Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Founding & History

Early Amphitheatre The Amphitheater
Courtesy of The Chautauqua Institution Archives
Chautauqua has always had a strong and visible connection to its history. Chautauquans often pride themselves on how many years, or even how many generations, their families have been coming to the grounds. Chautauqua strikes a delicate balance between honoring its past while striving to remain relevant in a constantly changing world.

Chautauqua was founded in 1874 by Ohio inventor and industrialist Lewis Miller and Methodist Bishop John Heyl Vincent. It began as a two-week summer institute for Sunday-school teachers with a program that covered all subjects of study, both secular and religious. Current Department of Religion head Joan Brown Campbell sums up the idea well, "They believed that if democracy was to succeed you had to have an educated electorate and they believed that the churches had some responsibility for that."

Miller and Vincent John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller
Courtesy of The Chautauqua Institution Archives
Chautauqua quickly gained national prominence after a visit by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1875. Chautauqua increased its status as 'America's Platform' even more in 1878 when John Heyl Vincent created the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. The CLSC was a structured four-year correspondence course. It was especially popular among women and in rural areas. In a tradition that continues today, at the end of their four-year course of study participants are invited to Chautauqua to take part in a graduation ceremony. The goal of the CLSC was to extend Chautauqua's program to those that couldn’t come to the grounds.

In time, these CLSC reading circles were inspired to create local Chautauquas of their own, giving rise to 'The Chautauqua Movement.' These local gatherings became known as the 'Daughter Chautauquas' and grew to as many as 300 at their peak. These Daughter Chautauquas were inspired by but often only loosely connected to the original in New York.

By 1904 a new expansion took the national movement even further from its roots. Many of the talent agencies that provided speakers and entertainers to the Chautauqua Institution and the Daughter Chautauquas decided to put on traveling shows of their own. These became know as the 'circuit chautauquas' or 'tent chautauquas.' Though having almost no connection to the original gathering in New York, the circuit chautauquas did have a lasting impact. Chautauqua archivist and historian Jon Schmitz said of the circuit chautauquas, "They traveled all over the country; in fact most people when they think of Chautauqua today they are probably thinking of the circuits."

Early 1 A view of a Chautauqua street
Courtesy of The Chautauqua Institution Archives
The circuit chautauquas remained popular for many years. However by the mid-1920s several changes in American society led to their decline in popularity: increased auto travel, access to radio and motion pictures, and other factors. By 1934 the national Chautauqua movement was over.

During this same time, the original gathering in New York was having troubles of its own. Also affected by the changes in America that ended the national movement, the original Chautauqua suffered financial difficulties during the 1930's and went bankrupt and into receivership in 1933. According to Jon Schmitz, "In 1933 it could not announce its next season. It was just not clear it would ever open again."

Early 2 Vincent and Miller sitting in front of a tent
Courtesy of The Chautauqua Institution Archives
Chautauqua was able to open again and came out of receivership in 1936. However, Chautauqua's financial troubles were not over and the institution entered a period of fiscal conservatism that lasted for many years. Though programming continued, Chautauqua all but faded from the American consciousness.

By the early 1970's Chautauqua had begun to rebound and regain some of its former glory. By the 1980's a genuine renaissance was underway at the institution that continues today. New leadership and a strong focus on the arts are largely responsible for Chautauqua's return to national awareness.

Early 3 An early Chautauqua house
Courtesy of The Chautauqua Institution Archives
Today Chautauqua enjoys a return to its place as a national platform, and continues to strive to find new ways to remain relevant in a constantly shrinking world.
Copyright © 2014 WNYPBA All rights reserved.
Privacy Policy - Terms of Use

WNED