Esther Griffin White


“The Chautauqua movement sprang from a set of impulses for which the time was ripe, and which could not be confined to a single place or institution but spread over the county, seeping into larger or smaller pockets everywhere. … Independent Chautauquas were locally instituted by groups of citizens who coveted an assembly for their own communities.”


Chautauqua came to American, and into Esther Griffin White’s life, during the adult education movement in the late ninetieth and early twentieth century. Chautauqua means ‘the fish leaps’, from a Seneca Indian word[1], and this movement expanded across the United States. The relatively remote communities in rural America were visited by the showcase of modernism. The Midwest was known as ‘the Chautauqua belt’ due to the frequency and popularity of Chautauqua visits there.[2] The festivals showcased music, art, speeches from intellectuals, horticultural seminars, assorted classes and a variety of other educational activities. Chautauqua, along with its imitators, was a movement that encouraged higher learning, discussion, amusement and reflection. “Chautauqua made itself famous in its early decades by pioneering educational ventures.”[3]The original Chautauqua institution was located in New York state, created in 1874 by Methodists John Heyl Vincent and Lewis Miller.  “Chautauqua itself was born into the age of bitterness and stumbling reconciliation, the age of industrial and social strife and expansion, that followed the civil war.”[4]

Esther Griffin White attended Richmond’s annual Chautauqua many times, and wrote about the event in The Little Paper and The Richmond Palladium. Richmond’s first Chautauqua was in 1902, and every year was held mid-August in Glen Miller Park, a place Esther often wrote about in regards to preservation. In her Little Paper, White created a section named Chautauqua Chat in which she would summarize the happenings of the event. She dedicated two issues a year to Richmond’s Chautauqua. Sardonic remarks, congratulations and praise would all appear in response to happenings.

Esther held high esteem for Chautauqua. Her efforts to bring music, art, intellectuals, and culture to Richmond must have endeared her to the enriching experiences of Chautauqua. In 1912, her respect for Chautauqua is evident when she admonishes rudeness she has witnessed in the past week:

“There are some young rough-necks out at the Chautauqua that should be brought to bat by Henry Westenberg. Rudeness, yawping and discourtesy are not expected in a place like Chautauqua, which is supposed to stand for something better than Goosetown manners and curbside coarseness.”[5]

Chautauqua was a dignified event, even if people did find innocent amusement in certain performances. Chautauqua was not only a forum for education and culture, but also an accepting political platform. As an intellectual and fiercely political woman, White must also have approved of numerous Chautauquas’ support of women’s suffrage.[6]

-Adrienne Peters


Quote: Theodore Morrison from Chautauqua: a center for education, religion, and the arts in America, Page 161

[1] U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "Untitled Document." U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-St. Louis District. (accessed March 1, 2012).

[2] Harrison, Harry P., and Karl Detzer.Culture Under Canvas; The Story of Tent Chautauqua. New York: Hastings House, 1958. Page 9

[3] Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua: a center for education, religion, and the arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Page 11

[4] Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua: a center for education, religion, and the arts in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. Page 12

[5] The Little Paper, August 28, 1915

[6] Bledstein, Burton J., and Robert D. Johnston. The middling sorts: explorations in the history of the American middle class. New York: Routledge, 2001. Page 144