January 2, 2023
4 min read
What’s the history of Toastmasters International? When and how did it start, and when did it open up membership to women? How did the pandemic affect Toastmasters in 2020?
All over the world, people know Toastmasters as the premier public speaking organization. With its roots going back over 100 years, the history of Toastmasters is very much a history of public speaking education.
Continue reading to learn the rich history of Toastmasters International.
The history of Toastmasters International begins with a young man named Ralph C. Smedley. After graduating from college in 1903, he went to work as the education director at the YMCA in Bloomington, Illinois. With his interactions in the community, he saw the need for skills related to meetings and committees — communication, leadership, planning, meeting facilitation, and public speaking.
In 1905, Smedley started the Toastmasters Club. This laid the groundwork for what would become official Toastmasters clubs. At the meetings, people took turns leading and speaking. Members received feedback to help them improve their skills.
The history of Toastmasters International now takes us from the Midwest to the West Coast. Smedley took a job with the YMCA in California. In 1924, the first official Toastmasters club met in Santa Ana. This would become Club No. 1 of Toastmasters International.
Around this time, the word about Toastmasters spread (especially among YMCA groups in the U.S.) and more clubs started to spring up in various locations. In 1926, Smedley chartered the second club, in Anaheim, California.
In an effort to help new clubs and to keep the organization consistent in its goals and practices, Smedley wrote the “Manual of Instruction” (known later as the “Club Management Handbook”) and “Ten Lessons in Public Speaking.” Toastmasters became distinguished for keeping meetings simple and for departing from the oratorical style of the 19th century. In 1928, Smedley copyrighted his publications and trademarked the name “Toastmasters Club.”
In 1932, Toastmasters International was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. Advertising salesman J. Clark Chamberlain became the first president. Smedley held multiple positions within the organization while keeping his job with the YMCA. He continued to write educational materials about speaking, and the organization published the first Toastmaster magazine in 1933.
The history of Toastmasters International took an exciting turn in 1935, when the first foreign club was chartered in Victoria, British Columbia. Just three years later, 100 clubs thrived in dozens of cities.
In 1940, Smedley left the YMCA and became Toastmasters’ first professional employee. Still based in Santa Ana, he handled the organization’s correspondence and continued to provide clubs with educational materials, including “Basic Training,” which many consider to be the “bible” of Toastmasters.
District 18 of Scotland became the first foreign district in 1946, and the number of clubs worldwide reached 700 in 1949. The Story of Toastmasters (Reminiscences of the Founder) was published in 1959. In the 1960s, the organization dedicated their first world heaquarters building in Santa Ana and established the Educational Advisory Committee.
The history of Toastmasters International took a sad turn in 1965, when Smedley died at the age of 87. Four years later, the organization introduced a new communication and leadership program.
In 1973, Toastmasters opened up its membership to women. The next year, Toastmasters International celebrated its 50th annivesary as membership reached more than 60,000 in 3,000 clubs in 41 countries.
Membership grew to 100,000 in 1982, and Helen Blanchard became the organization’s first female president in 1985. Global membership reached 150,000 by 1989.
In 1991, Toastmasters headquarters moved from Santa Ana to Rancho Santa Margarita, California. In 1993, the organization’s club count reached 8,000. They launched a website in 1995, and the club count climbed to 10,000 by 2004.
In the 21st century, the history of Toastmasters International reflects growing globalization and an increased use of technology.
In 2009, after Daniel Rex became executive director, the organizational structure of Toastmasters changed to 14 global regions. Membership climbed to 250,000 in 106 countries. In 2011, the Toastmasters brand got a makeover with an updated website, logo, and tagline.
In 2017, drawing on Smedley’s legacy of education, Toastmasters launched Pathways. Pathways is an interactive online educational program that helps participants build skills via various learning paths.
Toastmasters relocated its headquarters to Englewood, Colorado, in 2018. The organization saw several changes in 2020:
In 2022, Toastmasters partnered with Yoodli to bring AI speech coaching to its members. Toastmasters members may use a proprietary version of Yoodli’s innovative artificial intelligence-powered speaking tools for free.
With its 100th anniversary coming in 2024, the organization has 280,000 members in 15,800 clubs in 149 countries. The history of Toastmasters International illustrates how one person with a vision can make a lasting impact.
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