The First Optimist Club

The first recorded “optimist” club in the world was really a “non-pessimist” club. Sir Richard Steele, an Irish-born English playwright, wrote of his membership during the early 1700s in a club of ten to twelve businessmen who banished members if they showed sourness of disposition, spoke impatiently to servants or exhibited any trace of pessimism. The group was called the Good Humor Club.

The appearance of service clubs as we know them didn’t occur until the early part of the 20th century. After the widespread economic panic and depression of the early 1870s, there were marked advances in agriculture, industry and commerce. Keeping pace with these material improvements was a whole new pattern of thinking where social advances were concerned. As nations emerged from predominately agricultural societies, where individuals were primarily concerned with their own well-being, citizens began looking beyond their own self-interests. People began grouping together to combine their talents and energies to bring about change. Those who believed they could change things for the better called themselves optimists.

It’s unknown how many service clubs in North America before 1900 were called Optimist Clubs, although several are listed in rare old city directories and guides. In May of 1895, the Queen City Optimist Club was formed in Cincinnati, Ohio, by prominent civic leaders who wanted to work for the civic and cultural betterment of the city. Old records indicate this club was involved in city beautification programs, various welfare and charity projects, as well as pioneering attempts in the field of youth programs. But through the death of its old members and the lack of a continuous transfusion of new members, plus the gradual loss of club activity in civic projects, this Optimist Club declined and finally died. The last published mention of it was in 1902.

A newspaper item appearing in a Watsonville, California, paper dated July 12, 1904, announced that “The Optimists is the name adopted by an organization of young men members of the Methodist Episcopal Church of this city.” The article mentions a constitution and bylaws being adopted and permanent organization being effected the day before. No trace of that club exists today.

On November 11, 1905, the 129 members of the Optimists Club of Chicago held their first annual banquet. The program lists no fewer than 14 speakers, plus the campaign remarks of six men who announced themselves as “candidates for the directorate.”

There is no historic chain of events that forms definite links between the first Optimist Clubs, organized just before and after 1900, and the first movement toward unification. The Optimist label was being used by several clubs whose members – representative business and professional men in urban communities – had banded together for their mutual benefit. There may have been some correspondence between individual members of the widely scattered clubs, but none of these clubs remained in existence long enough to become links in a national chain.

Early Attempts at Organization

In early 1911, a young insurance man from Buffalo, New York, E.L. Monser, dropped by the office of his friend, Charles Grein. Monser described an idea he had picked up from his travels “in the West” to organize a club of men from different businesses and professions and promote the old “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” system.

Grein liked the idea and agreed to host a meeting in his office. On February 16, Monser and Grein met with O.L. Neal, a dealer in Victrolas and Indian motorcycles; Eugene Tanke, a jeweler; and J. Raymond Schwantz, a brewer. And so was born the Optimist Club of Buffalo. By April they had 25 more men interested in the club and elected their president, agreed upon the fundamental purposes and picked the time, place and regularity of their meetings.

And while they started off enthusiastically, things were rough at first. “There followed months of disappointment and delays,” one of the founders wrote in 1915. He added, however, “Since we had adopted the name of ‘Optimist’ nothing could come but success.”

By 1915 the Buffalo Optimists had conducted the first new club building efforts, with clubs formed in Syracuse and Rochester. These three clubs soon realized it was as difficult for clubs to operate independently as it was for men, and so they incorporated as The Optimist Clubs of New York State. This was the first attempt at any unification of Optimist Clubs.