December 1998 // Volume 36 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM2

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The First Fifty Years of the 4-H Program

This article is the first of a two-part series to address the history of 4-H and identify the changes and challenges of the future. The first installment reviews the achievements during the first 50 years that includes the history of 4-H club work, volunteer leadership development, funding support, and response to society's needs during the war years. This historical perspective will demonstrate how 4-H has changed to meet societal needs while remaining true to the original mission.

Beth E. Van Horn
County Extension Director/Family Living Agent
Pennsylvania State Cooperative Extension of Centre County
Bellefonte, Pennsylvania
Internet address:

Constance A. Flanagan
Associate Professor

Joan S. Thomson
Associate Professor

Department of Agricultural and Extension Education
Pennsylvania State University
State College, Pennsylvania

Digging into the roots of the 4-H program reveals how the organization has both remained the same, but also changed during the past 80 years. Studying our roots, and reminiscing about the successes and failures of the last 80 years, can be informative while providing valuable insights that can be used for developing future programs and strategic or action plans.

In the early days, Extension educators conceived the idea of involving youth as mediaries between the university researcher/educator and the farmer in the community. This proved successful because, in the early 1900s, corn clubs were established, educators found youth to be more receptive than their parents in adopting new corn planting techniques. Through the young peoples' involvement and accomplishments in the corn clubs, the parents were exposed to new farming methods and were convinced to try and adopt new practices (Rasmussen, 1989; Reyburn, 1980).

Club work has been the foundation of the 4-H program. School programs have also been a fundamental model (Epsilon Sigma Phi, 1979). Along with the classic club and school programs, a range of activities such as public speaking, camping, and judging events have been developed, providing 4-H'ers with opportunities to practice and apply new knowledge and ideas. As the youth program grew and developed, the 4-H mission and purpose became more defined. The 4-H emblem, pledge and motto focused at that time as well as today on the development and growth of the individual through (a) intellectual experiences, (b) compassion and caring about the community, (c) learning and applying new skills, and (d) living a healthy lifestyle.

The use of project clubs is still an effective way to reach youth. Project clubs allow 4-H'ers the flexibility and freedom to explore specific areas of interest within a general topic. Many projects have been designed so 4-H'ers can build and enhance their skills over several years. For example, clothing and textile science projects start with the construction of simple garments, mastering basic skills through the construction of a pillow, simple pants, or skirt. A variety of projects are offered that require more advanced skills, such as tailoring suits and coats, allowing the 4-Her to explore areas related to clothing and textile science such as career opportunities in costume design or to develop life skills such as consumer decision- making.

Many project clubs or community clubs (a club with more than one project area) also provide youth with opportunities to learn about forming organizations and decision-making groups, skills that prepare them for adult roles in leadership and decision making. Clubs often elect officers and committee chairs. Using elected officers allows youth the opportunity to learn and apply various life skills such as communication and leadership. Club members learn how to negotiate decisions such as participating in a fund raising event or taking a bus trip.

Many of the early clubs were co-ed, but sometimes membership in clubs self-selected along gender lines. In contrast to youth organizations such as Boy and Girl Scouts, which were gender segregated by the organizational leadership, gender segregation in 4-H only occurred as a result of children's selection of projects. For example, corn clubs were generally more popular with boys and canning clubs were popular with girls (Rasmussen, 1989).

The practice of having volunteers lead 4-H clubs was established at the beginning and continues today. Training volunteers is one reason leadership development has become an integral part of the 4-H program. Initially, adults were neither certified nor screened. Communities were small and intimate. Community members trusted these leaders to be good models for their children. Farm women and men, trained by county Extension agents, acted as volunteer leaders in the early clubs. Usually leaders assumed a mentoring role, rather than serving as a authoritarian figure. Many of today's leaders are members of the third and fourth generation of original Extension families. This intergenerational continuity demonstrates the success of the leadership development components of the program as well as the commitment and loyalty that 4-H instills in its membership.

Throughout history, camping held an important role in 4-H. Initially it was seen as a means of rewarding and encouraging junior leaders. Documentation dated 1907 tells of a camp for boys held that year in Missouri (Rasmussen, 1989). Thereafter, several states began holding camps, with West Virginia leading the way in formalizing camping as part of 4-H. By 1921, West Virginia had established a permanent campsite that is still used. The informality of the camping program and the companionship opportunities it provides are considered the bases for its popularity. Camping also offers many opportunities for young people to develop leadership skills beyond the club environment by working with youth from different communities and tackling issues such as motivation, team building, and interpersonal relationships.

Another method employed very early in 4-H's development was the establishment of the school program. Historical documents indicate that 4-H school programs for boys and girls were organized early in the 1900s (Epsilon Sigma Phi, 1979; Vines & Anderson, 1976). School programs tend to be more structured and uniform than project clubs making it easier to work with large groups of youth. Their purpose is typically to communicate information or provide specific learning objectives. School programs can be very effective in some program areas, such as nutrition education, embryology, and teaching life skills such as being safe when home alone. Advantages of school programs include (a) easier access to the youth since they are already enrolled at school; (b) greater diversity among participants; and (c) larger numbers of youth, who for various reasons, would not belong to a project club.

Both governmental and private funding have been used to support the 4-H program. Although the youth program has been a part of the Cooperative Extension system since its origin, it wasn't until 1928 that a law was passed which formally recognized the 4-H program and enhanced its funding. Although the goal was to acquire $6 million, the Capper-Ketchum Act provided $1.28 million additional funding to Extension for 4-H.

Even with governmental support, there has always been a need to augment funding through private support. The National 4-H Service committee (originally called the National Committee on Boys and Girls Club Work), located in Chicago, was formed in 1921 to establish scholarships and awards programs and conduct National 4-H Congress, first held in 1922 (Vines & Anderson, 1976). Dual support between private and public sources continues today and opportunities are continuously explored to find more funds to expand and enhance programming.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of how 4-H changed in response to social and historical events is reflected in its response to the world wars. An examination of 4-H during the war years reveals two things. First, the organization was able to meet a national challenge in a short period of time. Second, the organizational response resulted in excellent public relations as well as an exponential increase in membership. During World War I, 4-H Club work was partially abandoned and the energy of the members was devoted to raising food as part of the war effort. Many temporary county agents were hired, resulting in a rapid increase in the number of 4-H clubs and members. At the end of the war, more than one million 4-H club members were enrolled Kelsey & Hearne, 1963).

During War World II, the 4-H program again focused on raising Victory Gardens. 4-H members also grew essential war crops, raised meat animals, and canned millions of jars of fruits, vegetables, and meats. The 4-H war slogan was "Food for Freedom." With the military and defense industries draining older youth from the farm, younger 4-H members took on added responsibilities. In nearly every project category, 4-H'ers recorded impressive increases in levels of agricultural production over the previous year.

Thus, 4-H members helped relieve the labor shortage, served as neighborhood leaders, and assisted in war related activities. It was estimated that from 1943 until the end of the war, 4-H club members produced enough food to feed a million men serving in the American forces (Rasmussen, 1989). At the end of the war, 4-H enrollment once again saw a large increase, reaching a total of 1.5 million. The performance, achievements, and contributions of 4-H'ers during the war is quite possibly the proudest moment among many such moments in the history and development of the 4-H program.

As we focus on our future we need to remember the accomplishments of 4-H over the past 80 years. History shows that 4-H has been an important resource to the country, especially during tough times. It also shows that we have managed to be true to the original mission while changing our programs to meet new challenges that young people and the nation face. In so doing, 4- H has managed to focus on youth as resources to their community, nation, and world.


Epsilon Sigma Phi, (1979). The people and the profession.

Kelsey, L. & Hearne, C. (Eds.). (1963). Cooperative Extension Work. Ithica, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates.

Rasmussen, W. (1989). Taking the university to the people: Seventy-five Years of Cooperative Extension. Ames: Iowa State University Press.

Reyburn, J. H. (1980). 4-H in Pennsylvania. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University.

Vines, C., & Anderson, M. (Eds.). (1976). Heritage Horizons, Extension's commitment to people. Madison, WI: Journal of Extension.