History


The YMCA in the United States

Today, the Y engages more than 10,000 neighborhoods across the U.S. As the nation’s leading nonprofit committed to helping people and communities to learn, grow and thrive, our contributions are both far-reaching and intimate—from influencing our nation’s culture during times of profound social change to the individual support we provide an adult learning to read.

By nurturing the potential of every child and teen, improving the nation’s health and well-being, and supporting and serving our neighbors, the Y ensures that everyone has the opportunity to become healthier, more confident, connected and secure.

Here’s a glance at our rich history, and a snapshot of our many successes over the last 160 years on behalf of the individuals and communities we are privileged to serve.

In 1844, George Williams launched the YMCA movement in London as a volunteer, and his example persists in the expansion of the Y across the globe. In the United States, early YMCA programs were run almost entirely by volunteers.

In 1861, a conference with President Abraham Lincoln led to the full-scale recruitment of YMCA volunteers. Eventually numbering 5,000, members of the U.S. Christian Commission served as surgeons, nurses and chaplains during the Civil War. The volunteers distributed medical supplies, food and clothing, and taught soldiers to read and write. 

In the 1890s, YMCA instructor William Morgan thought basketball was too strenuous for businessmen, so he blended elements of basketball, tennis and handball, and called his invention “mintonette”. In 1896, at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, the name “volley ball” was first used to describe the back-and-forth manner in which the ball flew over the net. Today, more than 46 million Americans play volleyball.

Early YMCAs created a number of programs to make vocational and higher education available to more people, especially working-class Americans. In 1893, large-scale evening classes began at the Boston YMCA, offering liberal arts and vocational courses. By 1950, YMCAs operated 20 colleges in cities across the country, and many of these YMCA-founded schools became freestanding institutions of higher learning.

In answer to a YMCA campaign “to teach every man and boy in North America” to swim, George Corsan arrived at the Detroit YMCA in 1909 to teach swimming using radical new methods: group swimming lessons and lessons on land as a confidence builder. In Newark, New Jersey, alone, he taught 800 boys to swim in just four weeks.

Throughout World War I, the YMCA provided morale and welfare services for the military. By war’s end, the YMCA, through the United War Work Council, had operated 1,500 canteens in the United States and France; set up 4,000 YMCA huts for recreation and religious services; and raised more than $235 million—equivalent to $4.3 billion today—for relief work.

During World War II the YMCA, along with five other national voluntary organizations, founded the United Service Organizations for National Defense, today known as the USO.

In 1950, YMCA volunteer Joe Sobek invented racquetball in Greenwich, Connecticut, as an alternative to squash and handball. Like previous YMCA inventors, Sobek was not paid for his invention; he bestowed it as a gift to all who play the game today.

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