About the Digital Collection

The digital collection Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century (a part of the Library of Congress American Memories Project) comprises 7,949 publicity brochures, promotional advertisements and flyers for 4,545 lecturers, teachers, preachers, statesmen and politicians, actors, singers and opera stars, glee clubs and concert companies, magicians, whistlers and other performers who traveled the circuits at the beginning of the 20th century. The brochures are drawn from the Redpath Chautauqua Collection, which is housed at the University of Iowa Libraries.

The Redpath Chautauqua Collection at the University of Iowa Libraries

The office files of the Redpath Lyceum Bureau were presented without restrictions to the University of Iowa Libraries during the period 1945-1973. The Redpath Bureau was a booking agency for the Midwest Chautauqua circuits. The collection is considered to be the most extensive holding of circuit Chautauqua materials in existence. It consists of some 648 linear feet of materials dating between 1890-1940. Its particular strength lies in the breadth of its geographic coverage and length of time over which the Redpath Bureau conducted business as the premiere booking agency in the U.S. The talent files are especially rich in contemporary information by and about notable people of the period. For a more detailed description of the collection and its provenance see Robert McCown’s, "Records of the Redpath Collection," Books at Iowa, No. 19 (Nov., 1973). For the finding aid to (or inventory of) the entire collection, follow this link to Manuscript Collection 150.

Circuit Chautauqua: Background and Beginnings

Circuit, or "tent" Chautauqua, the offspring of the lyceum movement and of the Chautauqua assemblies, represents an early embodiment of the American drive for self-realization and self-improvement, which is still very much alive today. Its importance as a manifestation of American spirit, and as a dominant influence on American culture, has been well documented in both scholarly and general works (see Circuit Chautauqua: A Selected Bibliography for a listing of books and articles about Circuit Chautauqua. For an overview of the Chautauqua movement see Charlotte Canning's Introductory Essay , "What Was Chautauqua?").

Independent circuit Chautauquas were established in small cities across the country, relying on the talent pool of performers who were already contracted for lyceum and assembly appearances. Town boosters were eager to support such programming because, while the presentations included entertaining performances, the educational focus of institutional Chautauqua on self-improvement and lifelong education was never abandoned. The Chautauqua program was a critical instrument in strengthening this objective and in stimulating thought and discussion of important political, social, and cultural issues of the day.

The first circuit Chautauqua appeared in 1904 and traveled to fifteen towns in Iowa. As with the early lyceum movements and Chautauqua assemblies, the goal of the circuit Chautauqua was to deliver educational, spiritual, and cultural stimulation to rural and small-town America. The standardized program consisted primarily of lectures (some motivational, instructional, or inspirational and others provocative or humorous), musical performances, variety acts, and dramatic readings. By the mid-1920s, there were twenty-one circuits providing programs in more than 10,000 communities in 45 states to an estimated 40 million people. Circuit Chautauquas became a widespread manifestation of popular culture during this period. According to Gay McLaren in her book, Morally We Roll Along (1938), circuit Chautauqua was the "greatest aggregation of public performers the world has ever known."

The speakers in the Chautauqua tents and on the platforms, and their messages of public concern in the early 1900s, can easily be identified with current headliners and headlines. Issues of public concern then remain topics of concern today, and were addressed with equal passion. The performers who addressed these issues would often fit well in modern-day popular media. Information from the publicity brochures piques the imagination to consider how the following messengers and their messages might be received now:

The publicity brochures present a wealth of information about the performers and their programs. Generally, each brochure includes biographical information and performance credentials describing their appeal. Brief quotations from newspapers praising past performances, or the importance of their topics, add authority and depth to the information in these brochures. Information of this nature is sometimes found in other sources, but usually is buried in dusty periodicals, brief obituary notices, or other obscure resources.

Publicity Brochures as a Window on Popular Culture

The talent portion of the collection provides a unique window on the period for students of U.S. history and culture. It includes materials relating to entertainment, civic ideals, literary arts, and politics, which introduces to today’s students the world of ideas important to "ordinary people" at the turn of the century. The spirited language and vivid art work used in the promotional flyers reflect the emotions and ideals of the Chautauqua movement. Presented in the digital form, seemingly dreary topics come alive to students of U.S. history and social studies at both the elementary and secondary level.

For example, young students will be able to discover that the public’s fascination with pet tricks did not begin with David Letterman. Rather, they will be able to see that Pamahasika’s 50 Highly Educated Pets were an amazing and popular source of entertainment in the early part of the century. Secondary school students will learn that outrageous expenditure of federal funds is not a new concern. Judson King’s lecture on how a "certain state government recently paid $10 each wholesale for some jackknives which were worth $2.50 each retail" will point out that government reformers have long had this concern. The general public of today will be just as curious as their great grandparents about tales of hardship and misfortune, such as the experiences of Mrs. Florence E. Maybrick. Unjustly convicted of poisoning her husband, she was sentenced by a judge who went insane shortly thereafter. Yet she served 14½ years of her punishment and then went on the circuit to lecture on prison life and the need for judicial and prison reform.

Scholars of the arts will be able to locate information about the artists on the circuit - how witty Lorado Taft was in his presentations on the "sculptor’s art" or the repertory performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They will be able to see images of the impersonator, John B. Ratto, made famous for his portrayals of ethnic characters from American daily life; and read Judge Ben B. Lindsey’s vignettes about collaboration with women’s suffrage forces against child exploitation.

Booking agencies such as the Redpath Lyceum Bureau scheduled appearances of the prominent and the controversial, the celebrities and the performers. The talent pool was vast and the performers, for the most part, were already familiar names from one or more areas of popular entertainment, as well as the political and cultural worlds. Fortunately for students of popular culture, the talent records of the Redpath Bureau remain intact and constitute a superb resource for general and scholarly research.

 

 

To Traveling Culture Homepage

R.M. Kolbet
University of Iowa Libraries
January, 2001

The University of Iowa Libraries
2004. The University of Iowa. All rights reserved