People's Institute (New York, N.Y.)

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The People's Institute was founded in 1897 by Charles Sprague Smith to teach the theory and practice of government and social philosophy to workers and recent immigrants in New York City. It sponsored lectures, classes, concerts, and other community activities at Cooper Union, and throughout New York City, though principally on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The Institute ceased operations in 1934.

From the description of People's Institute records, 1883-1933, bulk (1897-1927). (New York Public Library). WorldCat record id: 122534458

The People's Institute was founded in 1897 by Charles Sprague Smith to teach the theory and practice of government and social philosophy to workers and recent immigrants in New York City. It sponsored lectures, classes, concerts, and other community activities at Cooper Union and throughout New York City, though principally on Manhattan's Lower East Side. The Institute ceased operations in 1934.

The People's Institute is recognized most often for its contribution as a community educational center for working class adults and immigrants. It sponsored lectures, craft guilds, art and music leagues, a training school for community workers, and adult education classes in history, social science, literature, as well as nutrition and health. Specific programs implemented by the Institute included the People's Forums, community centers in Public School 63 and Public School 89, the Wage Earner's Theatre League, the People's Institute Harlem Branch at 125th Street, and the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The latter organization eventually broke away and developed into its own formidable organization. (Its records are also held by the Manuscripts and Archives Division).

The People's Institute was organized in the latter half of the nineteenth century during the Progressive Movement that swept across the United States. Progressivism was a response to the social changes that occurred after the Civil War. Foremost among these changes were the rapid industrialization and population growth in urban cities. The population explosion was a result of two factors: masses of people moving from rural to urban areas and the arrival of immigrants from Europe. Most of this population crowded into large urban areas such as New York City and Chicago.

Reformers attempted to attack the problems that made life in the city undesirable, such as the corruption of city government, child exploitation, poor sanitary conditions, health problems, and the lack of social services. Some of the best known reformers were Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914), an innovative photographer and author of How the Other Half Lives whose photographs exposed the underbelly of city life; Jane Addams (1860-1935), social reformer and pacifist, and founder of Hull House in Chicago, one of the first social settlements in the United States; and Lillian D. Wald (1867-1940), nurse and social worker who founded the Henry Street Settlement House in New York City in 1893. Other organizations with similar reform ideas to those of the People's Institute included the City Club and the Citizens Union.

The founders of the People's Institute were Felix Adler, Robert Fulton Cutting, Grace H. Dodge, Elgin R.H. Gould, Abram S. Hewitt, George K. Lloyd, R. Heber Newton, William S. Rainsford, Charles Sprague Smith, Edward Thimme, and George Tombleson. The Advisory Council comprised over forty individuals including Lyman Abbott, R.R. Bowker, Nicholas Butler Murray, Andrew Carnegie, R.W. Gilder, Samuel Gompers, Jacob A. Riis, Jacob H. Schiff, Anson Phelps Stokes, J.G. Phelps Stokes, Oscar S. Straus, and Lillian D. Wald. Charles Sprague Smith was elected the Institute's first Managing Director.

The constitution of the People's Institute states that "the purpose of the Institute is first, to furnish to the people continuous and ordered education in Social Science, History, Literature and such other subjects as time and the demand shall determine. Second, to afford opportunities for the interchange of thought upon topics of general interest between people of different occupations in order thereby to assist in the solution of present problems. To accomplish these purposes the Institute may conduct lectures, discussions and classes, encourage the formation of branch associations, and undertake such other work as shall promote its aims."

The Institute's attempt to involve the immigrants of lower Manhattan in the sensibilities and politics of reform began with free weekly lectures and discussions on politics and current events at Cooper Union. By 1902, the Institute was holding nightly events in schools and community centers throughout the city. Cooper Union was a center of many of the Institute's activities, but the Institute had no headquarters as such. It utilized schools after hours, not only to make its activities more accessible, but also to widen its presence and influence in the community. By the 1920s, the Institute was less of an engine of reform; it emphasized cultural and social education in an attempt to integrate immigrants who were its main constituency into mainstream American culture.

The People's Institute operated for thirty-six years, longer than many social, educational, and reform agencies. When the Institute ceased operations in 1934, R. Fulton Cutting, President of Cooper Union established a Department of Social Philosophy at Cooper Union. Dr. Everett Dean Martin, the last Director of the Institute, was appointed head of the new department.

The Directors Charles Sprague Smith was Director of the People's Institute from 1897 until his death in 1910. He was succeeded by Frederic Clemson Howe (1910-1916), Edward F. Sanderson (1916-1922), and Everett Dean Martin (1922-1934).

Charles Sprague Smith (1853-1910) was born in Andover, Massachusetts, the son of Charles and Caroline Louisa (Sprague) Smith. A gifted child and the son of middle class parents, Smith graduated from Phillips Academy at fifteen and graduated from Amherst College with a Bachelor of Arts in 1874. Smith's early adulthood was spent abroad in Berlin studying languages and literature in Berlin and at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Returning to the United States in 1880, Smith embarked upon a career as an educator. After teaching at Columbia University, Harvard University and elsewhere, Smith turned his focus on the inadequacies of the American education system. As a result of his concerns, Smith founded the Comparative Literature Society in 1895. This Society, a precursor to the People's Institute, aimed to integrate immigrants into American society.

In Smith's book Working with the People (New York: A. Wessels, 1904, p. 2), he defines the People's Institute as "[a] new institution, upon whose board of control all sections should have representation, and whose platform, free from class or partisan influence, should become a forum for the untrammeled discussion of all subjects affecting the people's interest..."

After Smith's death in 1910, Frederic Clemson Howe (1868-1940) became Managing Director of the Institute. Prior to accepting the directorship, Howe had practiced law in Ohio. Known as an aggressive champion of the average man, Howe advocated labor reforms, fought municipal graft, and promoted cooperative government. During Howe's tenure at the Institute, he founded the People's Music League and the Drama League of America. Howe's published works include the monograph The City, the Hope of Democracy (1935).

Howe resigned the directorship of the Institute in 1914. His successor was Edward F. Sanderson who held the position from 1916 to 1922. Sanderson was a Congregational clergyman and the former pastor of the Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn. Sanderson, unlike his predecessors and his successor, preferred to maintain a low profile.

The last Director of the People's Institute was Everett Dean Martin (1880-1941). Martin was a social psychologist and adult educator born in Jacksonville, Illinois. After receiving a diploma in theology, Martin embarked upon a career in the ministry serving as pastor at several churches. In 1917, Martin received his first appointment at the People's Institute as a lecturer in social philosophy at the Cooper Union Forum. Over the next several years, Martin received several appointments including Director of the Cooper Union Forum and Assistant Director of the Institute in 1917. From 1919 to 1922, Martin was Chairman of the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures.

From the guide to the People's Institute records, 1883-1933, 1897-1927, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Brooklyn Museum. Office of the Director. Philip Newell Youtz records, 1934-38 (bulk), 1928-38 (inclusive). Brooklyn Museum Libraries & Archives
creatorOf People's Institute (New York, N.Y.). People's Institute records, 1883-1933, bulk (1897-1927). New York Public Library System, NYPL
creatorOf People's Institute records, 1883-1933, 1897-1927 New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division
creatorOf People's Institute (New York, N.Y.). Correspondence with Theodore Dreiser, 1912. University of Pennsylvania Libraries, Van Pelt Library
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Ateller, Sidney person
associatedWith Ateller, Sidney. person
associatedWith Beals, A. Tennyson. person
associatedWith Beals, Jessie Tarbox person
associatedWith Beals, Jessie Tarbox. person
associatedWith Brooklyn Museum. Office of the Director. corporateBody
associatedWith Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. corporateBody
associatedWith Howe, Frederic Clemson, 1867-1940. person
associatedWith Martin, Everett Dean, 1880-1941. person
associatedWith Sanderson, Edward F. person
associatedWith Smith, Charles Sprague, 1853-1910. person
Place Name Admin Code Country
New York (N.Y.)
New York (State)--New York
New York (N.Y.)
Political science
Politics, Practical
Politics, Practical
Social settlements
Social settlements
Social sciences
Social service
Social service
Lantern slides

Corporate Body

Active 1883

Active 1933



Ark ID: w6n0522b

SNAC ID: 44199453