The chautauqua movement in the United States traces its origins to 1874, when Protestant ministers John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller started a summer training program for Sunday-school teachers at Lake Chautauqua in the state of New York. Vincent and Miller had no expectation or intention that their training school would inspire a vast national cultural movement. But it did. Within two years assemblies devoted to the education of the masses, modeled after Vincent and Miller's school at Lake Chautauqua, began springing up in small towns and cities across the nation.(1) During the peak years, from 1920 to 1924, chautauquas brought their unique blend of education, inspiration, and entertainment to as many as ten thousand cities each year. What President Theodore Roosevelt once called "the most American thing in America" branched out to other nations as well, becoming "the most American thing" in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries. The glory faded quickly, however. In 1928, for example, one estimate has just five hundred cities holding chautauquas. The numbers continued to decline thereafter; only one chautauqua, at Mediapolis, Iowa, survived into the 1950s.(2)
This essay analyzes chautauqua's rise and its decline in the 1920s. Because the state of Iowa became a particular center of chautauqua activity, many of the specific examples will come from that state, especially from three representative cities--Marshalltown in the center of the state (1930 population: 17,371), Fort Dodge in the northwest (population 21,895), and Washington in the southeast (population 4,814).(3) An analysis of chautauqua's rise and decline illuminates more than this one institution, however. Chautauqua represents one of the first attempts to deliver a truly national culture--linking rural and urban, east and west, north and south--to the masses. Thus the relationship among the chautauqua movement, emerging and competing means of delivering a national culture to people, and changing times suggests important points about the historical development of American popular culture.
The earliest Chautauqua assemblies in the late-nineteenth century were called "independent chautauquas." This meant that the towns involved organized local committees, which then took on all the responsibilities for staging the chautauqua, from engaging talent to selling tickets to advertising, and doing whatever else was necessary. Independent chautauquas generally gave their programs in the largest auditorium in town or in a large tent.(4) Organizers often preferred tents because they could be situated near a lake or river, or in a grove of trees--in other words, a location that would recreate as near as possible the original setting at Lake Chautauqua. A normal program would run for five or seven days, with morning, afternoon, and evening sessions. Morning sessions were usually devoted to Bible study. The remainder of the program consisted of varying mixtures of lecturers (of both the scholarly and moral uplift variety), musical acts, debates, dramatic readers, bird callers, bell ringers, and, in the later years, plays and even radio and motion pictures.
The independent chautauquas were the first chautauquas apart from the institute, and they were the last survivors. They were not destined to be the most numerous, however. Over the years, independent chautauquas made various attempts to band together to cut costs and use performers more efficiently, but these attempts always failed. Then in the early-20th century, Keith Vawter, a partner in the Redpath Lyceum Bureau, a talent agency which routinely provided lecturers and other entertainers to independent chautauquas, concluded that a lyceum bureau could profitably run a series of chautauquas; they already controlled the talent and had vast experience arranging speaking and other performance tours. In 1904, Vawter put together a talent package, purchased a few large tents, and signed up fourteen towns in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. …