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The Chautauqua Assembly had a modest beginning in 1874. It was originally conceived as a summer training program for Bible teachers; but from the start, the Chautauqua Assembly differed greatly from accepted Bible training of the time. At Chautauqua, Sunday school teachers gathered not in convention halls to hear reports and listen to speeches. Instead, they spent two or more weeks in the out-of-doors studying the Bible, attending classes, and collaborating together to create Sunday school lesson plans for use in churches across the country. From that modest beginning, the Chautauqua Institution grew and its mission expanded, as did its fame.
By 1885, when the twelfth annual Chautauqua Assembly was held, over seventy-five thousand people gathered—some for a day, some for a week and several thousand for the entire eight-week term of the Summer Assembly. While many still came to be trained and inspired as Sunday school teachers, others came to hear lectures and attend classes on the Bible, ancient history, science, and philosophy. They participated in experiments in chemistry, and studied the stars through telescopes. They learned languages of the world, including Hebrew, Latin or Greek; and received instruction in music and vocals.
A remarkable element of the Chautauqua Summer Assembly was the level of course instruction. The best lecturers and teachers in the world came to Chautauqua. Renowned clergymen, famous statesmen, and college presidents lectured at the Assembly, as did Nobel Peace Prize winners and military heroes. Students with grade-school educations sat beside college graduates at lectures given by professors from Yale, Harvard, Cornell, Wellesley, Johns Hopkins and other prominent universities from the U.S. and Canada.
Chautauqua’s democratic culture extended beyond the classroom. The Reverend Jessie Lyman Hurlbut told of a woman who once said:
“Chautauqua cured me of being a snob, for I found that my waitress was a senior in a college, the chambermaid had specialized in Greek, the porter taught languages in a high school, and the bell-boy, to whom I had been giving nickel tips, was the son of a wealthy family in my own State who wanted a job to prove his prowess.”
But not everyone was as open minded. Reverend Hurlbut also recalled chatting with a highly respected clergyman from England as they sat together at a hotel table. When he explained to the clergyman that their waiter was a college-student, working to earn money to continue his college coursework, the clergyman was offended. “I don’t like it, and it would not be allowed in my country. I don’t enjoy being waited on by a man who considers himself my social equal!”
The names of guest lecturers read like a Who’s Who of the time: G. K. Chesterton, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Theodore Roosevelt attended four different years and when William Jennings Bryan took the podium, Chautauquans packed the Amphitheater to its utmost corners to hear him speak.
Lectures and classes were designed to educate and stimulate, to encourage Chautauquans to think globally and broaden their views. Students were urged to discuss lecture contents and ask questions so they had a full understanding of the issue or topic at hand.
The Chautauqua Summer Assembly was part of a wider Chautauqua system of education that included as many as eight different departments. Each department offered classes and lectures throughout the summer months of July and August.In July 1884 an individual could purchase a one-day admission to the Summer Assembly for 25¢. That admission cost gave them access to all lectures, classes and meetings except those conducted by the School of Languages and the Teachers Retreat. In August the cost of a one-day admission rose to 40¢.
If you planned to stay longer, you could purchase admission for a week in July for $1.00, or $2.00 for a week in August. Or you could stay the entire summer term for $4.00.
Some special classes required a separate ticket. For example, 15 lessons in penmanship (including stationery) cost $2.50; a course in bookkeeping cost $3.00; 10 lessons in elocution cost $4.00; and 4 weeks of instruction in Hebrew cost $10.00.
With so many available classes and so many activities to attend, Chautauquans had to schedule their days with precision. They mapped out their daily classes, lectures and activities by reading The Chautauqua Assembly Herald. This newspaper, published on-site every day but Sunday, listed the weeks’s offerings. It also gave an account of the speakers, meetings, and activities from the previous day. Eager Chautauquans took advantage of as many offerings as they could, often running from one event to another from 8:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m.
Click on this link to view the July 29 and July 30, 1901 editions of The Chautauqua Assembly Herald. On page 4 of each edition you’ll find a list of the week’s programs, meetings, lectures and classes.
The Chautauqua Institution kept things running in a timely manner. Five minutes before the hour a bell rang, giving notice that the next event or class would begin promptly at the top of the hour. The sound of the bell usually resulted in a throng of people streaming out the door of one class in order to get to the next class on time. Bells marked the hour until 10:00 p.m. when the last night bell rang signaling quiet.
In Four Girls at Chautauqua, Flossy Shipley overheard a man say, as he ran past her, “Confound it all! Talk about getting away from these meetings! It’s no use; it can’t be done. A fellow might just as well stay here and run every time the bell rings. I heard more preaching today on this excursion than I did yesterday; and a good deal more astonishing preaching, too.”
With each passing year, the number of people attending the Summer Assembly increased, as did the number of schools and courses offered. For instance, in 1901 the School of Languages added Arabic and Assyrian to their offerings of French, German, Spanish, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Students took classes in mathematics, oratory and expression, mineralogy and geology.
There were classes in clay modeling and china painting, as well as classes in music and singing. Small cottages were erected in a far-away corner of the grounds where music students could practice their scales and exercises without disturbing their neighbors. One instructor wrote, “I am told that forty-eight pianos may be heard there all sending out music at once, and each a different tune.”
The School of Domestic Science attracted great attention. One instructor, Mrs. Emma Ewing, erected a model kitchen and taught ladies from all walks of life to make bread, prepare meals, and serve tables with refinement.
The Summer Assembly offered career training, as well. Students learned shorthand and typing, grammar and composition, library sciences and bookkeeping.
In the early years of the summer Assemblies, classes were held in tents but as Chautauqua grew, buildings were erected to accommodate students.
The majority of the lectures were held in the Amphitheater. Erected in 1897, it could hold 5,500 to 5,600 people; but some lectures proved so popular that the Amphitheater overflowed.
Other lectures were held in the park, or anywhere else that could accommodate large numbers of attendees. The subjects were widely diverse, covering a broad array of topics:
- The Last Days of the Confederacy
- Going Fishing with Peter
- The Women of Turkey
- The Physiological Effects of Alcohol
- Ideals of Modern Education
- Christian Life in the Modern World
- Shakespeare as a Moral Teacher
- America’s Leadership in World Politics
- The Knights of King Arthur
- Does Death End All?
- A Study of the Lynch Law
- The Juvenile Court
- The Drama and the Present Day Theater
- Beyond the Grave
- The Artisan and the Artist
- The Ideal of Culture
- French Literary Celebrities
- The One-Hundred Worst Books
- A Dozen Masterpieces of Painting
- Mountain Peaks in Russian History
- Growth and Influence of Labor Organizations
Click on this link to read the text of a lecture presented July 26, 1901 by Dr. P. S. Henson of Chicago on the topic of grumbling. (Yes, grumbling!) You’ll find it on page 3 of The Chautauqua Assembly Herald.
Isabella Alden was arguably the best chronicler of the Chautauqua Summer Assembly experience. The characters she created in her books represented the diverse people who attended the Assembly and their different social and economic walks of life. She also captured the varied topics and inspirational nature of the many classes and lectures the Summer Assembly offered.
Next Stop of our Tour of Chautauqua: Palestine Park