During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, urban reformers concerned with the deleterious effects of industrialization lobbied for the creation of organized programs that stressed physical exercise in a wholesome Christian atmosphere for the working class. Attempting to replace the evil influence of the saloon, the dance hall, and the boarding house, reformers created alternate spaces for America’s young workers. Two urban institutions, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), were central to this social movement.
Although administratively separate organizations, the YMCA and the YWCA share a similar heritage and purpose. Both originated in Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth century in response to a population shift of young people caused by industrial and urban growth. The YMCA, founded as a prayer group in 1844 in London, quickly expanded and attracted young men from the merchant class, offering them an alternative to the morally questionable leisure activities of the city. A group of American men first visited a YMCA when they attended the London World’s Fair in 1851. Believing that American churches were failing to protect young male migrants from the evils of the city, this group organized the first American YMCAs in Boston that year and in New York City the following year. Throughout the 1850s, YMCAs flourished and spread across the urban north, from the east coast to the Midwest.
On the eve of the Civil War, over 200 city associations operated in the United States. In 1861, northern YMCAs formed the U.S. Christian Commission to provide relief work for the soldiers and sailors and in so doing attracted popular praise. With this new support, city associations began to construct buildings that reflected the needs of their constituents. The first building designed specifically for YMCA use was constructed in New York City in 1869. The “New York” plan was used as the model for city associations across the country. However, the first dormitories for young men were introduced by the Chicago YMCA in 1867 and the Dayton, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, YMCAs in 1887. By the 1890s, the emphasis on athletic and recreational activities as useful character-building tools was so great in the local YMCAs that existing buildings and new construction were adapted to include gymnasiums, bowling alleys, swimming pools, and locker rooms. With large physical facilities to maintain and dozens of activities, clubs, and classes to run, the YMCA had been transformed from a small evangelical organization intent on saving young men from the vices of the city to an urban institution resembling the corporations whose directors sat on the YMCA board.
The YWCA came to America from Great Britain during the tumultuous years preceding the Civil War. Inspired by a religious revival that swept urban America in 1857 and 1858, Protestant women were encouraged to save their sisters who were in “moral danger.” To nineteenth-century social reformers, the city presented special challenges for the young woman forced by familial or financial circumstances to live on her own. They feared that a young woman would become a victim and ultimately an employee of the vice industry. Because of the inequitable wage structure that forced women into low-paying jobs, many social reformers believed that women were particularly vulnerable to the financial advantages that both organized and casual prostitution offered. Thus, the YWCA had a special mission to protect the minds, bodies, and reputations of young women alone in the city. Local churchwomen organized YWCAs in seven American cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, and St. Louis, during the 1860s. Over the next few decades, the female constituency of numerous city associations raised funds to construct YWCA buildings that included housing, cafeterias, employment bureaus, classrooms for vocational training, gymnasiums, and, during the early decades of the twentieth century, swimming pools.
Both the YMCA and YWCA faced a wide array of issues as the population and spatial structure of the city changed throughout the twentieth century. As young native-born white Protestant men and women, the traditional constituency of the YM and YW, decreased and the numbers of European immigrants and African-American southern migrants grew, the associations were constantly under pressure to adapt their programs. The YWCA established fifty-five International Institutes in cities across the US to meet the specific needs of immigrants. Located in immigrant neighborhoods, they contained recreational facilities as well as employment bureaus and classrooms. The race issue was more difficult, however. In most cases, city association boards established separate “branch” organizations for its African-American population. Usually underfunded and underrepresented on the citywide board, the African-American branch seldom had equal recreational facilities. On several occasions, YMCA city associations allowed its African-American members to use its pool only before its annual cleaning.
The National YWCA passed the Interracial Charter in 1946 and encouraged local associations to reorganize their branches on a “metropolitan” basis—that is, by location, not race or ethnicity. For instance, the St. Louis YWCA examined each program, club, committee, and facility and reported in 1950 every aspect, including the swimming program, was completely integrated. However, post World War II suburbanization and white flight from America’s aging inner cities created a branch structure for both the YMCA and YWCA that reflected the nation’s racial divide. While the YWCA continued to advocate social reform, particularly its campaign to eliminate racism, during the 1970s the YMCA abandoned its traditional agenda to build strong Christian men and began to attract entire families to join its fitness centers and swimming clubs. In many American cities, including those of the Midwest, the YMCA and recreation center are synonymous institutions.
Margaret A. Spratt
California University of Pennsylvania
John Donald Gustav-Wrathall, Take the Young Stranger by the Hand (1998;
C. Howard Hopkins, History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America (1951); Nina Mjagkij and Margaret Spratt, eds., Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City (1997); Clifford Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920 (2001); Mary S. Sims, The YWCA: An Unfolding Purpose (1950).