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The Chautauqua Experience

The Chautauqua Space: 'Peace and Gracious Plenty'

As this quote from William James exemplifies, Chautauqua was a utopian space. Deliberately established by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent in the country rather than the city, it was a place to get away from the spectacle and confusion of city life in the Gilded Age. It was full of beautiful structures and quiet wooded areas that suggested serenity and, important to those coming from the city, privacy.

From The Chautauqua Movement, Joseph E. Gould

It was more than just architecture and landscape that made Chautauqua a utopian space. There was a sense of community, created by shared experience and purpose, that led to the "moral tone" of people's behavior described in the quote below. This was compounded by the fact that Chautauqua was, at heart, a religious movement, and many Chautauquans viewed the grounds as sacred space.

"The moral tone is high and sustained and produces some bracing features. There is a law and order clause in the Chautauqua charter and it is most rigorously insisted upon. Blue uniforms flit in and about its streets and their meaning is simply this: that everybody shall have a chance to sleep between eleven o'clock at night and six in the morning, if he wants to; that no profanity, unseemly conduct, or drunken insolence will be tolerated on the grounds; that the street vendor and agent will be allowed to disturb no one; that public meetings must not be interrupted by noise; that the unsophisticated need be in no fear of swindlers; and that an absolutely quiet Sabbath shall be insured."

--"Chautauqua As a Summer Resort," The Chautauquan, 1887

The Chautauqua Program: 'The School for the Masses'

From the second Assembly on, the program at Chautauqua became increasingly diversified. While it was originally solely centered on the concerns of Sunday school teachers, other educational departments, cultural programs, and popular lectures were soon added.

From The Chautauquan, July 1912

From Chautauqua, Jeffrey Simpson

The basis of Chautauqua programming has always been educational. The Sunday-school classes expanded to include departments of science and language, a Teacher's Retreat, and the year-round C.L.S.C. If Chautauqua was based on "the promotion of true culture," it was culture based in education--a fact that led those involved to see the movement as more democratic than many other cultural movements at the time.

In addition to the expansion of its educational agenda, the cultural program at Chautauqua grew rapidly. Music was an important part of the Chautauqua experience from the beginning, and remains so to this day. Besides the hymns that were composed at and for Chautauqua, they had a band which gave formal and informal concerts. Chautauquans could attend a broad spectrum of cultural programs as well as take lessons in music, elocution, calisthenics and dance. Shown below is a turn-of-the-century dance class.

Introduction| The Chautauqua Idea | The Chautauqua Experience | The Incorporation of Chautauqua | Resources