The People’s Institute was founded in 1887 by Southern novelist George Washington Cable (1844-1925). Originally known as the Home Culture Clubs, the Institute continues to serve people of Northampton and the surrounding communities.
The initial Home Culture Clubs were organized as reading groups to help build bridges between peoples of different economic circumstances; they at first met in the homes of participants. Cable soon discover that people of different means felt uncomfortable meeting in one another’s homes and so determined that it would be better to hold meetings in some public location. As a consequence, by 1880 two reading rooms (one of which was reserved for the “ladies”) were rented above what was then McCallum’s Department store at 152 Main Street.
With the availability of this public and mutually comfortable space, club membership did indeed increase, so much so that by the early 1890′s a clubhouse was needed, and one was established in the old Methodist Church at 41 Center Street. The Home Culture Club movement which Cable founded spread to several other states; in fact, by 1892 there were some 300 members belonging to some 42 clubs. The greatest concentration of Home Culture Club activity, however, always remained in Northampton.
Initial funding of the Clubs came from small fees and contributions, most especially from the Lyman family of Northampton and the James family of New York City (one of whose members was originally from Northampton). In 1905, the building presently housing the People’s Institute was officially opened; it was constructed using a $50,000 gift from philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
Over the years, the People’s Institute has housed a variety of programs offering different services designed to benefit the community. In the 1890′s classes were taught specifically for working people in subjects from botany to bookkeeping. In the early 1900′s, a school of domestic arts was established. English language classes and physical education programs were offered. A ballroom provided space for dances and theatrical programs. Annual garden competitions were sponsored.
Education and enlightenment became the goals of the Home Culture Clubs. According to the founder Cable, “we seek to establish between homes of contrary fortunes – and between homes and the homeless – relations which something must establish.” Because of this aim, the organization in 1909 became officially known as The People’s Institute.
Since its inception, the People’s Institute has enjoyed a strong relationship with another Northampton institution, Smith College. Smith College students frequently have served as tutors in a variety of subjects, and proceeds of the College’s annual Rally Day are donated to the Institute. College Presidents Seelye, Burton, and Neilson served on the Board of Directors, as did U.S. President Calvin Coolidge and his wife Grace.
The People’s Institute continues to offer programs funded by user fees and the United Way. Recent efforts have been directed especially toward serving children and senior citizens. As in the early part of the century, when meeting space was rented to union locals and the Carnegie Coin Club, additional income is generated by renting office space to various groups and individuals.