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Settlement Houses: How It All Began




Note: The following pages, based on research by Albert J. Kennedy, summarize the specific ways in which settlements enriched or improved neighborhood life during the first sixty years. Sometimes they showed the way through demonstrations. Sometimes they were leaders or participants in social causes in cooperation with others. Through the decades one can see many goals accomplished as certain activities disappear from the agenda. In many cases as with kindergartens, playgrounds, adult classes, sanitation. workmens’ compensation, mothers’ pensions, it is because these have become public responsibilities.

Dates given refer to a specific event, or more often, to the period when an activity was most prevalent.


From Alice Hamilton, M.D. Professor of Industrial Medicine, Harvard University Medical School: “I should never have taken up the cause of the working class had I not lived at Hull-House and learned much from Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Julia Lathrop, and others.  Life at Hull-House had accustomed me to going straight to the homes of people about whom I wished to learn something and talking with them in their own surroundings, where they have courage to speak out what is in their minds.”

Improvement of Sanitation and Public Health

Made efforts to improve sanitation and enforce health codes (1886-96) and established pioneer pasteurization station (1897). Dr. Alice Hamilton investigated Chicago typhoid epidemic (1902) and others assisted in New Orleans yellow fever epidemic (1905). San Francisco nurses made sanitary inspectors (1906). Dr. Hamilton embarked on life work on control of lead and other poisons (1918).

Local Medical Services

Instituted kindergarten medical inspections (1886-96) and baby-saving campaigns (1886-1906). Set up milk stations (1903). Pressed for school doctors and nurses (1897-1902). Established baby clinics (1903), evening clinics (1910), dental clinics (1908), pre-natal clinics (1910), birth control clinics (1927) and child guidance clinics (1927-36). Pressed for municipal milk and baby stations. Instituted health exams for camp.


Lillian Wald led in organizing public and private visiting nurse services and many settlements established neighborhood nursing (1897-1906). Midwifery studies done (1905-6) which resulted in Boards of Health assuming supervision. Convalescent homes established (1907-16).

Health Education

Instruction centers in hygiene established (1917-26). Provided education for housewives and storekeepers in storage and display of meat and vegetables (1897-1906)

Health Insurance

Participants in movement for compulsory insurance to meet cost of sickness (1937-46). Barnett (international exchange) Fellow Dr. Douglas Orr studied British system (1938). National study of family health and medical practices directed by Helen Hall, “When Sickness Strikes:’ Both studies important base for national legislative testimony.


From John Dewey, Professor of Philosophy, Columbia University: “The foundation of social settlements marks a genuine epoch in the life of the country. Aside from the special useful activities in which different settlements have engaged it is quite impossible to measure their influence upon public opinion and sentiment in creating a sense of social responsibility.”

Early Childhood Education

Established kindergartens in every settlement until public schools absorbed them about 1897. Acted as interpreter between schools and immigrant parents; organized school lunches; campaigned for adequate buildings and sittings for all children; helped take school census; worked for removal of schools from ward and city “politics” (1886-96). Pioneered in pre-school education from 1917 on, with play schools, Montessori schools, parent education, increased education in day nurseries, and beginning of after-school care for children of working parents (1897-1926). Federally funded nursery schools were established broadly in settlements in 1933 and nursery preschool and day care programs were thenceforth part of the core program.

The “exceptional” Child

Scholarships for ambitious children were part of settlement offerings from early days to the present. Many also sponsored trips, international visits, and other enrichment to broaden educational horizons. A school for shut-in children was started at Hull-House in 1905, and for retarded at Henry St. in 1901. Settlements made studies of children with problems, and since the Thirties have provided leadership to schools for therapeutic groups.


Started program of athletics, tumbling and boxing. Gyms made basketball a major sport (1886-1906). Built many new gyms; basketball teams competed with colleges; gyms provided training areas for police, firemen, school athletic instructors, playground leaders and sports writers (1907-16). Built many new gyms and swimming pools; increased athletic leadership provided by WPA (1927-36).

Increasing Neighborhood Recreational Resources

Borrowed land and provided supervision for play; formed playground associations; set up demonstration playgrounds and furthered development of neighborhood playgrounds; promoted establishment of public baths, and set up vacant lot gardening (1886-1926).

Recreation as a Public Function

Helped secure laws authorizing public and school playgrounds; secured municipal playgrounds; established public and school baths; started vacation schools; pressed for municipal gyms (1897-1906). Loaned leadership for first school play centers. Promoted establishment of city departments of recreation and or parks. Induced boards of education to expand concept of play to include social activities, arts and adult education (1907-16). In Great Depression sponsored massive provision of leadership for recreational and artistic activities by WPA project staff.


Stated camps in early 1900’s until by 1941 settlements provided important share of total camping resources.

Play Opportunity as Part of Environment

Promoted slum clearance and neighborhood rebuilding (1927-36).


From Lewis Mumford, Author: ‘‘The colinization of the slums by means of the settlement house was an important event; not merely did it give the slum dweller himself his first glimpse of art, literature, drama, music, play; not merely did it provide a place for clubs and social groups to meet. Something else happened. The success of the settlement house called attention to the fact that more prosperous neighborhoods were in fact equally devoid of the elementary organs of association; civically speaking, every middle-class neighborhood was a nonentity, too.”


Set up choral groups (1896). Founded 43 music schools and departments by 1916 and 83 more by 1926, leading to establishment of national office, publications, research and training in social music (1928). Helped develop Federal Music Project. which provided quality teaching to group serving agencies.

Graphic and Plastic Arts

Provided leadership in campaigns to open New York and Chicago Metropolitan Museums on Sunday (1892). Held exhibitions and drawing classes (1886-96). Studios developed such as Hull-House Gallery, Greenwich House Pottery, Phila, Sketch Club, Hull-House Labor Museum (1891-1906). Folk craft guilds organized producing rugs and embroideries; art departments increased and needlework guilds reached high point with exhibit of arts and handcrafts shown in chief cities (1925-6). National exhibit of pottery (1929); exhibit of children’s drawings at Chicago World’s Fair (1933); Metropolitan Museum inaugurates neighborhood art exhibits (1933). Karamu House Players present Cleveland Art Museum with fund for Black art and two scholarships. Supported WPA Art projects (1927-36). Art programs and exhibits continue (1937-46).


Hull-House Players tour culminates in appearance at Abbey Theater in Ireland (1901). Theater started at Educational Alliance (1906). Neighborhood and city festivals; inter-settlement drama leagues (1907-16). Seven new little theaters established in NY; children’s theaters, puppet and marionette theaters, tournaments of plays, city-wide festivals (1922 ff). High point of little theater companies and settlement stages, foreign-language dramatic and operatic groups, city-wide tournaments and festivals and open-air theater in NY. Significant sponsor ship of dramatic groups using WPA workers (1927-36).


Settlements started immigrant domestic science classes (1886-96). Set up home-making departments and domestic arts schools, and persuaded public schools to take on cooking classes (1897-1906). Increased home-making departments, and also in schools. First edition of Settlement Cook Book, Milwaukee (1907-16). Mothers’ clubs develop Chicago Homemaking Institute (1926) and Better Home Exhibit (1928). Increase of classes in dietetics, nutrition, and clothing renovation with WPA teachers (1933).


Participated in development of art-dance movement (1907-16). Delacroze classes and dance for small children (1917-26). Dance troops expand with WPA leadership (1927-36). Pasadena Mayan Dancers and Karamu Dancers at Washington and at New York World Fair (1937-46).


Started small libraries, story hours, picture loans (1886-1906). Started neighborhood libraries and extensions including homes, school rooms, playgrounds, camps and prisons (1897-1906). Settlement libraries turned over to public authorities, and settlements pressed for local branches. High point in club and house newspapers (1907-16). Poetry promoted; cooperation with libraries in story telling, exhibits, programs for unemployed (1927-36).


From James Ford, Professor of Social Ethics, Harvard University: “Except for census data, the statistics of municipal departments, and the reports of engineers, architects and physicians of the nineteenth century, research into the economic and social factors of housing virtually began with studies by university graduates made in settlement houses. Virtually all leaders in housing reform in the 1890’s and earlt 1900’s were persons with a settlement background At first they were the residents, but subsequently boys and girls of slum neighborhoods who had enjoyed the advantages of settlement activities became leaders in housing reform.”

Assuring Decent and Sanitary Housing

Made studies and gave testimony (1896-1906); organized housing associations; acted as inspectors (1902); published tenants’ rights (1903). Sponsored model tenements and remodeled houses (1907-16). Organized neighbors to remedy violations; worked on state codes (1916-26). Succeeded in revision of N.Y. State “model” law which outlawed vertical fire escapes, rooms without windows, apartments without toilets (1930-35).

Leadership in City Planning

Helped accomplish defeat of obsolete tenement law (1907). Supported start of neighborhood planning and first national city planning conference (1908). Worked for establishment of city and state housing commissions (1918). Studied displacement in slum demolition (1936)

Provision of Low-rent Public Housing

Helped in formation of state and national public housing associations (1910-33). Gave leadership in ex periments in large scale building operations; agitated for state-sponsored slum clearance, and use of public funds for housing (1916-26). Worked for passage of National Public Housing Law (1937).

Helping “Projects” to Become “Communities”

Cooperated with public housing authorities nation-wide by providing social, recreational and community organization services in projects from 1937 to the present.

From Robert C. Weaver former Secretary, U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development: “I want to express to you my appreciation for your significant help during this session in support of HUD legislation. New tools were provided…regular appropriations supplied funds for the continuation and expansion of existing programs… and a start on new programs was made possible. All of these results were accomplishcd largely through/i the support which you and your associates gave as these measures were considered by Congress.”


From Charles A, Beard, Historian: “Anyone familiar with the course of social legislation since 1886 and the personalities associated with it knows that settlement workers and persons influenced long ago by pioneers in the settlement movement have taken leadership in social thought and action. It would be an interesting record to have the names of American social thinkers since 1886 who have been deeply affected by the discussions and activities of settlements, I can say for myself that I was introduced to a new world at meetings in the Hull-House during the summer of 1896.”

Ameliorating Suffering During Depression

Offered relief, work relief, soup kitchens, advocated public works (1892). Set up thrift shops and work rooms (1907-16). Supported work relief and advocated advance planning of public works to meet cyclical unemployment (1920). Raised money for relief; worked to make relief administration more flexible and humane; testified for unemployment legislation before municipal, state and federal committees (1930-33). Made national study under chairmanship of Helen Hall, documenting signs of coming catastrophe, and published findings in Studies in Unemployment and popular version Some Folks Won’t Work, providing base for important Congressional testimony.

Preventing Exploitation of Labor Force

Made studies of domestic service and employment offices, industrial accidents, sweatshops, women and children in industry (1886). Further studies of hours, factory conditions, irregularity of employment, health of women in night work (1886-1916). Promoted legislation such as nation’s first factory act in Illinois (where Florence Kellley was appointed as chief inspector in 1896). Promoted passage of Mass. minimum wage law (1910) and reduction of working hours for women (1907). Influential studies included: Florence Kelley, Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation, 1903; Robert Hunter, Poverty, 1904; Louise B. More, Wage Earners Budgets, 1907; M. L. Nassau, Old Age Poverty in Greenwich Village, 1913; Mary K. Simkhovitch, City Workers World, 1917

Cooperation with Trade Unions

Supported stockyard strikers (1904) and garment workers. Provided meeting space for unions, Supported labor and helped to arbitrate strikes in Boston, Chicago and N.Y. in building trades, teamsters, printers, clerks, and produced pioneers in arbitration (1897-1906). Helped to organize unions of women, and to develop National Womens Trade Union League (1903).

Insurance Against Personal Economic Catastrophe

Worked for passage of Workmens’ Compensation in N.Y. State (1913); for mothers’ pensions through state legislation (1916). Promoted Organization for Old Age Security (1925) and helped pass N.Y. State Act (1936).

Consumer Protection

Made studies of pawnshops, loan sharking, insurance, cost of funerals (1886-96). Made further studies on evictions, installment buying, with resultant state protective legislation in 1903. Studied cost of milk (1937). Participated in founding of city and national Consumers Leagues (1896-1906). Promoted savings clubs. coal clubs (1906). Supported postal savings; Mass. savings hank insurance (1902-16). Promoted cooperative stores (1918-29). Supported rent strikes (1908). Worked for state consumers’ bureaus, national consumers’ conference (1939) and national study of food prices (1941).


From Stanley M. Issacs, Former President. Borough of Manhattan, Member of City Council, and long-time President of United Neighborhood Houses of N.Y.:  “United Neighborhood Houses has obtained practical results in governmental fields, such as more adequate fire protection. better sanitary conveniences and other vital improvements in old law tenements. We have influenced city, state and federal housing, the administration of relief, the services of the departments of health and education. We have stimulated additional recreation facilities in unserved areas of the city. The Housing Authority was persuaded to pay greater attention to the recreational and cultural needs of children and adults in their developments. We have been able to give some protection to low income consumers. A catalogue of such successful activities during the last four decades would fill many pages.”

Training for Democratic Participation as Citizens

Emphasize clubs and councils to give training in democratic decision making and delegated authority (1886 and ff). Extended to neighborhood clean up projects, classes in English and citizenship, help in naturalization, discussions of public affairs (1897-1906). Promoted extended use of schools for citizenship classes. Fought for woman suffrage (1907-16). Prepared newly enfranchised women for citizenship through classes in English and naturalization. Participated in youth movements such as American Youth Congress (1937-46). (Period of massive European immigration lasted from 1886 until halted in 1914).

Neighborhood Improvement and Morale

Stanton Coit organized small area guilds for reform (1887). Clean street clubs, sanitary associations, backyard playgrounds promoted (1887). Womens’ clubs act on behalf of streets, playgrounds, sanitation, better schools, and finance kindergartens, medical chests, and training tor playground leaders (1887-1906). Improvement association work for paving streets, sanitary reforms, additional schools and playgrounds (1897-1906). John Elliot of Hudson Guild organizes block associations to deal with civic and social needs (1907). Chicago Juvenile Protective League organized citizen’s committees to act against ‘moral hazards’ e.g., segregated prostitution areas (1917). Active in neighborhood and district war councils and draft boards and helped maintain morale of soldiers and civilians (1917). Defended immigrant neighbors from attacks on their patriotism. Supported rent associations (1923). Promoted district councils, public housing committees and associations of the unemployed (1927-36). In World War II were air raid wardens, promoted conservation of resources (e.g. Victory Gardens), and helped maintain morale of soldiers and civilians.

Political Action and Voter Education

Participated in movements for reform candidates in city wards (1886-1906). Participated in “good government” movements and woman suffrage movement (1886-1907). Influenced political parties to include reform ideas in their platforms—-of major national importance in relation to Progressive Party platform in 1912. Woman leaders appointed to public commissions and participation in campaigns (1917-26). Active in examination of candidates’ records on social legislation (1927-36).

Publications and Studies

Hull-House Maps and Papers (1895). R.A. Woods, The City Wilderness (1895), and Americans in Process (1902). A .B. Wolfe, Lodging House Population of Boston, W.E. DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro (1901). University Settlement Studies, N.Y. (1905 and ff). Martha Bruyere, Does Prohibition Work? (1927) Graham Taylor, Pioneering on Social Frontiers (1930). Many neighborhood, district and city surveys (1907-16) including noted Pittsburgh Survey of 1914. R.A. Woods, The Neighborhood in Nation Building (1923). Caroline Ware, Greenwich Village (1920-30) (1933). Jane Addams, Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930). Studies of individual houses and their areas, or city-wide studies (1942 and ff).

District and City Organization

District councils and city federations formed in Chicago, Boston, New York (1894 and ff). Period of district councils stimulated and supported by Community Chests. National negotiations finally establish that district councils are appropriate for Chest or Planning Council support. and neighborhood councils for settlement sponsorship (1927-48).

Public Service

Settlement personnel serve on public commissions in labor, recreation, education, transportation (1897-1906). Lillian Wald and Florence Kelley suggest and promote U.S. Childrens Bureau, and Julia Lathrop of Hull-House is made first Chief (1912), Mary McDowell of Chicago secures first garbage disposal plant (1914). Robert Woods leads Mass. forces for 18th Amendment. Graham Taylor helps secure appointment of Chicago Commission on Race Relations. Jane Addams campaigns for food for starving children of Germany and Russia after World War I. Mary McDowell made Chicago Commissioner of Public Welfare (1917-26). Settlement leaders called to serve in war-related efforts such as recreation for servicemen, day care for children, relief for war-devastated areas in connection with both World Wars. Many serve with United Nations programs after World War II.

Source: This is a portion from One Hundred Years on the Urban Frontier: The Settlement Movement 1886-1986 by Margaret E. Berry and Published for the 1986 Centennial of the U.S
Settlement Movement by the United Neighborhood Centers of America.  Note: UNCA’s mission is to strengthen and empower its member organizations.  UNCA member agencies serve whole families through comprehensive, coordinated, neighborhood-based and family-focused services.  UNCA builds neighborhoods with neighbors.

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