History of the Littleton Lyceum

[See also "Both Sides Now", a play written for the 175th Anniversary of the Littleton Lyceum.]


The Early Years

The lyceum movement began in the late 18th century in Scotland and England as means of spreading education; especially in the sciences to the masses. The term "lyceum" comes from the name of the garden by the Temple of Apollo in Athens where Aristotle would hold forth. The movement spread to continental Europe and, in short order to America, where it found a natural home.

The preeminent proponent of lyceums in America was Josiah Holbrook the Yale-educated son of a Connecticut minister, and amateur geologist. Holbrook called out for "economical and practical education," and, in all honesty, he also recommended that each lyceum buy his "apparatus for illustrating the sciences," a sort of laboratory in miniature that could be used in communities and schools to educate people on the natural sciences.

To Millbury goes the distinction of being the first lyceum in North America in 1826. And through Holbrook's diligence and eloquence, the movement spread rapidly throughout New England and, with its emigrants, to the newly opened Midwest. At the height of the lyceum movement, there were over 3,000 lyceums in the country, 15 in Boston alone.

Following the example of Millbury and Salem and Concord, Littletonians on Dec. 21, 1829 decided, in their words, "to promote mutual improvement." In the gloriously flowing handwriting of the first secretary, Rev. Amasa Sanderson, it can be read

in the original minutes of that meeting: "We the subscribers feeling desirous of affording every possible facility for the improvement of our school, feeling the importance of personal motivation and the general diffusion of useful knowledge, and believing these objects can be best accomplished by united and continued efforts, agree to form a society under the name of the Littleton Lyceum."

At first the Littleton Lyceum met every Tuesday evening December through February. Favorite among the various activities were lectures, debates and parsing. This may not seem a likely draw, but in her history of the Littleton Lyceum, Miss Hannah Dodge assures us that because of the lack of a library, newspapers and magazines "whole families would leave their comfortable hearths on winter nights and congregate in the Centre school-house for the Lyceum exercises." Certainly the long, idle winter nights must have prompted them to social activity as well. Though, it must be noted that many Lyceum meetings early on were canceled due to winter storms. When the roads allowed, townspeople would clamor to attend. And when not parsing, popular topics for debate in the early years were the Westward migration, capital punishment and slavery. Parsing, it should be noted, is the diagramming of sentences; they were crazy for it. 50 years later there were still people longing for the days of debates and parsing.

The Late 19th Century

By the time of its 25th anniversary, the Littleton Lyceum was in its heyday. It is at this time that Lyceum took the form and operation it would have for almost a century. A change in the constitution did away with the patrician oligarchy by making any season ticket holder a member of Lyceum, and the board was comprised of interested members. Tickets were sold for the "course," or season, and were regularly set at $1.00 for a family, 75¢ for a gentlemen, 50¢ for a lady and 10¢ for children. While these prices rose to as much as $3.00 for a family in the 1880s, falling back to 75¢ in the Great Depression, essentially they changed very little until the 1970s. A set of five or six lectures and entertainments were arrived at by committee and tickets were sold ahead of time. And beginning in that anniversary year, the board had the series printed on the tickets for ready reference, and all this is still done today. Lecturers on that ticket included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, indeed, a banner year.

The Civil War cut into Littleton as it did most communities in the United States in the 1860s. During the War or shortly thereafter, most lyceums petered out, but not in Littleton. Besides bringing about a brief return to public debating, the War was also long a subject for Lyceum, a venue where veterans lectured about life in Confederate prison camps and Reconstruction was repeatedly a topic. However, much of the public at large did not want intellectual debate of hard issues, they had witnessed a brutal war and now wanted light. And while Lyceum was bent on providing lectures that were "interesting and instructive," more and more musical evenings, travelogues and magic acts were creeping into Lyceum courses.

The 20th Century

As time went on, Littleton was not only a town of agrarians becoming worldly and wise, but a place where the telephone and electric and, in good time, the automobile, were penetrating. Magic lanterns and stereopticons, forerunners of slide shows and, now, Powerpoint presentations, were very popular, as were the growing number of musical evenings. Lyceum still had its serious side, but for every lecture on Jewish history by Rabbi Fleicher, there was an evening of Brigmati the Magician, and Reube Kavalgian's "Armenian Turkey" was followed by artists from the New England Conservatory.

By 1934, in the deepest part of the Great Depression, the budget of the Lyceum was a third of what it had been at the end of the 1920s. Not only that, but the price of admission dropped to 75¢ for the course, 25¢ per event; this was even lower than the original annual membership more than 100 years before. Also reflecting the Depression were programs entitled "I Am Still Rich" (1935) and "Russia and America: Two Contrasting Ventures" (1936). On the lighter side, Thornton Burgess of Peter Cottontail fame spoke (1930) and there were travelogues, like one on Hawaii (1931), and a talk on undersea exploration, "Threshold of a New World" (1939) by Vincent Palmer, colleague of William Beebe of bathysphere fame.

It is during this time that the mechanism for financing a Lyceum course was codified. With the great help of the money set up in trust by Abbie Tuttle and with careful planning, the Lyceum board contrived to save enough money that surplus funds at the end of the year would pay for the upcoming season. From then on, to the current day, they

would plan a budget for the following year based on ticket sales and the trust money of the current year. It was no longer hand-to-mouth, spending down receipts to small deficits or surpluses. In so doing, the Lyceum slowly began to expand its budget up to the war years of the early 1940s. In 1943, they reduced the number of programs by one in response to gas rationing and other exactions. By 1944, it was back up to five programs and it was noted that a certain number of free tickets were made available to the U.S.O. for servicemen at Fort Devens to be able to enjoy the programs

The latter part of the 20th century was a period of rising costs for everyone, Lyceum included. Many popular events had to be dropped due to their rising price tags of $1,500 to $2,000. The Littleton Lyceum wasn't parsimonious, but it did have a limited budget. In the minutes of 1993 is a copy of a letter from then president Tom Burbine requesting that rental fees for the high school auditorium be waived due to lycuem's efforts to bring cultural enrichment to the town. In two days' time, the reply agreed to Mr. Burbine's request. Music, magic and storytelling were the tried and true entertainments of this age. In the last category, Littleton had such fine talents as Jay O'Callahan, Odds Bodkin and Marshall Dodge, of "Bert and I" fame upon Lyceum's stage. There also followed the tradition of featuring local talent with varied presentations by Paul Monat, Mark Montanari, the Apfelbaums and Richelle Dupont. Interestingly, at this time, many of the former subjects of Lyceum return in the guise of actors recreating historic figures, such as Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Teddy Roosevelt.


The New Millennium

In the new millennium, many businesses have stepped up to support this town institution, mostly due to a campaign spearheaded by committeeperson Judy Grande. Also, the Littleton Lyceum was the beneficiary of a second bequest, that from the estate of Walter Clancy. All this ensures the organization's solvency into the future, no small feat and something that would make its founders and subsequent supporters proud.

This history only glances at the highlights of 175 years of history. Books could, and should, be written on such subjects as the people who made the Littleton Lyceum possible, not only at its inception, but all through its long, productive history. People like Rev. White, Frank Priest and Tom Burbine. Indeed, it is people who have maintained Lyceum all along, volunteers set to the task of making a better more interesting world available to others. In a moment of earnest

thought in 1948, Lyceum secretary Emily Phelps wrote, "We sincerely hope that those who come in to fill the places of those of the past will continue to carry on only the best and most instructive forms of entertainment." And year after year, both before and after, so have people stepped up to carry on the mission of the Lyceum. There have been 175 years of selfless dedication on the part of these people and, if we are lucky, others will follow.

Every citizen of Littleton should be proud of its lyceum, not for being the oldest continuing lyceum in the United Stated, but because it has remained true to its mission, striving year after year to bring quality entertainment to broaden the lives of its subscribers.

© 2005 | Andrew Bowers