Chautauqua Serenade

Violinist Ruth Bowers on Tour, 1910–1912

Jay Sherwood

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.

In the first part of the twentieth century, these popular tours brought music, education and entertainment to millions of people in rural North America. But chautauquas and lyceums also provided employment and fame for many female lecturers and performers. 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 the women’s liberation of the twentieth century.

A remarkably talented violinist from Erie, Pennsylvania, Ruth Bowers 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 With over 125 previously unpublished photographs and images, Chautauqua Serenade offers readers a backstage pass to the iconic chautauqua tour through the eyes of a young woman with a big dream.