Cherished Charters

by Sue Benedetti

(This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 4-H History Newsletter.)

They stand among the most cherished, if not THE most cherished, possessions of many a 4-H Club. In fact, 4-H Clubs have been known to request new ones if their original became damaged or lost. Many 4-H Clubs feel that, yes, charters are THAT important. After all, we are talking about the 4-H Club’s very own “USDA 4-H National Headquarters-issued” 4-H Club Charter signed by the Secretary of Agriculture! If your 4-H Club has one, you know what I’m talking about!

If the one your 4-H club has is one of the first charters issued back in the day, you probably have it framed and hanging on the wall looking sort of like this:

Now today, each state approaches the idea of “the 4-H Club” slightly differently from each other state. There are in-school clubs, after-school clubs, community clubs, general clubs, SPIN clubs, pen-pal clubs, project clubs, and so forth. We find this to be a strength today. It was that way in the beginning, too, but when it all started, such diversity in club work models was seen then as a problem.

It works today only because of the lessons we learned “back then.” Back then, everyone was doing “their own thing” and such a lack of standardization had widely varying results. Extension leaders wanted to standardize the club work format to increase the educational impact nationally.

To that end, national 4-H Club Standards were developed in 1918. Under these standards, four requirements were suggested to define groups as “official” youth work clubs: 1. A minimum of five members working on a similar project, 2. The presence of an adult local leader, 3. Democratically elected appropriate officers, and 4. The existence of a plan, or program of work, for the year.

Shortly thereafter, probably early 1919, the Extension Service, USDA, started issuing charters to groups that met the four requirements. These charters, although not dated, were signed by the State Club Leader, the State Extension Director, and the Secretary of Agriculture. Then, if the club continued to meet these standards, and met the following additional accomplishments, the club would receive a National Seal of Achievement to be affixed to their charter annually.
• Hold at least six meetings during the year;
• Present an annual exhibit;
• Have a team that performs at least one public demonstration program in the community;
• Attain a 60% project completion rate; and
• Hold an achievement day program.
Some clubs received their initial Seal with their first charter.

“Hold on a second,” you may be saying, “We have a 4-H Club Charter and it even has Achievement Seals but it sure doesn’t look like THAT!” Not to worry, the style of the charters changed over time. The first charters were issued probably in 1919. If you have one of these, the Secretary of Agriculture who signed it was David F Houston. Now if yours is anything like the “Houston Charter” shown above, you can barely read the signature. Houston was Agriculture Secretary 1913 – 1920. If it is signed by Edwin T. Meredith, it dates to 1920-21, when he served. Next came Henry Cantwell Wallace who was Secretary of Agriculture from 1921 to 1923. Now be sure the middle initial is a “C”. If it is an “A” it is his son, Henry Agard Wallace. He served as Secretary 1933-1940.

The first style changes weren’t big. In fact, the charters grew smaller, about 20% smaller! It seems that happened around 1925. Another change seems to have happened after WWII when charters started looking like this:

This particular charter is an example of a “replacement charter”. It is dated 1932 but sure doesn’t look like a charter from 1932! In fact, this club’s original charter was lost when their meeting place, the local fire hall, was remodeled. So, upon the club’s request, this one was issued as a replacement around 1957.

Then the “happening” 1960’s decade happened and the “look” of the charters changed again around 1970. The one pictured here was issued in 1972. Seems each time the “look” changed, they added a signature! The ’50s version is signed by the Federal Extension Service Administrator in addition to the three others. The 1970s version added the Assistant Federal Administrator for 4-H making FIVE signatures.

Charters are still issued to 4-H Clubs today. The 4-H National Headquarters provides a digital charter template that state 4-H program leaders download to complete and issue.
Tell us about YOUR 4-H Club’s charter. It’ll make good reading and might even help us fill in the timeline a bit more. We’re approaching the 100th birthday of National 4-H Charters and would like every state to help us tell this history correctly. Write to: