Do You Know the Chautauqua Salute?

Joseph Rodefer DeCamp_Farewell detailThere were many beloved traditions at Chautauqua Institution, and Isabella Alden often described them in her books.

“Do you know the Chautauqua salute?”

Burnham Roberts asked the question of Hazel Harris in Four Mothers at Chautauqua.

“Then you understand what a strange effect is produced by the simultaneous flutter of countless white handkerchiefs. Can you imagine what it would be to see at least five thousand of them held aloft motionless for a single solemn minute, the only sound in the great assembly coming from the great organ softly tolling out a requiem? That is the way they paid tribute to the Bishop’s co-laborer, and to other great souls who put their shoulders to the wheel in the early days of the enterprise. I never saw a more impressive sight in my life.”

Victorian woman waving her handkerchief

And in The Hall in the Grove, Carolyn Raynor was enchanted upon seeing the Chautauqua salute for the first time:

“Oh, look!”

Well she might exclaim. To one like her who had never seen it before, the sight was simply glorious; and to one who has never seen it at all, the effect is indescribable; yet the cause was simple enough. A flutter of what looked like millions and millions of white handkerchiefs!

“The Chautauqua salute,” said Mr. Masters composedly, his eyes shining their satisfaction. “Isn’t it a singular scene?”

“A summer snow-storm down among the flowers and the grasses and the full-leaved forest trees,” said Caroline.

Woman waving handkerchiefIn The Story of Chautauqua, Jesse Lyman Hurlbut told how the salute came to be.

On the 1877 program was a speaker named Mr. S. L. Greene from Ontario, Canada. Mr. Green was deaf and mute. Reverend Hurlbut described how Mr. Greene addressed the great audience in pantomime in the Auditorium under the trees:

He spoke in the sign-language, telling several stories from the gospels; and so striking were his silent symbols that everyone could see the picture. We were especially struck with his vivid representation of Christ stilling the tempest.

Wave 1910 detail

When Mr. Greene finished, the audience of “at least two thousand” burst into enthusiastic applause; but Dr. Vincent stopped them.

“The speaker is unable to hear your applause. Let us wave our handkerchiefs instead of clapping our hands.”

In an instant the grove was transformed into a garden of white lilies dancing under the leaves of the trees. Then and there the Chautauqua salute of waving handkerchiefs was adopted as a token of special honor, used only when called for by Dr. Vincent in person.

And Dr. Vincent insisted that the salute—which was a distinct and rare honor—“should be of the whitest, purest, intensest kind.” He likened the salute to lilies, and soon the gesture came to be known as The Blooming of the Lilies.

White LiliesIn later years, as Chautauqua Institution grew, the size of the Amphitheatre audience grew as well. By 1884, it wasn’t unusual to have six thousand people gathered in the Amphitheatre to give the Chautauqua salute to some distinguished individual:

“Six thousand lily-white handkerchiefs waving a salute of honor, vigorously expressing the joy of the Chautauqua hearer, is a sight long to be remembered by those who participate therein,” wrote Reverend Hurlbut.

05 Theodore Roosevelt

A crowd of ten thousand greeted Theodore Roosevelt with the Chautauqua salute when he arrived on August 19, 1899 to “preach the gospel of intelligent work” in the vast Amphitheater.

Poet May M. Bisbee was so enthralled seeing the Chautauqua Salute for the first time, she wrote a lovely poem about the experience. Click on the image to see a larger version you can read and print.

Chautauqua Salute poem by May M Bisbee v2





Follow these links to learn more about Isabella’s books The Hall in the Grove and Four Mothers at Chautauqua.


A Tour of Chautauqua – Getting There

When Eurie, Marion, Ruth and Flossy embarked on their journey to Chautauqua in August, 1875 they traveled by railroad to Mayville. From there they took a steamer to Chautauqua. The map below shows the towns that lined Chautauqua Lake in 1906 (several years after the girls first journeyed there). You can see Mayville on the far left side of the map (click on the map to see a larger version).

Chautauqua Lake Map 1906 edited large

In Mayville, the girls boarded a steamer named, The Colonel Phillips, and boated along the southern shore of the lake to Chautauqua. As luck would have it, they arrived at Chautauqua under less than perfect conditions: it was raining and well past dark when they reached their destination.

From the deck of The Colonel Philips, their first glimpse of the institute was probably the Chautauqua Institution dock, which stood at the tip of a point that jutted out into the lake. Incoming steamboats used the dock to  let passengers on and off. The vintage postcard below shows the steamer, City of Cincinnati, docking at Chautauqua after dark, in much the same way as The Colonel Phillips would have docked (click on any of the images below to see a larger version).

Chautauqua Lake Dock at night edited

In 191Chautauqua Miller Bell Tower v2 edited1 the Miller Bell Tower was erected alongside the dock. It was built to commemorate the life and contributions of Chautauqua co-founder Lewis Miller. When the girls returned in 1913 (as described in Isabella Alden’s book, Four Mothers at Chautauqua), they would have seen the beautiful new bell tower as they approached the dock; and they would pass it as they stepped off the boat and entered the Institute grounds.

The hand-colored postcard below shows the tower and dock looking northeast toward the direction from which the girls’ steamer would have arrived from Mayville. The postcard also shows South Lake Drive, which ran along the shore from the bell tower to the south end of the Institute grounds. From the vantage point presented in this picture, the Chautauqua Auditorium was just out of view to the left.

Chautauqua Lake 1943 edited

During the girls’ first visit to Chautauqua, The Auditorium was an open-air arena with “rows and rows and rows of heads, men and women, and even children. A tent larger than they had imagined could be built and packed with people.”  Here’s how Isabella Alden described it in Four Girls at Chautauqua:

Lake Chautauqua outdoor auditorium. Photo courtesy of

For the benefit of such poor benighted beings as have never seen Chautauqua, let me explain that the auditorium was the great temple where the congregation assembled for united service. Such a grand temple as it was! The pillars thereof were great solemn trees, with their green leaves arching overhead in festoons of beauty. I don’t know how many seats there were, nor how many could be accommodated at the auditorium. Eurie set out to walk up and down the long aisles one day and count the seats, but she found that which so arrested her attention before she was half-way down the central aisle that she forgot all about it, and there was never any time afterward for that work. I mean to tell you about that day when I get to it. The grandstand was down here in front of all these seats, spacious and convenient, the pillars thereof festooned with flags from many nations. The large piano occupied a central point; the speaker’s desk at its feet, in the central of the stand; the reporters’ tables and chairs just below.

The Auditorium was used for the first four years, then the Amphitheatre—a more permanent, open-air structure—was erected that could hold many more people. The Amphitheatre’s crowning glory was its magnificent pipe organ. The seats behind the Amphitheatre stage were typically occupied by speakers, performers, choirs and orchestras.

Chautauqua Amphitheater edited

The photo below from about 1895 shows The Amphitheatre in service, with every possible seat taken. The view looks across The Amphitheatre, with the stage and speakers on the right. You can just make out the shape of the huge organ pipes.

Chautauqua Amphitheater full house 1895

After the girls attended their first lecture in the Chautauqua Auditorium, they decided to stay on the grounds, rather than at a nearby hotel. They appealed to the Institute President to help them find a suitable place to stay. As he showed them the available tents to rent, Ruth couldn’t hide her dismay.

Chautauqua camping 1908_Ladies
Ladies camping in a typical Chautauqua tent in 1908.

“Why, the bed isn’t made up! Pray, are we to sleep on the slats?”

“Oh, no. But you have to hire all those things, you know. Have you seen our bulletin? There are parties on the ground prepared to fit up everything that you need, and to do it very reasonably. Of course, we cannot know what degree of expense those requiring tents care to incur, so we leave that matter for them to decide for themselves. You can have as many or as few comforts as you choose, and pay accordingly.”

“And are all four of us expected to occupy this one room?” There was an expression of decided disgust on Miss Erskine’s face.

Tent Life 1875 Hurlburt Beard and Worden
Chautauqua Speakers in front of their tent in 1875. J. L. Hurlbut, J. A. Worden, Frank Beard (famous for his “chalk talk”), and J. L. Hughes.

“Why, you see,” explained the amused President, “this tent is designed for four; two good-sized bedsteads set up in it; and the necessity seems to be upon us to crowd as much as we can conveniently. There will be no danger of impure air, you know, for you have all out-doors to breathe.”

“And you really don’t have toilette stands or toilette accommodations! What a way to live!”

Another voice chimed in now, which was the very embodiment of refined horror. “And you don’t have pianos nor sofas, and the room isn’t lighted with gas! I’m sure I don’t see how we can live! It is not what we have been accustomed to.” This was Marion, with the most dancing eyes in the world, and the President completed the scene by laughing outright. Suddenly Ruth discovered that she was acting the part of a simpleton, and with flushed face she turned from them, and walked to a vacant seat, in the opposite direction from where they were standing.

Chautauqua Tents and Cottages, 1910

“We will take this one,” she said, haughtily, without vouchsafing it a look. “I presume it is as good as any of them, and, since we are fairly into this absurd scrape we must make the best of it.”

“Or the worst of it,” Marion said, still laughing. “You are bent on doing that, I think, Ruthie.”

By a violent effort and rare good sense Ruth controlled herself sufficiently to laugh, and the embarrassment vanished. There were splendid points about this girl’s character, not the least among them being the ability to laugh at a joke that had been turned toward herself.

The girls survived their first night in the tent. The next day, they split up, each going in different directions; and Flossy soon found herself lost and alone on the grounds.

Meantime Flossy was being educated. The morning work had touched her from a different standpoint. She had not heard Dr. Walden; instead she had wandered into a bit of holy ground. She began by losing her way. It is one of the easiest things to do at Chautauqua. The avenues cross and recross in an altogether bewildering manner to one not accustomed to newly laid-out cities; and just when one imagines himself at the goal for which he started, lo! There is woods, and nothing else anywhere. Another attempt patiently followed for an hour has the exasperating effect of bringing him to the very point from which he started. Such an experience had Flossy, when by reason of her loitering propensities she became detached from her party, and tried to find her own way to the stand. A whole hour of wandering, then a turn into perfect chaos. She had no more idea where she was than if she had been in the by-ways of London. Clearly she must inquire the way.

While trying to find her way, Flossy may have walked down Clark Street, which is pictured below in 1907, looking south from Miller Avenue (named after Lewis Miller). The Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.) building is on the left.

Chautauqua Clark Street 1907 edited

Here’s a closer view of the C.L.S.C. building, as it looked in 1908:

Chautauqua CLSC Building 1908 edited

And below is a photo of Vincent Avenue, named for Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent, one of the founders of the Chautauqua Institute. The photo was taken in 1930, long after the girls’ first visit.

Chautauqua Vincent Avenue 1930

Little did Flossy, Ruth, Eurie and Marion know that those first days in Chautauqua were the prelude to life changing experiences for each of them!

Next  on our Tour of Chautauqua:  Where to Stay