Settlement House Movement

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Time Period
1889
Description
Starting in the late 19th century, middle-class reformers established settlement houses to aid the lives of immigrants in large American cities. The most famous House in America was Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889. Though reformers originally founded settlement houses to aid immigrants, American-born working-class poor also benefited from the programs. More than 100 houses formed by 1900 and more than 400 by 1910.

The majority of houses were operated by Catholic and Protestant churches, or parachurch organizations such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army. The Catholic Worker Movement in the 1930s adopted the concept of settlement houses in the form of "hospitality houses." In the South, evangelical denominations used settlement houses for purposes of evangelism. The Methodists had "Wesley Houses" and the Southern Baptists had "Good Will Centers" (unrelated to modern Good Will Organizations).
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Narrative
Settlement houses were an effort by middle-class reformers to aid the lives of immigrants in large American cities beginning in the late 19th century. In these centers, immigrants participated in English and other classes, were active in clubs for sewing and other events, and enrolled their children in day care and kindergarten. The numbers of houses grew rapidly in the Progressive Era -- from about 100 such houses in 1900 to more than 400 by 1910.

Early Foundations

In the late 19th century, the number of immigrants to America swelled greatly, forcing most to live in crowded, unsanitary conditions in inner-city tenements and work long hours in dangerous factories. These problems coincided with a growing population of educated, middle-class women whose Victorian upbringing limited their sphere to the family and home. Farsighted female reformers restated this norm to include all families in need. The original settlement house was Toynbee Hall founded in 1884 in London. The most famous such house in America was Jane Addams’ Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889. Though reformers originally founded settlement houses to aid immigrants, American-born working-class poor also benefited from the programs.

The majority of houses were operated by Catholic and Protestant churches, or para-church organizations such as the YMCA and the Salvation Army. These groups often employed middle-class women educated in the nascent field of social work to direct the programs of the houses. The staff of the settlement houses usually consisted of female volunteers crossing socioeconomic boundaries to help the immigrants. Typically, the leadership developed flexible programs that depended on the needs of the community. However, historians have often criticized these women for attempting to force middle-class values on immigrant women, for example, teaching homemaking skills like sewing and lace-making to women who would always need to be employed. Other critics interpreted the efforts of the reformers as an attempt to Americanize newly arrived foreigners.

A common move for the reformers was from the Settlement Houses into the political realm. Seeing needs in the working-class neighborhood drove the women to push for national laws regarding child labor and working hours and conditions. Others negotiated with local governments for better city sanitation and regulation of housing standards.

Houses in the South

Historians have regularly overlooked settlement houses operated by evangelical denominations in the South. Southern houses were in less-populated cities, dealt with smaller immigrant communities and their leaders used the rhetoric of evangelism as a main aim of the houses more often than northern reformers. Thus, a pejorative attitude developed. However, Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Southern Baptist Convention’s Woman’s Missionary Union ran settlement houses with programs similar to their northern counterparts. The Methodists called their ministries Wesley Houses and the Southern Baptists, Good Will Centers (not connected with the modern Good Will Organization).

Events
Catholic Worker Movement
Photographs

Hull House- Internet Archive- from A Day at Hull House, The American Journal of Sociology, vol 2 (1897)

Boys wood carving at King Philip Settlement House- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-nclc-05092

Girls' cooking class at Hull House- Hathi Trust- from Hull-House Year Book

Night school for Italian men at settlement house- Internet Archive- from Sons of Italy by Antonio Mangano

Santa Barbara Hospitality House- Flickr- photo by Salvation Army USA West (CC BY 2.0)
Book/Journal Source(s)
Kurian, George Thomas, and Mark Lamport (Eds.), 2016. The Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Web Source(s)
https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781442244320/The-Encyclopedia-of-Christianity-in-the-United-States-5-Volumes
If you enjoyed reading this entry, please buy the Encyclopedia of Christianity in the United States at the link above.
Web Page Contributor
C. Delane Tew

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