the living chautauqua communities and assemblies currently in operation at www.chautauquatrail.com.