The lyceum movement sprung up as a result of the Industrial Revolution, and originated in Scotland, where Dr. George Birbeck delivered lectures and scientific demonstrations to a Glasgow audience of young mechanics(2). Early in the nineteenth century, the movement spread to France, then the United States(2).
In the U.S., several factors were paving the way for the lyceum movement. First, Cotton Mathers religious discussion groups set up the idea of a public forum for intellectual discussion(2). Also, Ben Franklin founded his famous Junto in Philadelphia, which Franklin called a "club of mutual improvement(2)." The official opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 helped the Lyceum Movement thrive; the canal became a major commercial waterway, and towns that sprung up in the area became economic hotspots(3). As the canal population grew, so did their desire for culture and education(3). Finally, the election of Andrew Jackson brought about the "Era of Jacksonian Democracy," and recently enfranchised blue-collar workers thirsted for knowledge that would help them use their new political power wisely(4).
The lyceum movement was conceived by Josiah Holbrook in New England in the 1820s(1). Holbrook, born in Derby, Connecticut, and graduated from Yale in 1810, became a traveling lecturer who first spoke on science and technology, then formed industrial and agricultural schools for young men(4). In 1826 in Massachusetts Holbrook set up the first lyceum, the "Millsbury Branch, Number 1, of the American Lyceum(1)." Holbrook intended the lyceum to be a local study group which met at weekly intervals(4). He based his lyceums on the belief that education should continue all through life, regardless of age and gender, and that learning helps stave off the temptation of alcohol(1).
Besides the goal of education, lyceums also promoted the establishment of libraries, museums, and public schools(4). Holbrook and other lyceum devotees believed that universal, free education could right the illnesses of society, preserve democracy, and dissolve the oppressive caste system(4). Holbrook also envisioned a hierarchy of lyceums, the highest of which being the National American Lyceum, established in 1831(5). However, many local lyceums resisted the idea of state and national superiors, and the National Lyceum died after only eight years(5).
Most lyceum experts agree that the early days of lyceums, before the Civil War, were the most education-oriented(5). In these first days, the members of the lyceum took turns lecturing to each other and met in houses, churches, and schools(1). The lyceum movement multiplied rapidly, and in 1840 Horace Mann reported that Massachusetts alone contained 137 separate lyceums, each with an average attendance of more than 32,000(1).
Although lyceums flourished most in New England, by 1839 four to five thousand had popped up as far south as Florida and as far west as Detroit(1). The spread of lyceums was made possible by the U.S. Congress opening of huge tracks of land for settlement(3). Easterners flocked west and brought the lyceum movement with them(3). In the South, however, lyceum activity never caught on with the same fervor because southern aristocrats feared that education of poor whites and slaves would damage the economy(5). Also, the South lacked a large middle class, the main patronage of lyceums(5).
As lyceums grew in number and attendance, lecturing became a profession for some travelling teachers who collected fees for their speeches(1). Emerson reportedly requested only five dollars and oats for his horse at first, but rates quickly inflated(1). Lyceums attracted famous writers, historians, explorers, and religious philosophers including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Wendell Phillips, and Horace Greeley(1).
With the Civil War came the immediate cessation of lyceum activity, and the lyceums that reemerged after the war were fundamentally different from their antebellum counterparts(5). The aim of lyceums was now to entertain as well as to educate(3). Lyceums began to attract singers, dancers, impersonators, magicians, and animal performances, and the completion of the first continental railway in 1869 and the overall expansion of rail in the 1870s transported these lecturers and travelling performers west(3).
Lyceum bureaus also cropped up to book travelling performers and lecturers at various lyceums across the country(3). James Redpath, an ardent abolitionist, formed the Boston Lyceum Bureau , or Redpath Bureau, the most well-known and lucrative lyceum booking agency of the time(3). Other noteworthy lyceum bureaus were the Williams Lecture and Musical Bureau and the Midland Lyceum Bureau(3). By 1900 there were a total of twelve lyceum bureaus, each of which booked at least 3,000 events a year(3).
In the early twentieth century, lyceums slowly died out, but the lyceums lasting effects are visible even today(5). First, the teaching profession raised its standards for teachers and students, and teachers became more widely appreciated. The lyceum movement also brought about state control over education(4). Other results included the formation of the Weather Bureau(meteorology had reached a wide audience through scientific lectures), and the large boom in literacy fueled by the lyceum movement brought a plethora of new periodicals to the North and South(5). In 1850, there were 2,526 serial publications, and by 1860, there were 40,051(5).
Josiah Holbrooks vision of lyceums spreading knowledge to young and old, male and female was a resounding success, especially in New England. Beginning in 1826 and fading in the early twentieth century, the Lyceum Movement lives on in the changes it brought about in American public education.
1. Morrison, Theodore. Chautauqua. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.
2. Weeks, Edward. The Lowells and their Institution. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1966.
3. Tapia, John E. Circuit Chautauqua. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company Inc., 1997.
4. Stambler, Leah G. "The Lyceum Movement in American Education, 1826-1845." Paedagogica Historica 21nt (1981) : 157-85
5. Bode, Carl. The American Lyceum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956.
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