Toastmasters International celebrating 90 years – We’ve come a long way!

By | November 6, 2014

By Gareth Coghlan

The founder of Toastmasters, Ralph C Smedley, recognised a need while working as education director of the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in Bloomington, Illinois. In 1903 he started a speaking club, known as a Toastmasters club, to help young men learn the skills of public speaking. As he moved to work in other YMCA’s, he set up a new club and the name came with him, however the previous club would only survive for a few months after he had left. That was until he moved to Santa Ana, California and became the general secretary of the YMCA there. The club started in the basement of the ‘Y’ on the 22nd October 1924 and still exists today, known as the Smedley Chapter 1 club. Word spread and a couple of years later a second club started in Anaheim, before establishing in other cities around Southern California.

Toastmasters founder, Ralph C Smedley

Up to then, all the instructions on running meetings and guidelines on public speaking was passed on by Smedley verbally. As interest came from further afield those details came in the form of personal letters and he soon realised that this was not practical and in 1928 he copyrighted a “Manual of Instructions”, which included a pamphlet “10 Lessons in Public Speaking”. Two years later a newsletter, “The Gavel”, was produced including further educational material and in 1933 this had grown to become the “Toastmaster” magazine. Then 1935 saw the first club started outside of the USA, in British Columbia, Canada and three years later was the first speech contest.

Looking closer to home, 1957 is a very important year as it saw the formation of the first Toastmasters club in Ireland, Dublin Toastmasters. This club still meets every Thursday in Buswells Hotel.

Perhaps due to Toastmasters starting out of the YMCA movement, clubs remained men only for membership right up to the 1970’s.  The first woman to join was Helen Blanchard in 1970, but her club had to register her under the pseudonym Homer Blanchard, before the rules were changed in 1973. Helen went on to be the President of Toastmasters International in 1985. This change was important in giving a boost to membership numbers, which broke through the 100,000 mark in 1982.

Another mile stone was when recent visitor to our club, Ted Corcoran, became the first, and as now, only, president of TI to come from Europe. During his tenure 2003/4 the membership broke through the 200,000 barrier.

Today we’ve over 300,000 members globally and that is growing at about 7% per annum. In the most recent survey of members, from a sample of 6,000, over 50% of the membership is now women. We’ve come a long way!

So when around 20 of us sit down in a room of Bewleys basement, for a D18 meeting, in some ways not a lot has changed from that very first Toastmasters meeting, of around 20 eager members, running to a schedule, making speeches and evaluating each other in the YMCA basement in Santa Ana. However, in other ways a lot has changed in the organisation, and thankfully so. Let’s roll on to 100 years!

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

– Oscar Wilde (Play write)