The Beginnings of Toastmasters

For many years Toastmasters was a well-kept secret

Every Toastmaster has had, or will at some time have to answer the question, what is Toastmasters? And how and why did it get started? At a recent Toastmasters meeting, a member asked that very question. And many agreed that “For many years Toastmasters was a well-kept secret.” So here is a brief history of how the organization evolved. ¬†

Dr. Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters, often spoke about finding
your way to Valhalla, that place where heroes go to live out their afterlife. However, if you were to ask the doctor of letters, “Can you show me the way to Valhalla?” he didn’t point you to places of higher learning or suggest the best life coaches. Instead, he would point to your heart.

Dr. Smedley firmly believed that the one sure way to punch your ticket to
Valhalla was through self-improvement and being of service to others. He also thought there was no better way to self-improvement than through better communication and leadership. Being of service to others became his mission in life.

After graduating from the Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Illinois, Dr.Smedley started his journey to Valhalla. The year was 1903. He took a job as a Director at the Young Men’s Christian Association: (YMCA). He quickly observed that the young men who stayed at the facility could not communicate effectively. Indeed, some of the ladies present may be saying: “tell us something new, or what we don’t already know.”

But sometimes, it takes a man to initiate change. That man was Dr. Smedley, who began inviting the young men at the Y to remain after dinner to toast each other. They would then evaluate each other’s toast. And the person who delivered the best toast was declared the Toastmaster.

But that was not the beginning of Toastmasters. The idea quickly attracted other residents at the Y to start attending his meetings and toasting. Soon, the group became known as the “After-Dinner Club.” But between 1903 and 1924, Dr. Smedley was transferred and promoted several times, and the clubs often fell apart after his departure.

He continued starting a new “After Dinner Club” wherever he was stationed. In 1915, Dr. Smedley was the Director in San Jose, California. However, the idea did not take root until he started club number one in Santa Ana, California. The year was 1924, and Toastmasters officially began.

In 1932, Dr. Smedley created the Federation. By 1941, realizing the Toastmasters organization needed leadership, he resigned from the YMCA to give Toastmasters his full-time attention. He continued his mission until his passing in 1965 at the age of 87. Today the tradition of toasting has advanced to include eloquent speeches and helpful evaluations.

Looking back on the history of Toastmasters, the Federation has gone from “After Dinner Clubs” resembling banquets to virtual meetings. Yet, ironically, the most asked question by people calling the organization’s Head Office is, do you sell toasters? I am told that to this day, the answer is always, “No, we don’t. Toastmasters is where leaders are made!”

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