Chautauqua Serenade

Violinist Ruth Bowers on Tour 1910 - 1912

Ruth Bowers had a dream of becoming a professional violinist. In 1910, when traditional careers for women included nursing or teaching, Ruth joined the chautauqua and lyceum tour circuit and hit the road.  At a time when women did not even have the right to vote, musicians like Ruth Bowers were travelling, becoming financially independent, and expanding ideas of what women could do. They were part of the first wave of women's liberation in the twentieth century.
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Chautauqua Serenade book cover

Book cover: C. Edward Clarke, front; Ruth Bowers, left; and Grace Desmond of the Clarke-Bowers Company on a baggage car at a train station in Iowa in 1911.

Chautauqua    In the early twentieth century, the chautauqua summer circuits and the lyceum programs held during the fall and winter were the main form of live entertainment for much of rural America. Chautauqua lecturers and musicians gave programs to millions of Americans.

A large number of the lecturers were household names at that time, and many of the musicians were well-known professional performers.

In the fall and winter some communities arranged a series of programs through lyceum bureaus. Several of the lecturers and musicians who were on the summer chautauqua tours also played on the lyceum circuit.

Although the chautauqua circuits only lasted about twenty-five years, they had an important impact on American culture during the early twentieth century. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that chautauqua is "the most American thing in America."

Ruth Bowers, a remarkably talented violinist from Erie, Pennsylvania, performed at venues across North America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, and from Texas to British Columbia.

Ruth shared the bill with famous people like orator William Jennings Bryan, illusionist Eugene Laurant, and impersonator Elma B. Smith. While on tour, Bowers collected photographs, postcards and memorabilia and sent letters home.

Using this material from his family archives, along with newspaper articles from the 1900s and research files from the chautauqua collection at the University of Iowa, author-historian Jay Sherwood pieces together the unique life of his grandmother.

With over 125 previously unpublished photographs and images, Chautauqua Serenade offers readers a backstage pass to the iconic chautauqua tour through the eyes of a young woman with a big dream.

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