Before TV, before radio, even before the movies, and contemporaneous with vaudeville (but considered much more moral and “uplifting”), the great mass-market movement of the age was the Chautauqua. Founded in 1874 and running through the 1920s (when commercialization killed it virtually overnight), the Chautauqua was operated in over 10,000 mostly-rural communities throughout America.
It was called “the university of the common man” and relied on the social and geographic isolation of farming and ranching communities, and Americans’ natural hunger for education, culture, and entertainment. The Chautauqua was essentially a self-education movement. Some Chautauquas were so religiously-oriented that they were essentially church camps, while more secular Chautauquas resembled summer school and competed with vaudeville in theaters and circus tent shows with their animal acts and trapeze acrobats.
A few remnants of the Chautauqua still exist today, but it is now largely forgotten and is nowhere close to the popular movement that it once was.
In the late 19th century, the “Mother Chautauqua” was founded as a training school for Sunday school teachers by Methodist minister John Heyl Vincent and businessman Lewis Miller at a campsite on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in New York State. After 1907, “Daughter Chautauquas” were organized in tents pitched on well-drained fields near towns throughout America with good rail service. Lectures were the mainstay of the Chautauqua, and the Redpath Lyceum Bureau organized speakers who moved from town to town to make their presentations. The reform speech and the inspirational talk were the two main types of lecture. Favorite political reform topics in Chautauqua lectures included temperance (even prohibition), women’s suffrage, and child labor laws. Later topics included current events, travel and stories, often with a comedic twist. After several days, the Chautauqua would fold its tents and move on to the next towns.
William Jennings Bryan, with his populist and evangelical message addressing topics such as temperance, was the most popular Chautauqua speaker. But the most popular speech was by the prolific speaker (often booked in the same venues with Bryan) Russell H. Conwell, who delivered his famous “Acres of Diamonds” speech 6,000 times to audiences on the Chautauqua and Lyceum circuits. His theme was “get rich young man, for money is power and power ought to be in the hands of good people. I say you have no right to be poor.”
The central idea of the speech is that one need not look elsewhere for opportunity, achievement, or fortune—the resources to achieve all good things are present in one’s own community. This theme is developed by an introductory anecdote, credited by Conwell to an Arab guide, about a man who wanted to find diamonds so badly that he sold his property and went off in futile search for them. The new owner of his home discovered that a rich diamond mine was located right there on the property. Conwell elaborates on the theme through examples of success, genius, service, or other virtues involving ordinary Americans contemporary to his audience: “dig in your own backyard!”
Conwell was an American Baptist minister, orator, philanthropist, lawyer, and writer. He is best remembered as the founder and first president of Temple University in Philadelphia PA. He is said to have raised all the money he needed to found Temple University and to have sent hundreds of poor young men through its portals from the speaking fees he earned on the Chautauqua circuit.
The popularity of the speech is somewhat a mystery today. I have read a text of it, and many commentators besides me have said it falls somewhat flat to modern ears. Some have said that it is meant to be delivered orally, that it doesn’t work in writing. The only thing I can speculate is that the message of “Acres of Diamonds” was a good fit with the Progressive Era and social aspirations that America was experiencing at that time.
94° and Partly Cloudy