History of Toastmasters International

Celebrating 90 years – We’ve come a long way!

A History of Toastmasters International

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. That club is 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 general guidelines on public speaking was passed on by Smedley verbally. As interest came from further afield, those guidelines and advice were communicated in the form of personal letters, and Smedley soon realised that this was not practical. So 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 was a very important year in the Irish Toastmasters history book 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 Toastmasters was Helen Blanchard in 1970, but her club had to register her under the pseudonym Homer Blanchard! Finally the rules were changed in 1973. Helen went on to become 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 milestone was when (a recent visitor to our Dublin 18 Toastmasters club) Ted Corcoran became the first, and to date, the only president of Toastmasters International to come from Europe. During his tenure 2003/4 the membership broke through the 200,000 barrier.

Today Toastmasters International has over 300,000 members globally and that is growing at a rate of about 7% per annum. In the most recent survey of a sample of about 6,000 members, it transpired that over 50% of the members are now women. We’ve come a long way!

So when around 20 of us sit down in a room of Bewleys basement, Dublin South City for a Dublin 18 Toastmasters meeting, in some ways not a lot has changed from that very first Toastmasters meeting of around 20 eager members. We still run to a schedule, make speeches and evaluate each other as per 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!