Friday, August 26, 2016

Chautauqua, revisited

The 19th century successes of the Chautauqua Institution of New York have always appealed to me. I believe I would have been thrilled to attend the profoundly educational lectures of the itinerant speakers who followed the Chautauqua circuit. For some Americans—and for many middle-class women—the Chautauqua offerings were the closest thing they could get to a higher education.

The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874 as a teaching camp for Sunday school teachers. The concept spread through the United States. At its peak in the 1920s the movement offered a broad range of lectures and music on both religious and nondenominational topics, in more than 10,000 communities. By 1940 the network of originally Victorian-style centers of learning and culture had lost their mass appeal, after enriching the lives of more than 45 million men and women. Today, the Chautauqua Institution on the original site is alive and well, and still attracting many thousands of participants annually.

In the late 19th century, the notion of family vacations was becoming popular, partly as a result of increasing affluence and the expansion of rail travel. In a recent issue of The Massachusetts Historical Review, Anita C. Danker wrote:
“…a significant number of largely middle-class Americans chose to make constructive use of their increased leisure time, a by-product of industrialization, in ways consistent with their values and religious beliefs.”

The Chautauqua centers were attractive destinations. One such place was the New England Chautauqua Sunday School Assembly at Mount Wayte in Framingham, MA. From 1880-1918 it offered a steadily diversifying assortment of lectures and performances, drawing a dedicated audience from the area that would become MetroWest Boston. Those folks wanted to vacation in comfort and style, and they also were committed to a high-quality experience. Rail service to Mount Wayte was busy.

Danker explains:
“One form of vacation consistent with middle-class values and the moral climate of the New England region was the religious retreat…A critical mass of ordinary Americans displayed another powerful need, compatible with the ideal of a Christian vacation: the purposeful employment of leisure time for education and individual self-improvement.”

A reliable corps of attendees was “middle-class women, whose access to higher education was restricted by tradition and circumstance […they] formed the bedrock of the institution.”

Think of TED Talks without the clip-on microphone.

Anita C. Danker, “Redeeming the Time: Learning Vacations at the New England Chautauqua Assembly,” The Massachusetts Historical Review, Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 17, 2015, 67-97.

Copyright © Richard Carl Subber 2016 All rights reserved.

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