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The Chautauqua Idea

Chautauqua Beginnings

The Chautauqua Institution was founded by Lewis Miller and John Heyl Vincent (right). The first meeting of the Chautauqua Assembly was held in the summer of 1874, on the Methodist camp-meeting grounds known as Fair Point. During that first Assembly the entire program centered around the concerns of Sunday School teachers, but by the second season the movement had already begun to grow "devoted to the promotion of true culture."

From Three Taps of the Gavel, Alfreda L. Irwin

From Chautauqua, Jeffrey Simpson

In his chapter on "The Politics of Culture" in The Incorporation of America, Alan Trachtenberg holds Chautauqua up as "a virtually official middle-class image of America" in the Gilded Age. For this newly emerging middle-class it was culture, and--in the case of Chautauqua--education, that would define them and set them apart from the "lavish and conspicuous squandering of wealth among the very rich, and the squalor of the very poor" (143).

The Chautauqua Institution is a shining example of how the growing middle class used self-cultivation as a means of defining themselves. It was also purposely set up in the semi-wilderness of upstate New York, away from the urban centers where many Chautauquans lived and worked. Those who attended the summer Assemblies at Chautauqua could take the spiritual, educational and cultural lessons they learned there back to their everyday lives in the cities, but it is doubtful that they would be able to replicate in the city the "harmonious body politic" they found at Chautauqua.

The Chautauqua Mission: 'The Unfolding of the Chautauqua Idea'

From its first year on, Chautauqua grew very rapidly--and not just in size, as the chart to the right demonstrates. While it began as a program centered around the pedagogical concerns of Sunday school teachers, its founders and organizers very soon realized its growth potential. As the seasons grew longer, the program expanded to include secular education and entertainment as well. Science and language classes, an extensive music program, and lectures on social, political, and historical themes were all added to the repertoire. While it maintained its religious core, Chautauqua aimed to broaden its appeal and influence by adding these secular elements to the program.

From Three Taps of the Gavel, Alfreda L. Irwin

"A University springing up in the grove as if Mother Earth had given it birth ... Chautauqua has become the school for the masses..." "If it is pre-destinated to live and realize a far off future, it must experience a constant growth."

These quotes, from an article entitled "Retrospect" in the first issue of The Chautauquan, demonstrate the rapid and insistent growth of the Chautauqua Institution.

"The Herald, daily during the Assemblies, and monthly during the rest of the year ... [has] formed an important part of the Chautauqua enterprise." "The secrets of the inner sanctuary of science were exposed to the wondering gaze of thousands of the common people..." "The influence of [the C.L.S.C.] is wider than the continent, and probably not less than 20,000 people have ... been benefitted by the organization."

From Chautauqua, Theodore Morrison

Not only its program, but the institutional make-up of Chautauqua changed as well. In 1876 the Chautauqua Assembly Daily Herald (later The Chautauquan Daily) was founded in order to keep Assembly participants informed of daily events and to preserve programs and lectures. This drive toward preservation, through the newspaper as well as histories and biographies of the movement, was an indication that Chautauquans saw their institution playing an active role in history.

Another change to the institutional make-up of Chautauqua was the formation of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.) during the Assembly of 1879. The C.L.S.C. was a four-year course of assigned home-reading, the first organized reading circle in the country.

From The Chautauquan, September 1880

The formation of the C.L.S.C. not only broadened Chautauqua's educational scope, but added a monthly magazine to its list of publications. The Chautauquan contained C.L.S.C. news, events, and assigned reading as well as information about upcoming Chautauqua Assemblies. Follow these links for articles about the formation and growth of the C.L.S.C. from The Chautauquan:

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