Lathrop, Julia C.

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Julia C. Lathrop

Born June 29, 1858 (Rockford, Illinois)

Died April 15, 1932 (Rockford, Illinois)

Social worker

Julia Clifford Lathrop was an active member of Hull House, the settlement house founded in Chicago, Illinois, by Jane Addams (1860–1935; see entry) in 1889. Located in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, Hull House was established to provide much-needed social services to Chicago's newly arrived immigrants. Lathrop was a key figure in its first forty years of existence, and her pioneering social work eventually took her to Washington, D.C. There she served as the first director of the newly created U.S. Children's Bureau from 1912 to 1921.

"The charities of Cook County will never properly perform their duties until politics are divorced from them."

Vassar graduate

Lathrop was born in June 1858, in Rockford, Illinois. Her maternal grandparents had been one of the first families to settle in the town. Her ancestry on her father's side stretched back to the establishment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the early 1600s. Her father, William, was a successful lawyer and one of the founders of the Republican Party in Illinois. He was already serving in the Illinois state legislature by the time Lathrop was born, and he authored a bill that permitted women lawyers to become members of the Illinois bar.

Lathrop was the first of five children in her family. Her mother, Adeline, had been a member of the first class of Rockford Seminary, later known as Rockford College, and Lathrop spent a year there herself in 1876, the same year her father won election to the U.S. House of Representatives. At school she met Ellen Gates Starr (1859–1940; see entry), who later established Hull House with Addams. Addams also attended Rockford Seminary, but she entered the same year that Lathrop transferred to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Vassar was one of the new women's colleges in the eastern United States, which offered its students a challenging academic program.

Lathrop earned her Vassar degree in 1880 and went to work in her father's office back in Illinois. She studied law in her spare time but became increasingly unsure about the direction of her life. There were few professions open to women in her day, and even those who had earned college degrees were expected to devote their energies to a home, husband, and children. After a decade of drifting with no goal in mind, Lathrop found her purpose when she learned about Addams's plans for Hull House. Like Lathrop, Addams spent much of her twenties searching for a worthwhile career but had been discouraged by her family from pursuing her studies. Addams borrowed the idea for a settlement house from one she had visited in London. They were called settlement houses because of their mission to work with the poor, which was based on the idea that only by living alongside those in the neediest of circumstances could the aid workers discover the best methods to help them.

Hull House, which opened its doors in September 1889, was a shabby mansion located in one of Chicago's worst areas. The second-largest city in the nation at the time, Chicago had suddenly emerged as a center of manufacturing and industry, and sons and daughters from America's farms traveled there looking for jobs. Even more immigrants came from overseas, hoping to find work as well, causing the city's population to double between 1880 and 1890, and then again between 1890 and 1900. The jobs were plentiful, but the city could not keep up with the demand for housing, and in the neighborhood surrounding Hull House a single tiny dwelling would usually be shared by three or four families. These homes did not have indoor plumbing and often had only a few windows to provide access to fresh air. Garbage collection in the area was unreliable, and in such conditions the young, the old, and the weak were at risk from outbreaks of disease, which regularly swept through the city's poorest areas.

Public service

Lathrop joined Addams and Starr at Hull House in 1890. One of her first efforts was the formation of a club for the older men of the neighborhood to discuss the works of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427 bce-347 bce). In 1893 newly elected Illinois governor John P. Altgeld (1847–1902) appointed Lathrop as the first woman on the Illinois Board of Public Charities. Altgeld had won office on campaign pledges to improve working and living conditions in the city, and he recognized that the Hull House women were a committed and ready task force who could help him achieve his mission. He appointed several other settlement workers to public service jobs or commissions, but Lathrop's duty to help those in Cook County institutions was among the toughest. The city had an official poorhouse, as well as orphanages and homes for the elderly who had no family to care for them. There were also homes for the blind and deaf, and a place where the developmentally disabled and the criminally insane were taken.

Lathrop saw that the county-run system was dishonest and inefficient. The staff members of the institutions had usually received their jobs through political favors given out by local elected officials, and as a result they were not necessarily committed to helping the residents. Reforming the system became one of Lathrop's most important missions. She recorded her visits in "The Cook County Charities," which was included in a book written by another Hull House activist, Florence Kelley (1859–1932; see entry). Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions was published in 1895, and Lathrop's chapter described in shocking detail the conditions inside what was commonly referred to at the time as the insane asylum. "Here are gathered usually about eight hundred men and women, paupers, incurably insane," she wrote. "Can words express more pitiable condition? Certainly there are no creatures in a state of more painful helplessness." Lathrop went on to note that the wards, or the long corridors that housed the residents' beds, were clean, but sunless. Meals consisted of "mush for breakfast; for dinner, beef and potato and another vegetable … often cabbage; for supper, stewed apples or rice; with coffee or tea for breakfast and dinner, and tea for supper, and bread and butter for all meals," she wrote. "Unfortunately, this sounds better than it is in fact. Few persons could see the food as prepared and served (excepting the bread) without a sense of physical revolt."

Lathrop dedicated several years to improving the conditions of such institutions from her seat on the Illinois Board of Public Charities. She argued in favor of a civil service examination for administrators and a hiring process that favored those who had some professional training in their field. She knew that European nations were finding new and more humane ways to help the mentally ill, and so she traveled to England, France, Belgium, and Germany in 1898 and again in 1900 to see what they had accomplished. By 1901, however, when jobs in state homes were still being handed out as political favors, she resigned from the board in protest. Another governor reap-pointed her in 1905, and she served for six more years.

Work with juvenile offenders

As the dawn of the new century neared, Lathrop had already moved on to her next major project: the creation of the first court of law for juvenile offenders. The Cook County Juvenile Court began hearing cases in July 1899, and she and the other Hull House women played an active role in its establishment and early administration. The court operated under a relatively new concept at the time, one that argued that underage (those under the age of 16) criminals should be treated differently than adults, and at the very least not housed alongside far more seasoned criminals while awaiting trial. Cook County became the model for the juvenile court system in other states, and even those in many European countries.

At the start, however, there were several problems that prevented the Cook County Juvenile Court idea from running smoothly. For example, no funds had been set aside to pay the salaries of probation officers, who were charged with monitoring underage criminals. There was also no site to house the young offenders before trial. Lathrop and other Hull House workers raised money for both efforts and even established a transportation service to the courthouse from the detention center. Another Hull House resident, Alzina Stevens (1849–1900), became the first probation officer for the juvenile court. For many years Lathrop served as head of the juvenile court committee, which functioned as an advocacy group to oversee the new system.

Lathrop's commitment to helping others was an inspiration to the founders of the Chicago Institute of Social Science, which was only the second American school created specifically for social work. She consulted with them to create a course of studies, as well as lecturing at the school and serving as director of its research department along with Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866–1948), another Hull House worker. The school became part of the University of Chicago in 1920. Because she was independently wealthy, Lathrop donated her time and services and did not take a salary from the institute.

A historic first

Lathrop's efforts on behalf of juveniles brought her national fame. In 1912 she was appointed by President William H. Taft (1857–1930; served 1909–13) to serve as the first director of the newly created U.S. Children's Bureau. Kelley, her Hull House colleague, had been one of the most committed campaigners for the establishment of the bureau, whose mission was to protect the health and welfare of America's children. Lathrop's appointment was a historic one, for she became the first woman in the United States to head a federal bureau after a presidential nomination and confirmation by the Senate.

In Washington Lathrop oversaw her bureau's first major mission: to reduce infant mortality (death) rates. Because of her years of work with Chicago's poor, she knew that some children did not survive their first year because of the effects of poverty, such as unsanitary living conditions and poor medical care. Under her guidance the bureau launched a public awareness campaign, and it was Lathrop's idea to make sure that the free educational pamphlets it began to publish for mothers were written for the average reader and not in the language of a doctor or nurse. The Sheppard-Towner Act was another one of her achievements during this part of her career. It was passed by Congress just after she resigned as head of the Children's Bureau in 1921 and authorized the establishment of partnership programs between the federal government and states' public health departments to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates. Lathrop was also instrumental in the federal government's decision to enact a uniform birth registration law. The newly collected statistics showed that by 1930 a dramatic decrease in infant mortality had occurred, due in part to the Bureau's efforts.

Under Lathrop's leadership the U.S. Children's Bureau also worked to end child labor. Many years later child labor would come to be considered a human rights violation, but in this era it was entirely legal and commonplace. Thousands of children in every industry received low wages and worked under dangerous conditions in order to help feed their families. Some never learned to read and write, and others were permanently injured or even killed on the job because of dangerous machinery. A new federal law banning the use of children in the workforce was passed in 1916 and went into effect the following January. It was challenged in the courts by an association of business interests and declared unconstitutional. Not until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, would child labor be permanently outlawed.

Lathrop celebrated her sixty-third birthday the year she retired from the Children's Bureau, but she remained active. In 1922 the U.S. secretary of labor named her to a committee charged with investigating conditions on Ellis Island, where new immigrants were processed when they arrived in America. She also supported women's suffrage (right to vote) in the years before Congress approved the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote in the 1920 national elections for the first time. She went on to serve as president of the Illinois League of Women Voters. Her experiences with the establishment of the Cook County Juvenile Court were the basis for a chapter she wrote for a 1925 book, The Child, the Clinic and the Court. From 1925 to 1931 she also worked for the League of Nations—an international organization that was the forerunner to the United Nations—as an evaluator for its Child Welfare Committee.

Aside from her time in Washington, Lathrop lived most of her years at Hull House. She was known for her habit of going to bed immediately after dinner and then waking up in the middle of the night in order to read and write. In her final years she lived with her sister in Rockford. She died there on April 15, 1932. She was the subject of Addams's book, My Friend, Julia Lathrop, published in 1935.

For More Information


Diliberto, Gioia. A Useful Woman: The Early Life of Jane Addams. New York: Scribner/A Lisa Drew Book, 1999.

Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2000.


Alexander, Amy Reynolds. "Reformer Julia Lathrop Attention to Detail Got Her Results." Investor's Business Daily (January 5, 2001): p. A3.

Web Sites

Urban Experience in Chicago: Hull-House and Its Neighborhoods, 1889–1963. (accessed on July 7, 2005).

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Lathrop, Julia C.

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