This article is about the adult-education movement. For other uses, see Chautauqua (disambiguation).
Cover of a 1917 promotional brochure

Chautauqua (/ʃəˈtɔːkwə/ shə-TAW-kwə) was an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day.[1] Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is "the most American thing in America."[2]


Postage stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the first Chautauqua

The Mother Chautauqua

The first Chautauqua, the New York Chautauqua Assembly, was organized in 1874 by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller at a campsite on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State.[3] Two years earlier, Vincent, editor of the Sunday School Journal, had begun to train Sunday school teachers in an outdoor summer school format. The gatherings grew in popularity. The organization founded by Vincent and Miller later became known as the Chautauqua Institution. It was called the Mother Chautauqua, because many independent, or "daughter" Chautauquas were developed under the same fashion.[4]

The educational summer camp format proved to be a popular choice for families and was widely copied by the "daughter" Chautauquas. Within a decade Chautauqua assemblies (or simply Chautauquas), named for the original location in New York State, sprang up in various locations across North America. The Chautauqua movement may be regarded as a successor to the Lyceum movement earlier in the 19th century. As the Chautauqua assemblies began to compete for the best performers and lecturers, lyceum bureaus assisted with bookings. The original site in Chautauqua, New York, near Jamestown, has hosted such diverse speakers and performers as Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and former American vice president Al Gore.

Independent Chautauquas

Independent Chautauquas (or "daughter Chautauquas") operated at permanent facilities, usually fashioned after the Chautauqua Institute in New York. Such a Chautauqua was generally built in an attractive semi-rural location a short distance outside an established town with good rail service. At the height of the Chautauqua movement in the 1920s, several hundred of these existed, but their numbers have since dwindled.

At least three Independent Chautauquas have operated continuously from the 1920s into the 21st century; if Chautauqua is construed to include camp meetings and Sunday School Assemblies, the number is higher. See 21st century Chautauquas. An addition to the list is the Pennsylvania Chautauqua in Mt. Gretna PA, operating continuously since 1892.

Circuit Chautauquas

"Circuit Chautauquas" (or colloquially, Tent Chautauquas) were an itinerant manifestation of the Chautauqua movement, founded originally by Keith Vawter and Roy Ellison in 1904.[5] Although Vawter and Ellison were unsuccessful in their initial attempts to commercialize Chautauqua, by 1907 they had found a great amount of success in their adaptation of the concept. The program would be presented in tents pitched "on a well-drained field near town." After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on. The method of organizing a series of touring Chautauquas is attributed to Keith Vawter, a Redpath Lyceum Bureau manager.[6] Among early Redpath comedians was Boob Brasfield.

It should be noted that reactions to tent Chautauqua were mixed. In We Called it Culture, authors Case and Case remark upon the new itinerant Chautauqua saying

The credit--or blame--for devising the Frankenstein mechanism which was both to exalt and to destroy Chautauqua, the tent circuit, must be given to two youths of similar temperament, imagination, and a common purpose. That purpose, bluntly, was to 'make a million'

and, later, regarding an encounter between Frank Gausaulus to Keith Vawter:

'You're ruining a splendid movement' Gunsauus roared at Keith Vawter, whom he met at a railroad junction. 'You're cheapening Chautauqua, breaking it down, replacing it with something what [sic] will have neither dignity nor permanence'.[7]

Circuit Chautauqua began in 1904. In Vawter’s schema, each performer, or group, appeared on a particular day of the program. Thus “first day” talent would move on to other Chautauquas, followed by the “second day” performers, and so on, throughout the touring season. By the mid-1920s, when circuit Chautauquas were at their peak, they appeared in over 10,000 communities to audiences of more than 45 million; by about 1940 they had run their course.


Lectures were the mainstay of the chautauqua. Prior to 1917, lectures dominated the circuit chautauqua programs. The reform speech and the inspirational talk were the two main types of lecture until 1913.[8] Later topics included current events, travel and stories, often with a comedic twist.

The most popular speaker

William Jennings Bryan, with his populist and evangelical message addressing topics such as temperance, was the most popular Chautauqua speaker, until his death in 1925.

The most famous speech

The most prolific speaker (often booked in the same venues with Bryan) was Russell Conwell who delivered his famous "Acres of Diamonds" speech 5,000 times to audiences on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits.[8] The theme was "get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor."[9]

Other speakers

Maud Ballington Booth, the "Little Mother of the Prisons," was another popular performer on the circuit. Booth’s descriptions of prison life would move her audiences to tears and rouse them to reform. Helen Potter is another notable woman in the Chautaquas. Potter performed a variety of roles including men and women. As Gentile notes, "Potter's choice of subjects is noteworthy for its variety and for the fact that she was credible in her impersonations of men as well as of women. In retrospect, Potter's impersonations are of special interest as examples of the kind of recycling or refertilization of inspiration that occurs throughout the history of the one-person show.[10]" On a lighter note, author Opie Read's stories and homespun philosophy endeared him to audiences. Other well-known speakers and lecturers in Chautauqua events of various forms included Member of the U.S. House of Representatives Champ Clark from Missouri, Missouri Governor Herbert S. Hadley, and "Fighting Bob" La Follette (governor of Wisconsin at the time).[8]

Religious expression

Christian instruction, preaching and worship were a strong part of the Chautauqua experience. Although the Chautauqua movement was founded by Methodists, nondenominationalism was a Chautauqua principle from the beginning, and prominent Catholics like Catherine Doherty took part. In 1892, Lutheran Church theologian Theodore Emanuel Schmauk was one of the organizers of the Pennsylvania Chautauqua.

Early religious expression in Chautauqua was usually of a general nature, comparable to the later Moral Re-Armament movement. Later on, in the first half of the 20th century, Fundamentalism was the content of an increasing number of Chautauqua sermons and lectures. However, the great number of Chautauquas, as well as the absence of any central authority over them, meant that religious patterns varied greatly among the different Chautauquas. Some were so religiously oriented that they were essentially church camps, while more secular Chautauquas resembled summer school and competed with vaudeville in theaters and circus tent shows with their animal acts and trapeze acrobats. People involved in the Chautauqua movement believed that both secular and spiritual knowledge radiate from God and are both equally important.

In 2006, one extreme can be observed in the Lakeside Chautauqua, privately owned but affiliated with the United Methodist church, while the opposite extreme is represented by the Colorado Chautauqua, which is entirely nondenominational and mostly secular in its orientation.

Competition with vaudeville

In the 1890s, both Chautauqua and vaudeville were gaining popularity and establishing themselves as important forms of entertainment. While Chautauqua had its roots in Sunday-school and valued morality and education highly, vaudeville grew out of minstrel shows, variety acts, and crude humor, and so the two movements found themselves at odds with each other. Chautauqua was considered wholesome, family entertainment, and appealed to the educated classes and religious folk. Vaudeville, on the other hand, was considered by many to be anti-intellectual and appealed to the lower, less educated classes. There was a hard distinction between the two, and neither generally shared performers or audiences.

At the turn of the century, there was a push from vaudeville managers for more "refinement," as well as a loosening of Victorian-era morals from the Chautauqua side. Over time, vaudeville became more respectable, and Chautauqua became more liberal and secular. The boundaries between the two began to blur, and soon many Chautauqua performers began to try to broaden their appeal and become more than just platform readers so they could cross over to the vaudeville side, taking part in both forms in their eagerness to gain more money and fame.[11]


Music was important to Chautauqua. Band music was much in demand. John Phillip Sousa protégé Bohumir Kryl’s Bohemian Band was frequently seen on the circuit. One of the numbers featured by Kryl was the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore with four husky timpanists in leather aprons hammering on anvils shooting sparks (enhanced through special effects) across the darkened stage. Spirituals were also popular. White audiences appreciated seeing African-Americans performing other than minstrelsy. Other musical features of the Chautauqua included groups like the Jubilee Singers singing a mix of spirituals and popular tunes, and other singers and instrumental groups playing popular music, ballads and songs from the "old country". Entertainers on the Chautauqua circuit such as Charles Ross Taggart, billed as "The Man From Vermont" and "The Old Country Fiddler", played violin, sang, was a ventriloquist and comedian, and told tall tales about life in rural New England.

Opera became a part of the Chautauqua experience in 1926 when the American Opera Company, an outgrowth of the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, began touring the country. Under the direction of Russian tenor Vladimir Rosing, the AOC presented five operas in one week at the Chautauqua Amphitheater.[12] By 1929 a permanent Chautauqua Opera company had been established.

Political context

Chautauquas can be viewed in the context of the populist ferment of the late 19th century. Manifestos such as the "Populist Party Platform"[13] voiced a disdain for political corruption and championed the plight of the common people in the face of the rich and powerful. Other favorite political reform topics in Chautauqua lectures included temperance (even prohibition), women's suffrage, and child labor laws.

However, the Chautauqua movement usually avoided taking political stands as such, instead inviting public officials of all the major political parties to lecture, assuring a balanced program for the members of the assembly. For example, during the 1936 season at the Chautauqua Institution, in anticipation of the national election held that year for president, visitors heard not only addresses by Franklin Roosevelt and his Republican challenger Alf Landon, but from two third-party candidates.

The rise and decline of the Chautauqua Movement

Peebles, Ohio, was a site of Chautauquas 1906–1917

The popularity of the Chautauqua movement can be attributed in part to the social and geographic isolation of American farming and ranching communities. People in such areas would naturally be hungry for education, culture and entertainment, and the Chautauqua Movement was a timely response to that need in the late 19th century and early 20th century. However, by the turn of the century, other entertainment and educational opportunities, such as radio and movies, began to arrive in American towns to compete with Chautauqua lectures. With the advent of television and the automobile, people could now watch or travel to cultural events previously available only in urban areas, and the Chautauqua Movement lost popularity. In the 1960s, activists held teach-ins as part of their protests, which might be seen as a successor to the Chautauqua.

H.L. Mencken used the word "chautauqua" (lower case) to refer more generally to a herd of clumsy writers: "When they essay to be jocose, the result is usually an elephantine whimsicality, by the chautauqua out of the Atlantic Monthly." [Vintage Mencken, p. 96, ed. Alistair Cooke, 1955]

A typical chautauqua circuit of performances

The following is an example of a route taken by a troupe of Chautauqua entertainers. The troupe, the May Valentine Opera Company, performed Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado during their 1925 "Summer Season" which began March 26 in Abbeville, Louisiana and ended on September 6 in Sidney, Montana.[14]


  1. Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century – Collection Connections – For Teachers (Library of Congress) Archived May 28, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.. Retrieved on 2011-03-28.
  2. Pirsig, Robert M. (1999). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values. New York: Quill. ISBN 0688171664. 25th Anniversary Edition.
  3. Archived from the original on July 25, 2008. Retrieved November 3, 2010. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  4. Gentile, John S. (1989). Cast of One: One-Person Shows from the Chautauqua Platform to the Broadway Stage. Champaign-Urbana: University of Illinois Press. p. 68. ISBN 0-252-01584-3.
  5. Page, Walter Hines, Arthur Wilson Page (1921): The World's Work ...: A History of Our Time Vol. XLII. Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.
  6. Case, Victoria; Case, Robert O. (1948). We Called it Culture: The Story of Chautauqua. Garden City, NY: Doubleday. pp. 51, 73.
  7. 1 2 3 Tapia, John E. (1997). Circuit chautauqua: from rural education to popular entertainment in early twentieth century America. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. p. 53. ISBN 0-7864-0213-X. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  8. Smith Zimmermann Heritage Museum: Chautauqua History Archived October 29, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
  9. Gentile, John (1989). Cast of One: One-person Shows from the Chautauqua Platform to the Broadway Stage. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. p. 43.
  10. Gentile, John, S. (1989). Cast of One: One-Person Shows from the Chautauqua Platform to the Broadway Stage. University of Illinois Press. pp. 47–51. ISBN 0-252-01584-3.
  11. Chautauqua Opera – History. Retrieved on 2011-03-28.
  12. People's Party Platform, Omaha Morning World-Herald , 5 July 1892
  13. May Valentine Opera Co. in Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Mikado" Archived January 5, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. from a University of Iowa Library website that's part of American Memory archives

Further reading

External links

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