Settlement House Movement

views updated Jun 11 2018


SETTLEMENT HOUSE MOVEMENT. Between the late 1880s and the end of World War I, the settlement house movement was an influential Progressive-era response to the massive urban social problems of the day, The United States was in a period of rapid growth, economic distress, labor unrest, unemployment, low wages, unfair labor practices, and squalid living conditions. Large numbers of immigrants arrived daily to work in this newly established industrialized society. Ethnic enclaves sheltered immigrants who were experiencing isolation, new customs, and a strange language.

Established in large cities, settlement houses were privately supported institutions that focused on helping the poor and disadvantaged by addressing the environ-mental factors involved in poverty. The basic settlement-house ideal was to have wealthy people move into poor neighborhoods so that both groups could learn from one another. Canon Samuel Barnett, pastor of the poorest parish in London's notorious East End, established the first settlement house in 1884. In the midst of this neighborhood (settlement), Toynbee Hall housed educated and wealthy people who served as examples, teachers, and providers of basic human services to the poor residents of the settlement. Toynbee Hall was based on the social gospel movement and attracted young theologians and other middle-class people to emulate Jesus in living among the poor.

Inspired by Barnett's efforts, Dr. Stanton Coit and Charles B. Stover founded the first American settlement house, the Neighborhood Guild of New York City (1886). Other settlements quickly followed: Hull-House, Chicago, 1889 (Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr); College Settlement, a clubfor girls in New York City, 1889 (Vida Dutton Scudder and Jean G. Fine); East Side House, New York, 1891; Northwestern University Settlement, 1891 (Harriet Vittum); South End House, Boston, 1892 (Robert Archey Woods); and Henry Street Settlement, New York, 1893 (Lillian D. Wald). New settlements were established almost every year: University of Chicago Settlement, 1894 (Mary McDowell); Chicago Commons, 1894 (Graham Taylor); Hudson Guild, New York, 1897 (John Lovejoy Elliot); Hiram House, Cleveland, 1896 (George A. Bellamy); and Greenwich House, New York, 1902 (Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch).

Although settlement houses have often been characterized as largely secular in nature, many of them grew from religious roots. Some settlement house workers who came from a faith perspective included moral teachings, at a minimum, in their work with community residents. Probably the best-known example is Chicago Commons, founded in 1894 by the Reverend Graham Taylor, who was the first professor of Christian sociology at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He founded Chicago Commons partially as a social laboratory for his students. As Allen F. Davis has pointed out, of the more than 400 settlements established by 1910, 167 (more than 40 percent) were identified as religious, 31 Methodist, 29 Episcopal, 24 Jewish, 22 Roman Catholic, 20 Presbyterian, 10 Congregational, and 31 unspecified. In 1930, there were approximately 460 settlement houses, and most of these were church supported.

Settlement houses were run in part by client groups. They emphasized social reform rather than relief or assistance. (Residence, research, and reform were the three Rs of the movement.) Early sources of funding were wealthy individuals or clubs such as the Junior League. Settlement house workers were educated poor persons, both children and adults, who often engaged in social action on behalf of the community. In attaining their goals, the settlement house reformers had an enviable record. They had a realistic understanding of the social forces and the political structures of the city and nation. They battled in legislative halls as well as in urban slums, and they became successful initiators and organizers of reform.

Settlement workers tried to improve housing conditions, organized protests, offered job-training and labor searches, supported organized labor, worked against child labor, and fought against corrupt politicians. They provided classes in art and music and offered lectures on topics of interest. They established playgrounds, day care, kindergartens, and classes in English literacy. Settlement workers were also heavily involved in research to identify the factors causing need and in activities intended to eliminate the factors that caused the need.

Settlement houses assumed as their operational base the adequate functioning of the families they served, many of whom were migrants and immigrants whose problems were associated with making the transition from rural to urban living and from a known to an unknown culture. Whatever their problems, clients of settlement houses were viewed as able, normal, working-class families with whom the wealthier classes were joined in mutual dependence. When such families could not cope, settlement leaders assumed that society itself was at fault, and this assumption led quite naturally to a drive for societal reform.

The most famous settlement house in America was Hull-House of Chicago. Although it was not the first American settlement, Hull-House came to exemplify the particular brand of research, service, and reform that was to characterize much of the American settlement house movement. Jane Addams and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, moved into a poor immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. They had vague notions of being "good neighbors" to the poor around them and studying the conditions in which they lived. As they observed the structural elements of poverty, however, the two began to create a specific agenda of services and reform. Exploitation of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, poor employment conditions and inadequate wages, lack of educational opportunities, substandard housing, and inefficient city government were the factors that contributed greatly to the poverty of the area and called for specific responses. Hull-House soon offered a day nursery for children, a clubfor working girls, lectures and cultural programs, and meeting space for neighborhood political groups.

Along with a remarkable group of reformers who came to live at the settlement, Addams supported labor union activity, lobbied city officials for sanitary and housing reforms, and established the Immigrants' Protective League to fight discrimination in employment and other exploitation of newcomers. In addition, Hull-House members carried on an active program of research. Residents surveyed conditions in tenements and workplaces. They publicized their results widely, attempting to create an atmosphere conducive to governmental and legislative reform.

Under Addams's leadership a powerful network of women social reformers emerged from the Hull-House setting that was influential throughout the United States. Three-fourths of settlement workers in America were women; most were well educated and dedicated to working on problems of urban poverty. These included Julia Lathrop and Grace Abbott, prominent figures in the U.S. Children's Bureau; Florence Kelley, labor and consumer advocate; Alice Hamilton, physician and social activist; and Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge, social researchers and key leaders in the development of social work education. In addition to these women, Mary O'Sullivan, a labor leader and reformer, organized the Chicago Women's Bindery Workers' Union in 1889. In 1892, she became the American Federation of Labor's first woman organizer. Additionally, Lucy Flower helped found the Illinois Training School for Nurses, the Chicago Bureau of Charities, the Cook County Juvenile Court, the Protective Agency for Women and Children, and the Lake Geneva Fresh Air Association for poor urban children.

World War I had an adverse effect on the settlement house movement. The settlement houses declined in importance and there seemed to be less need of them. Gradually organizations such as the Young Men's Christian Association, summer camps, neighborhood youth centers, and other local and national agencies were established to carry on similar work. The settlement house movement gradually broadened into a national federation of neighborhood centers. By the early twentieth century, settlement houses were beginning to cooperate with, and merge into, "social work." The settlement house movement led the way to community organization and group work practice within the newly proclaimed profession of social work.


Axinn, June, and Herman Levin. Social Welfare: A History of the American Response to Need. 4th ed. White Plains, N.Y.: Longman, 1997.

Davis, Allen F. Spearheads for Reform: The Social Settlements and the Progressive Movement, 1890–1914. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.

Day, Phyllis J. A New History of Social Welfare. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2002.

Handel, Gerald. Social Welfare in Western Society. New York: Random House, 1982.

Popple, Philip R., and Leslie Leighninger. Social Work, Social Welfare, and American Society. 4th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Trattner, Walter I. From Poor Law to Welfare State: A History of Social Welfare in America. 6th ed. New York: The Free Press, 1999.


Settlement House Movement

views updated May 18 2018

Settlement House Movement

As more women gained access to a college education in the late nineteenth century, many hoped to use their skills and talents for more than homemaking and child rearing. Jane Addams, born in 1860 to a Quaker miller in Illinois, was one of these women who hoped to improve the life of others and society at large. After completing her education, Addams took a trip to Europe, where social activism in the slums of London had a dramatic effect on her. She returned to Chicago to found her own version of London's "settlement houses" in 1889. The British settlement houses, which inspired Addams, were residences located within destitute neighborhoods with programs designed to improve living conditions. Addams's Hull House, located in an immigrant area of the city with appalling living conditions, provided numerous women with the opportunity to serve the poor neighborhood and reform conditions there. Environmental reforms became an important component of their work, but settlement houses also organized kindergartens for immigrant children; provided classes on ethnic culture and art; and gave immigrants a place to meet, visit, bathe, and see health professionals.

Addams incorporated a large number of environmental reforms in her agenda for Hull House. One of the most notable included her efforts to address the unhealthy piles of garbage in immigrant neighborhoods because of a lack of municipal attention. The mayor of Chicago eventually appointed Addams garbage inspector for her area, a job she took very seriously. Addams supervised garbage collectors and took violators of garbage regulations to court. Although Addams and her cohorts often initiated reforms, the immigrants played an active role too, assisting in information gathering and its communication to their neighbors. Alice Hamilton, also a resident of Hull House, worked extensively on occupational health and safety issues, demonstrating the dangers of lead and other toxic substances.

The Settlement House Movement, begun by Addams and a part of national Progressive Era reform movements, spread quickly to other industrial urban areas. Lillian Wald established Henry House in New York. Initially hoping to focus on the delivery of modern health care, Wald quickly became outraged over immigrant living conditions and shifted her focus to improving city services, establishing parks for children, and educating immigrants about sanitation issues.

Although the most famous settlement house workers were middle- and upper-class white women, African-American women also participated in the movement throughout the United States. They focused on issues similar to those of white women, but had to cope with the additional problems of racism, segregation, disfranchisement, and discrimination facing black communities in general. They worked tirelessly to educate other African-Americans about sanitation and health issues and to improve neighborhoods by pressing for garbage pickup and better city services like sewers and lighting.

Although settlement houses failed to eliminate the worst aspects of poverty among new immigrants, they provided some measure of relief and hope to their neighborhoods. Nonetheless, historians have found that settlement house workers held a very condescending attitude toward immigrant populations, one that dismissed native cultures and sought to impose decidedly white middle-class values. Despite any such limitations, settlement house workers raised public awareness of pollution issues, especially in the areas of health, sanitation, and city services. They influenced politicians and forced them to consider issues of importance to immigrants. Finally and equally importantly, settlement house workers provided a legitimate venue for women to become active in city politics and other national issues, such as the burgeoning women's suffrage movement.

see also Activism; Addams, Jane; Environmental Movement; Hamilton, Alice; Industry; Lead; Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Politics; Progressive Movement; Solid Waste; Workers Health Bureau.


Addams, Jane. (1911). Twenty Years at Hull House, with Autobiographical Notes. New York: Macmillan.

Lasch-Quinn, Elisabeth. (1993). Black Neighbors: Race and the Limits of Reform in the American Settlement House Movement, 18901945. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Levine, Daniel. (1971). Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

internet resources

"Settlement Houses: New Ideas in Old Communities." Available from

United Neighborhood House Web site. Available from

Elizabeth D. Blum

Settlement House Movement

views updated May 18 2018

Settlement House Movement

Settlement houses were centers that provided community services for the urban poor and underprivileged. The philosophy behind the movement was that reform was the responsibility not only of the government but also of the people.

The first American settlement house, University Settlement, was established on New York 's Lower East Side in 1886. By 1910 more than four hundred settlement houses were operating across America's urban landscape. These settlements were actually experiments not in charity but in social organization. Historians consider settlement houses the first example of social services but emphasize a major difference: social services provide specific services, whereas settlement houses aimed to improve neighborhood life as a whole.

Those who ran the settlement houses did so on a voluntary basis. Women were the primary reformers in the settlement house movement, with Jane Addams (1860–1935)—cofounder of Chicago's Hull House—being the most famous. (See tenement housing entry.)

Settlement houses provided medical services and legal aid to a mostly immigrant population. The immigrants who came to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries knew nothing about the society into which they immersed themselves. Few could speak English, let alone read and write it. Settlement houses provided free education in which immigrants and other working-class poor could learn English as well as vocational (career) skills. They also provided kindergartens, library services, recreation clubs for boys and girls, and classes on nutrition and banking.

Settlement houses depended on volunteers not only to staff and operate them but for funding. Reformers used newspapers and clergy to spread the word about the houses and explain the movement's mission to the public. The women activists formed relationships with business and civic leaders and then approached them for assistance in the form of either money or time and skills.

In addition to providing social services, settlement houses became central locations for workers involved in political reform as it related to labor, women, and economics. Reformers worked toward legislation to

protect children from labor and immigrants from exploitation (being used for someone else's benefit).

Settlement houses still exist, although they have become more specialized. Some of their services—providing libraries and kindergartens, for example—became the responsibility of municipal and state governments.