McDowell, Mary Eliza (1854–1936)

views updated

McDowell, Mary Eliza (1854–1936)

"Angel of the Stockyards" who helped to improve living conditions in Chicago's squalid meat-packing district . Born on November 30, 1854, in Cincinnati, Ohio; died after a stroke on October 14, 1936, in Chicago, Illinois; daughter of Malcolm McDowell and Jane Welch (Gordon) McDowell; attended Elizabeth Harrison's kindergarten training school in Chicago, late 1880s.

Moved to Chicago (c.1866); was active in relief efforts after Chicago Fire of 1871; served as national organizer for Women's Christian Temperance Union (c. 1887); was first director of the University of Chicago Settlement House (1894); traveled to Europe to study sanitation plants (1911); appointed Commissioner of Public Welfare (1923); retired from Settlement House (1929).

Reformer Mary Eliza McDowell, called the "Angel of the Stockyards," belonged to a breed of activists who at the turn of the 20th century fought big business and apathetic government to improve the lives of the poor, the desperate, and the immigrant, which often intersected. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1854, McDowell came from a family of strong abolitionists in the era of slavery. During the Civil War, her father Malcolm McDowell served as paymaster of the Tennessee army. After the war ended, they moved to Chicago, where he established a steel-rolling mill. As the eldest daughter, McDowell was responsible for many household duties and child-rearing tasks, since her mother Jane Gordon McDowell was often ill. She also grew close to her father, with whom she had converted from the Episcopal faith to the Methodist faith back in Ohio. Living on Chicago's northwest side, she became active in her parish, and helped in the relief efforts organized by her pastor after the Chicago Fire of 1871.

These activities inspired McDowell to work on behalf of the needy, and when her family moved to the suburb of Evanston she came to know the temperance activist Frances Willard . She became active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), and served as a national organizer for the anti-alcohol group. She also developed an interest in early elementary education, and after attending Elizabeth Harrison 's teacher training college in Chicago, worked as a kindergarten teacher in New York City around 1890. Returning to Chicago, she worked with Jane Addam s' Hull House settlement on the South Side and established its kindergarten. Through these activities, she became interested in the conditions of the industrial working class, about which little was widely known in the days before extensive public transportation and automobiles (and, later, television) made the areas in which the urban poor lived accessible to middle-class viewing. At the urging of Addams, McDowell was invited to assume the directorship of a "settlement" house similar to Hull's that was created by the University of Chicago.

In the fall of 1894, McDowell took up residence near the University of Chicago Settlement House, on what was then called Gross Avenue. "No social climber ever desired more earnestly to be accepted by the elite than I wished to be accepted by my neighbors," she later wrote. It was an abominable neighborhood, treeless and filthy, where the exploited immigrant workers of the giant meat-packing industries lived. Known as Packingtown, or Back-of-the-Yards, it was home to numerous German, Irish, and later Slavic immigrants and grew in infamy for its stench and miserable conditions. The ward was surrounded by open garbage dumps and decimated by political corruption, a situation later detailed but not overtly fictionalized in Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel The Jungle. Running through Packing-town was a branch of the Chicago River that was called Bubbly Creek because it was so toxic it literally fizzled. McDowell spent her days running the Settlement House and fighting city hall to improve the neighborhood. Her efforts eventually resulted in the first public bath, the first library, and the first park in the area, Davis Square. She also exposed political payoffs and battled illegal dumping. McDowell became so adamant about raising awareness about the open pits that ringed the district that she became known as the "Garbage Lady." In 1913, when the city created a City Waste Commission, she was appointed to it.

The University of Chicago Settlement House was a focal point of the Packingtown neighborhood and featured a gymnasium, social activities, day care, adult-education classes, and an Indiana summer camp for youth. McDowell's sympathies for the workers and the unsafe and precarious conditions under which they worked naturally made her sympathetic to the organized labor movement. She co-founded the National Women's Trade Union League in 1903 and served as president of its Chicago branch. During a heated 1904 Packingtown strike, she was the only well-known figure in the district to publicly side with the strikers. This pro-labor stance cost her some support for her Settlement House, but her wider efforts helped to bring about a federal investigation into the use of women and child labor in industry by 1907. She also campaigned to establish a Women's Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor, which was created in 1920.

Mary McDowell's sympathies knew neither class nor race barriers. After the infamous race riots in Chicago in 1919, she established the Interracial Cooperative Committee, and was active in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as well as the Chicago Urban League. In 1923, a sympathetic new city government appointed her commissioner of public welfare, a post in which she served for four years. McDowell had traveled twice to Europe: once in 1911 to visit its sanitation treatment public-works projects, and later in the 1920s, when she received honors from the governments of Lithuania and Czechoslovakia for her service to immigrants from those countries who lived in Chicago and toiled in the meat-packing industry. A volume of her collected essays, Mary McDowell and Municipal Housekeeping, was published in 1929, the same year she retired from her Settlement House duties. McDowell died after a stroke in 1936 and was buried in Chicago's Rosehill Cemetery. Gross Avenue, the street on which she had lived for so many years, was renamed McDowell Avenue in her honor.


Edgerly, Lois Stiles, ed. and comp. Give Her This Day. Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1990.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

suggested reading:

Hill, Caroline, ed. Mary McDowell and Municipal Housekeeping, 1929.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

About this article

McDowell, Mary Eliza (1854–1936)

Updated About content Print Article