Sunday, July 5, 2015

Ideas Once Spreading

One hundred and fifty years before TED revitalized the chalk talk, lecture halls known as "lyceums" flourished across the U.S.

At their peak in the 1850s, the halls drew more than a million people a week—nearly 5% of the country's population.

Attendees brought their 19th century attention spans to hear itinerant speakers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Daniel Webster and Theodore Parker.

Unlike other public gathering spots of the day, lyceums welcomed women and, north of the Mason Dixon Line, African Americans. 

Tickets, sold by subscription, were cheap (about 25 cents).

Most speakers delivered "instructive" talks about science, travel, and the arts; but lyceums also hosted proponents of hot political ideas, especially early feminists, prohibitionists and abolitionists.

The latter aroused so much animosity as the decade progressed that audiences, afraid of violent outbreaks, eventually stopped going to lyceums, and the phenomenon lost much of its steam.

Following the Civil War, many of the once-heady halls were converted to venues for vaudeville acts.
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