Neighborhood and Nation: Settlement Houses in America
When Stanton Coit, a young Amherst graduate with a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin, moved into a poor area on New York's East Side in 1886, his new neighbors speculated that he was the disinherited son of wealthy parents whose unhappy circumstances had forced him to take refuge in their neighborhood. That such a well-bred gentleman was reduced to life in their harsh environment aroused the sympathy and concern of the entire neighborhood.
Coit began to cultivate "neighborly acquaintance" from his new home -- rented quarters in a five-story tenement housing twenty families. He invited a young men's group, the Lily Pleasure Club, to hold its meetings in his rooms. In response to his hospitality and friendship they renamed their group the O.I.F. (Order, Improvement, Friendship) Club. In the following months Coit rented additional space in the building's basement in which he opened a kindergarten and provided space for a neighborhood girls' club. Out of a federation of such clubs Coit created Neighborhood Guild, America's first settlement house.
Less than a year after Stanton Coit moved to the East Side, a group of Smith College graduates met in Northampton, Massachusetts, to discuss the "social question" and how college women might use their education and privileged position to alleviate growing social problems. Because the prospect of residence work in an urban neighborhood seemed the most compelling solution, they organized the College Settlements Association with representatives from Smith, Vassar, Bryn Mawr, Wellesley, and Radcliffe. In 1889 seven members--"Seven lilies dropped into the mud," one New York newspaper observed--opened College Settlement only a few blocks from Neighborhood Guild. Like Coit, the women began simply by inviting neighborhood girls' and women's clubs to meet in their rooms. Within a year their program had expanded to include public baths and vacation cottages, and eighty college women had applied to share their work.
Neighborhood Guild, College Settlement, and 400 other settlement houses which opened in cities across the country between 1889 and 1910, were responses of sensitive Americans, many of them young and well educated, to the consequences of post-Civil War industrialization and urbanization. In the late 19th century, the familiar homogeneous nation of yeoman farmers envisioned by Thomas Jefferson was rapidly being transformed, and although America remained primarily rural and small town in 1890, the significance of the city and factory loomed large in the national consciousness.
New immigrants, with languages and customs understood by few, crowded together in dirty tenements on streets whose gutters often overflowed with garbage. Adults and children, natives who had moved from rural to urban areas seeking work, as well as new immigrants, frequently toiled for twelve-hour days over noisy machines or worked even longer hours in tenement houses sewing clothing or making paper roses. Those children who didn't work--and they sometimes seemed few--played on dark stairs and in dilapidated courtyards. The soot and smoke, the sights and smells and sounds, overwhelmed all who came into contact with the city. "I had come," wrote settlement resident Jane Robbins after moving to the East Side, "from a life of open-air freedom and much riding horseback, and I myself felt that I had got into a prison."
Individuals took up residence in settlement houses and neighborhood centers in order to do something about the second nation, urban and industrial, growing up around them. They consciously avoided a Lady Bountiful image and asserted again and again, "We are not our brother's keeper but our brother's brother." Some, like Jane Robbins, explained simply that they had been "tremendously appealed to by the children" whose lives were being blighted in urban prisons. Others explained their purpose in explicitly religious, even missionary terms they came to bear witness to the inhuman burdens borne by fellow men. Jane Addams, founder of Chicago's famous Hull House, may have spoken for her generation when she described the "subjective need" of the privileged to serve, as well as the "objective need" of the dispossessed to be served. However simple or complex their motives, most came in order to understand and share. They came to bridge the growing gap between classes, a gap which was personally intolerable and which seemed to threaten democracy itself. Though many--historian Charles Beard, secretary of labor Frances Perkins, New Deal administrator Harry Hopkins, reformer Florence Kelley, General Electric president Gerald Swope--stayed only a year or two, residence left a permanent impression.
If early settlement goals were often idealistic, the programs which developed stressed flexibility and pragmatic response to needs of a particular neighborhood. Lillian Wald founded Henry Street Settlement to provide visiting nurse service, but she and many others quickly started playgrounds so that neighborhood children would enjoy their games safe from street traffic. Providing space for clubs and classes to meet was often a first step, as was the introduction of music and the arts into the lives of those who knew little of beauty and the life of the spirit. Settlements participated in the efforts to assimilate and "Americanize" the new immigrants, and in characteristic fashion they also sought to understand and interpret the varied ethnic traditions and to preserve the old ways. As members of the generation called Progressive, they gathered empirical data in voluminous studies, and from their listening posts reported to fellow citizens the actual conditions in which Jacob Riis' "other half" lived.
Their first-hand knowledge of conditions frequently took them into the municipal fray, where they battled for tenement house reform, sanitation legislation, educational reform, and parks and playgrounds for their districts. In Chicago especially, but in other cities as well, settlement reformers walked the picket lines with striking workers and organized mass meetings to protest wages and working conditions.
In the ninety years since the founding of Neighborhood Guild, settlement work has been so diverse that it is safe to characterize it only by its consistent emphasis on flexibility and sensitivity to neighborhood needs. In the depressions of 1893 and 1929, for example, settlement workers lobbied for unemployment assistance and described in detail the lives of families whose breadwinners were out of work. As racial balance shifted in many cities in the twentieth century, settlements worked to interpret ethnic and minority groups to each other and stepped up campaigns to achieve integration and racial justice. Following World War II, settlements led efforts to deal with such mid-century concerns as juvenile delinquency and drug abuse, health care and mental health programs, housing and urban renewal, and protection for consumers and the aged. And during the liberation movements of the 1960s, with the demands for resident participation in decision-making, settlements attempted to become the instruments through which their neighbors attained autonomy and social and economic progress.
Though programs and methods have varied in response to war, depression, prosperity, and racial crisis, and though settlement efforts have shifted along a spectrum from service to reform, settlement house and neighborhood center work continues to emphasize sharing and brotherhood. The nation of the agrarian dream had been irretrievably lost in the industrial revolution, but through patient work with fellow citizens a second nation might be created and neighborliness restored.
Curator of Manuscripts
The Social Welfare History Archives was founded at the University of Minnesota in 1964 by Clarke A. Chambers, professor of history, to collect and preserve the historical records of national voluntary welfare organizations and leaders in the fields of social service and reform. In the correspondence, photographs, clippings, reports, studies, and memorabilia which make up its collections, scholars can find the story of 20th-century America's efforts to assist citizens with diverse needs and to promote the "common good." As the only national research facility in its field, the Welfare Archives holds the records of such organizations as the National Association of Social Workers, the AFL-CIO Community Services, the Association of Junior Leagues of America, and the Big Brothers.
The material displayed in the exhibit is taken from settlement house collections deposited in the Archives, among them the National Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, the United Neighborhood Houses of New York, Henry Street Settlement/Urban Life Center, Hartley House, Hamilton-Madison House, Five Towns Community Center, LaGuardia Memorial House, Union Settlement, Neighborhood House, and the Alliance of Cambridge Settlement Houses.
Martin and Marian Boykan, students at
Henry Street Music School, New York, (ca. 1936).
Ralph J . Tefferteller , Assistant Director
of Henry Street Settlement, New York, with neighborhood boys, (ca. 1960).