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YMCA Archives flat files collection

Identifier: Y.USA.51


Posters, maps, blueprints and other architectural records, artwork, and other oversized paper items created or collected by the YMCA. Significant portions of the collection consist of architectural records, including plans and blueprints for YMCA buildings around the world. Other major sections of material include maps, many indicating the location or proposed locations of YMCAs, as well as published maps for areas the YMCA was active. Among the posters, a significant number relate to the YMCA's work with the armed forces, especially World War I and World War II / USO work. There are also many posters related to YMCA conventions as well as YMCA activities such as camping, aquatics, basketball and other sports, and character development programs.


  • Creation: 1800-2009
  • Creation: Majority of material found within ( 1850s-2001)


Language of Materials


Use of Materials:

This collection is protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright, ownership, and to obtain all the necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials.


The first YMCA to be established in the United States was in Boston in 1851, six years after the organization was founded in London by George Williams. Like Williams, many Americans recognized challenges and hazards created by the migration of men from the countryside to the city with the rise of the industrial revolution, and the movement quickly spread. With the onset of the Civil War, the expansion of the movement was reversed, temporarily, with many of the members leaving to join the fighting. With the backing of President Lincoln, fifteen of the northern Associations formed the U.S. Christian Commission to assist troops and prisoners of war. It marked the beginning of a commitment to working with soldiers and sailors that continues to this day through the Armed Services YMCAs.

Only 59 YMCAs were left by war's end, but a rapid rebuilding followed, and four years later there were 600 more. The focus was on saving souls, with saloon and street corner preaching, lists of Christian boarding houses, lectures, libraries and meeting halls, most of them in rented quarters. But seeds of future change were there. In 1866, the influential New York YMCA adopted a fourfold purpose: “The improvement of the spiritual, mental, social and physical condition of young men.” Activities soon expanded beyond the Bible study, lectures, and reading rooms of the earliest days to include broader educational programs, physical training, and social services. Gyms and swimming pools came in at that time, too, along with big auditoriums and bowling alleys. Hotel-like rooms with bathrooms down the hall, called dormitories or residences, were designed into every new YMCA building, and would continue to be until the late 1950s. Income from rented rooms was a great source of funds for YMCA activities of all kinds. Residences would make a major financial contribution to the movement for the next century. YMCAs took up boys work and organized summer camps. They set up exercise drills in classes. YMCAs organized college students for social action, literally invented the games of basketball and volleyball and served the special needs of railroad men who had no place to stay when the train reached the end of the line. By the 1890s, the fourfold purpose was transformed into the triangle of spirit, mind and body.

Through the influence of nationally known lay evangelists Dwight L. Moody (1837- 1899) and John R. Mott (1865-1955), who dominated the movement in the last half of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries respectively, the American YMCAs sent workers by the thousands overseas, both as missionary-like YMCA secretaries and as war workers. The first foreign work secretaries, as they were called, reflected the huge missionary outreach by Christian churches near the turn of the century. But instead of churches, they organized YMCAs that eventually were placed under local control. Both Moody and Mott served for lengthy periods as paid professional staff members of the YMCA movement. Both maintained lifelong connections with it.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Mott, on his own, involved the YMCA movement in running the military canteens, called post exchanges today, in the United States and France. YMCAs led fundraising campaigns that raised $235 million for those YMCA operations and other wartime causes, and hired 25,926 Y workers -- 5,145 of them women -- to run the canteens. It also took on war relief for both refugees and prisoners of war on both sides, and worked to ease the path of African American soldiers returning to the segregated South. Y secretaries from China supervised the Chinese laborers brought to Europe to unload ships, dig trenches and clear the battlefields after the war. Funds left over from war work helped in the 1920s to spur a Y building boom, outreach to small towns and counties, work with returning Black troops and blossoming of YMCA trade schools and colleges.

Forced to re-evaluate themselves by hard times and by pressure from militant student YMCAs, the Depression era YMCA became aware of social problems as never before and accelerated partnerships with other social welfare agencies. Programs and mission were reviewed as well. Some results were joint community projects, renewed emphasis on group work and more work through organized classes and lectures. YMCAs were forced to prove to their communities that both character-building agencies and welfare agencies were needed, especially in times of stress. Exercise and educational classes remained popular, along with vocational training and camping. Programs like the Leisure Time League in Minneapolis were created with the aim to “unite unemployed young men who desire to maintain their physical and mental vigor and wish to train themselves for greater usefulness and service to themselves and the community." The idea spread widely and YMCAs discovered they could survive handily if they served a large number of people and had low building payments.

During World War II, the National Council of YMCAs (now the YMCA of the USA) joined with YMCAs around the world to assist prisoners of war in 36 nations. It also helped form the United Service Organization (USO), which ran drop-in centers for servicepeople and sent performers abroad to entertain the troops. YMCAs worked with displaced persons and refugees as well, and sent both workers and money abroad after the war to help rebuild damaged YMCA buildings.

After more than two decades of study and trial YMCA youth secretaries in 1944 agreed to put a national seal of approval on what was already widespread in the movement to focus their energies on four programs that involved work in small groups. They became known as the “four fronts” or “four platforms” of Youth Work: a father-son program called Y-Indian Guides, and three boys' clubs -- Gra-Y for those in grade school, Junior Hi-Y and Hi-Y. (There would eventually be all-female and coed models as well.)

At the close of the war, YMCAs had changed. Sixty-two percent were admitting women, and other barriers began to fall one after the other, with families the new emphasis, and all races and religions included at all levels of the organization. The rapidly expanding suburbs drew the YMCAs with them, sometimes abandoning the old residences and downtown buildings that no longer were efficient or necessary.

The Vietnam War era ushered in a period rocked by turmoil that included the Vietnam War, the forced resignation of a U.S. president, the outbreak of widespread drug abuse among the middle class, assassination of major political leaders, and a loss of confidence in institutions. Long schooled in conciliation, Y people found themselves being confronted aggressively both at home and abroad. It was particularly hard to deal with and discouraging. Beginning in 1970 the fraternal secretaries serving YMCAs overseas were being called home. Some buildings in U.S. cities were shuttered and residences dosed for lack of clientele and insufficient funds for proper maintenance. Y leaders were urged to become more businesslike in both their appearance and their operations, a topic raised by Y boards since the 1920s.

After 1975, the old physical programming featured by YMCAs for a century began to perk up as interest in healthy lifestyles increased nationwide. By 1980, pressure for up-to-date buildings and equipment brought on a boom in construction that lasted through the decade. Child care for working parents, an extension of what YMCAs had done informally for years, came with a rush in 1983 and quickly joined health and fitness, camping and residences as a major source of YMCA income.

During the 1980s and 90s, the ideas of “values clarification” were slowly replaced by ideas of “character.” The YMCA movement had been involved in character development from the beginning, but in an implicit and practical focus rather than an explicit one. (George Williams stated this perfectly in his response to how he would respond to a young man who said that he had lost his belief in Jesus, by saying that his first act would be to see that the young man had dinner.) The YMCA movement studied the issue and emerged with four “core values” -- caring, honesty, respect and responsibility -- and promptly began to incorporate these in all programming in an explicit and conscious way.

During the 90s, a tremendous change occurred in the field of youth development. Emphasis shifted from a "deficit model," which focused on identifying what went wrong with the youth who got into trouble and correcting it, to an "assets model," which focused on healthy development and prevention of problems. The YMCA of the USA collaborated with Search Institute on studying this issue in depth and coming up with practical results. In July 2004 before a U.S. Senate hearing, Y-USA launched Activate America and the Healthy Community work, beginning a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the 21st century the Y remains a leading social service nonprofit. In 2010 it launched a major rebranding effort to highlight its renewed focus on promoting youth development, social responsibility, and healthy living in the communities it serves.

(Historical information taken from the YMCA of the USA's "A Brief History of the YMCA Movement" and the YMCA of the USA web site)


approximately 2000 items


Posters, maps, blueprints and other architectural records, artwork, and other oversized paper items.

Physical Location

See Detailed Description section for box listing.

Note on Language in the Collection and this Guide

Please note that some of the descriptive language found in this collection guide reflects and re-uses the words and ideas of the people and organizations that created the material. Historical records represent the opinions and actions of their creators and the society in which they were produced. This historical language was retained in cases where we believe it provides important context about the materials, is a Library of Congress Subject Heading, or is the official title of an item, organization, or event. As such, please be aware that this material and the guide describing it contains racial and other language and/or imagery that is outdated, offensive and/or harmful.

Processing Information:

Processed by: Allie Bezat Riley and Davis Svingen.

An Inventory
Finding aid prepared by Lara Friedman-Shedlov.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note

Revision Statements

  • 2021-12-07: Revision statement: Language was changed to reflect more current and respectful terminology and conventions, e.g. capitalization of the word "Black" in reference to people, eliminating the use of the term "Black" as a noun referring to people, and the use of the word "slave" to describe people. Text was was updated to more clearly indicate when harmful/outdated language is being quoted from original sources for historical purposes, vs. supplied by the Archives. A content warning note was also added regarding language that was retained.

Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area