Tent Chautauqua

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In the early 20th century, the highlight of the summer for thousands of isolated small town and farming folk across the Midwest was the unfurling of the big Chautauqua tent on the village outskirts.

Tent, or Circuit, Chautauqua, was the commercial offspring of the revered Mother Chautauqua, an educational retreat in western New York, that still pursues its educational mission more than 150 years after its founding in 1874. Circuit Chautauqua took on the mantle of edification, along with entertainment, in an era before radio or moving pictures. For a week or more, everyone put aside their work and settled onto wooden  chairs under the canvas to receive enlightenment and culture from the day’s foremost orators, musicians and humorists. Theodore Roosevelt famously called Chautauqua “The most American thing in America.”

Among those who took to Chautauqua platforms across the heart of the country were Williams Jennings Bryan, populist; Jane Addams, settlement activist; the young ventriloquist Edgar Bergen; Ohio senator (and later president) Warren G. Harding; the Fisk (University) Jubilee Singers Negro spirituals and Opie Read, known for his homespun stories. Swiss bell ringers; chalk talkers, who illustrated their stories as they spoke; male quartets; adventurers who had traveled in remote lands and interpretive readers who acted out such favorites as Shakespeare and Dickens rounded out the schedule.

As one young mother explained to the journalist, Ida Tarbell, “It is a great thing for us, particularly for us younger women with growing children.  There are none of us in this town very rich.  Most of us have to do all our work.  We have little amusement, and almost never get away from home.  The Chautauqua brings us an entire change.  We plan for weeks before it.  There is hardly a woman I know in town who has not her work so arranged, her pantry so full of food, that she can get to the meetings at half past two in the afternoon, and easily stay until five.  She gets her work done up for Chautauqua week.”

By the 1920s, tent audiences dwindled as radio and moving pictures competed for audiences and travel became easier. Most of the agencies who mounted Circuit Chautauqua had stopped booking by the 1930s. Chautauqua, however, lives on at the distinguished Mother Chautauqua in western New York, and in various communities and states who sponsor variations on the Chautauqua theme with historical reenactors, musical shows and workshops.

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