In the summer of 1890 Isabella Alden and her family were once again at her beloved Chautauqua Institution.
That year, attendance at Chautauqua was remarkable. The Evening Journal—a newspaper in nearby Jamestown, New York—reported on the size of the crowd in an article printed August 20, 1890:
Another Sunday at Chautauqua has come and gone, and yet the big crowd and its interest in everything continues.
There was plenty to be interested in. Chautauqua’s daily schedule included Bible lectures, practical daily living classes, entertainment, nature hikes, and plenty of opportunities for exercise.
An added attraction: that weekend Mr. Leland Powers, known as the “Dramatic wonder of America” presented a three-act comedy based on a story by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, in which he played all the parts!
The newspaper explained one major reason for the crowd size that weekend: more people were making longer stays at Chautauqua:
The outgoing stream has been large during the past week, and yet not enough to keep pace with the one pouring in. The outlet does not equal the inlet, and so the crowd grows larger. It will probably reach its culmination on Recognition Day, which will be Wednesday of this week.
“Recognition Day” is Chautauqua’s version of graduation for members of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. In 1890, all the C.L.S.C. members who successfully completed their four-year study course gathered at Chautauqua. Together they made a stately procession through the symbolic Golden Gate that stood near the Hall of Philosophy, and then they received their Chautauqua diplomas.
The same newspaper article reported:
Enthusiastic C.L.S.C’ers are coming in daily by droves, by swarms, by multitudes. Meetings of the various classes are held almost every day, and excitement is fast reaching its height. It seems scarcely possible that in another week the Chautauqua season of 1890 will be closed and the exodus will be begun.
Also on that Sunday morning, Isabella’s husband, the Reverend G. R. Alden, led a memorial service in honor of prominent Chautauquans who died during the preceding year.
What a very busy weekend at Chautauqua! That Sunday evening brought rain, which reduced the crowd size at the remaining events. After so much activity, the newspaper report describes for us a peaceful Sunday night:
A ramble about the grounds just after the sermon, even if it did rain, well repaid the discomfort. Every cottage, every tent, every room in every cottage and tent, gleaming with lights through the dismal mist, presented a scene unprecedented and well worth seeing. The chimes rung out another Sunday at Chautauqua.
One of Isabella Alden’s most touching characters is Mrs. Fenton, a homemaker and mother who played a pivotal role in The Hall in the Grove.
Mrs. Fenton had no pretentions; she considered herself an average person, and believed her only talents were as a housekeeper, wife, and mother.
Isabella wrote of her:
Her bread was of the lightest and sweetest. Her chambers were kept in that delicate purity which rests weary heads, and sometimes hearts. Her windows were as clear as hands could make them; her snowy curtains were looped in graceful folds, and with just the right tint of ribbon to blend well with surroundings. Her vines and plants climbed and budded and blossomed in luxurious fashion. Her husband’s buttons were always in place, held by firm threads of her placing; his collars and cuffs shone brilliantly, for her own hands clear-starched and ironed them. Indeed, in whatsoever department of home life you looked, you would be likely, after thorough investigation, to pronounce Mrs. Fenton a model.
Mrs. Fenton’s fourteen-year-old son Robert was her pride and joy. She raised him to be . . .
Straight as an arrow, morally, as well as physically—a grand, truthful, earnest-hearted boy.
She also raised him to be a good student, to take his studies seriously, and apply himself to every lesson and exam.
Mrs. Fenton herself had been a bright student, but her own education as a girl had been limited; so as Robert progressed through his studies, she began to feel her own limitations more and more.
When Robert asked her help with a homework problem, Mrs. Fenton realized she not only didn’t know the answer, she didn’t even know how to steer him toward finding the correct answer himself.
And when he sought her input in preparing for a topic that was to come up on an important exam, she didn’t even understand the subject he was asking about. As similar incidents became more frequent, poor Mrs. Fenton felt “a stab in that mother’s heart.” Her greatest fear was that Robert would one day recognize her short-comings and be ashamed of her.
So when Mrs. Fenton visits a friend and hears about the Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circle for the first time, she begins to wonder if the program might be the answer to her worries.
This eight-page pamphlet for the 1885-1886 school year describes the CLSC program in full. Thousands of adults across the country wrote to the CLSC every year, requesting their annual pamphlet. Click on it to read the entire brochure.
Once Mrs. Fenton understood what the CLSC was and what it could do for her, she became an advocate of the program in her town.
So what, exactly, was the CLSC?
The CLSC was an education program for adults—young and old—who were unable to obtain a college education. For an annual membership fee of fifty cents (plus the cost of books) adults could enroll in the CLSC’s systematic course of reading in key subjects:
The beauty of the program was that members could earn the equivalent of a four-year college course . . . from home!
CLSC members followed a weekly outline that required them to work a little every day and read prescribed passages from selected books. Then, once a year, they completed an examination (the CLSC called it a “memoranda”) that consisted of questions about the books they’d read. The questions . . .
. . . are to be answered, as far as possible, from memory; where memory fails, the students are expected to refer to their books for help, but to give the answers in their own language.
The exam was typically four pages of questions, but to earn extra credit, members could elect to complete a sixteen-page paper, containing questions that were more comprehensive. An 80% score on the expanded memoranda earned the member a special white seal on their diploma.
Four years and four such annual exams later, CLSC members earned a college degree that carried the same weight and prestige as any other college or university in the country.
The CLSC program was incredibly popular. Some members followed the program alone. Some members organized into local circles. By 1881 there were over 1,000 local circles in towns and villages across the country.
These circles—composed of men, women and teens—met in city apartments and rural farm houses. They discussed a variety of topics related to their reading assignments, from the conduct of the Greeks and Romans, to the hereditary line of English kings.
Some local circles arranged lectures or organized public discussions in town halls. Other circles organized by members’ heritage; the CLSC furnished them with text-books in their native language.
In CLSC circles around the world household servants read Shakespeare’s sonnets alongside society matrons; bank presidents discussed the history of Hadrian’s Wall with grocery clerks.
It’s no wonder that Mrs. Fenton was intrigued by the idea of joining the Chautauqua Scientific and Literary Circle. She quickly realized that a CLSC circle in her home town would be the answer to her troubles . . . and her prayers.
You can read all about Mrs. Fenton’s efforts to organize a CLSC chapter and how it changed not only her life, but the lives of her friends and neighbors, in The Hall in the Grove.
Did you know you can still join the CLSC? All it takes is payment of a modest membership fee and a commitment to read a book a month from the CLSC’s approved book list. You can find out more and download their approved book list by clicking here.
And if you’d like to know what it’s like for a modern day woman to read her way through the CLSC program, be sure to read The Hall in the Grove blog.
Isabella Alden considered The Hall of Philosophy one of the most beloved locations at Chautauqua Institution.
The Hall of Philosophy—sometimes called the Hall in the Grove because of its location in idyllic St. Paul’s Grove—was an open-air structure that sat under a canopy of trees that shaded and cooled the Hall during the hot summer months. It was a favorite gathering place for Chautauquans, even when no lectures were held there.
If you were a Chautauqua visitor, you could stand at the edge of the Hall of Philosophy and look out upon different views of the grounds. From one vantage point, you’d see the Hall of Christ and the spires of the different denominational chapels.
From another direction you’d see gingerbread-trimmed cottages and inviting expanses of green lawns.
The original Hall of Philosophy was designed by Bishop John Vincent for the Christian Literary and Scientific Circle (C.L.S.C.). Twenty years later, when it was discovered the building needed to be replaced in order to last for future generations, the C.L.S.C. lead a fund-raising campaign and raised the money needed to erect a new Hall of Philosophy in the same location.
When the new concrete floor was poured in 1905, it included 51 different mosaic tiles, each designed by a different C.L.S.C. class, beginning with the class of 1882 (the first class) and ending with the class of 1924. Each tile depicts the class year, name and logo.
For instance, the first C.L.S.C. class of 1882 was called “The Pathfinders.” Their emblem was the nasturtium and their motto was “The truth shall make you free.”
The class of 1915 adopted the name “Jane Addams” and used the American laurel as their emblem. Their motto: “Life more abundant.”
Isabella Alden was a member of the 1887 class; her fellow classmates honored her by naming their class the Pansy Class. They used the pansy flower as their emblem and “Neglect not the gift that is in thee” as their motto.
Isabella paid tribute to the Hall of Philosophy and her own experience with the C.L.S.C. in her novel The Hall in the Grove. The story centers around a diverse group of people who each spend a summer at Chautauqua for different reasons—and each end the summer changed by their experience. The Hall of Philosophy is almost another character in Isabella’s story, for it plays a prominent role in the different characters’ spiritual journeys. (You can click on the book cover to learn more about the novel.)
Thanks to the determination and rallying spirit of the members of the C.L.S.C. the Hall of Philosophy was rebuilt, and is still in use today.
This short video by Chautauqua Institution gives a brief history of the Hall of Philosophy and shows some examples of the C.L.S.C. class tiles: