The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) and the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) both began in London, England in the mid-nineteenth century as prayer unions aimed at saving the souls of young men and women who had gone to the city in search of employment. Concerned with the immoral influences of urban life, both organizations expanded to provide new migrants with wholesome recreation, religious instruction, and, eventually, supervised housing. The movement came to the United States in 1852 when the first YMCAs were established in New York City and Boston. Six years later a group of women formed a prayer union in New York City that would lead to the formation of the first American YWCA. Although the two organizations shared similar ideological roots, their structures, funding, and leadership remained separate on the national level.

Initially, the YMCA concentrated on recruiting its membership from the ranks of young middle-class businessmen, but realizing that the future depended on a new generation, work among boys began in the 1880s. By this time, the YMCA had moved from its earlier revivalist phase of the prayer union and evangelical meetings to one that stressed character building. The gymnasium was the centerpiece of this new approach. By 1900, 77 percent of YMCAs had gyms, and many also added libraries, meeting rooms, and classrooms. Young boys were attracted to the new facilities and the recreational activities they provided. YMCA leaders grasped the opportunities to entice boys into their facility where they could instill Christian middle-class values through Bible classes and team sports. Beginning in the 1880s the YMCA sponsored SUMMER CAMPS for boys. By 1930, the YMCA boasted of a youth membership of over 300,000 boys, many of who belonged to Hi-Y or county wide boys clubs. Recruitment among grade school boys was most successful in the twentieth century as the YMCA formed groups of Friendly Indians (boys under twelve) in America's elementary schools. However, the YMCA's reliance on large urban facilities, a reputation of Protestant conservatism, and relatively expensive membership and camping fees limited its ability to attract a wide diversity of boys.

Individual YWCAs engaged in work with various groups of girls beginning in 1881 with the Little Girls' Christian Association, but the national association did not regulate this work until the Girl Reserve movement was organized in 1918. Members voted to change their name from Girl Reserves to Y-Teens in 1946, and membership was open to any girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The YWCA stressed group work and opened its doors to various youth groups, providing space for dances, clubs, and athletic activities. Just as the YMCA had done, the YWCA constructed gymnasiums and swimming pools. The YWCA also had a camping program for youth that stressed wholesome outdoor recreation and survival skills. During World War II, the YWCA sponsored youth canteens, attracting high school boys and girls. In 1949, Y-Teens took part in the YWCA's national convention for the first time, sitting on various committees and voting on association proposals. For both associations, youth work was vital to the future of the movement.

See also: Organized Recreation and Youth Groups; Youth Ministries.


Hopkins, C. Howard. 1951. History of the Y.M.C.A. in North America. New York: Association Press.

Macleod, David I. 1983. Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870–1920. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Mjagkij, Nina, and Spratt, Margaret, eds. 1997. Men and Women Adrift: The YMCA and the YWCA in the City. New York: New York University Press

Sims, Mary S. 1950. The YWCA: An Unfolding Purpose. New York: Woman's Press.