Settlement Houses: Sites of Service, Access, and Connection for Women
In October 1901, a young woman wrote to the advice columnist of The Ladies Home Journal complaining she was bored from too much “leisure, plenty of money, abounding health, a beautiful home and many friends,” and wondered if factory work might prove to be more exciting. Advice columnist Margaret E. Sangster suggested another remedy, “Settlement Work, if you would give it an honest trial, would clear your vision. In working for others you would yourself be immensely helped.”
By 1901, hundreds of settlement houses dotted the crowded neighborhoods of America’s rapidly expanding cities. The settlement house movement was founded in London in 1884 and earned their name from the fact that their mostly college-educated, (and eventually) mostly female staff also lived on site, ‘settling’ among the local communities they aimed to serve.
As industrialization, mass immigration, and expanded educational opportunities for women began to reshape the American city, the settlement house movement quickly swept across the United States. The first American settlement, The Neighborhood Guild, landed on New York’s Lower East Side in 1886—still operating today as the University Settlement. It was soon followed by Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889 by the national leader of the settlement house movement and influential social reformer, Jane Addams.
Progressive Era settlement houses fostered the activism and intellectual creativity, as well as the conflicts, that would profoundly shape American modernity in the 20th century. For the growing population of newly minted women college graduates, settlement work offered an unprecedented opportunity to put to active use the education only recently made available to them.
For the first time, many moved out of their family homes to live on their own and gained access to a wide range of professional development opportunities. Not only did the settlement house provide hands-on training in social work, social science research, education, public policy, nursing, and medicine, it was also a space in which these women were actively defining the work and standards of these modern professions.
What is more, moving into a settlement house allowed women to delay or even reject the traditions of heterosexual marriage. These female-centered spaces were thus foundational LGBTQ historic sites in which women formed partnerships and friendships that challenged contemporary class, gender, and cultural norms.
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The dorm rooms, parlors, kitchens, and classrooms of settlement houses reveal a multitude of stories inextricably bound to the places in which they occurred. Settlement houses are sites in which women defined new roles in American public life, where immigrant and minority communities reshaped American political, intellectual, and cultural ideologies, and where social reformers showed how reimagining the urban landscape and built environment were part-and-parcel to their vision of progress.
While the more than 400 settlement houses established during the late 19th and early 20th century each have their own individual stories, two sites highlight how demographic and economic changes, along with anti-immigrant nativism and anti-Black racism, together defined and challenged the settlement house movement project. Denison House in Boston’s South Cove immigrant enclave and the White Rose Mission of Harlem in New York City showcase how the history of a settlement house is both a national and local tale.
Denison House (Boston, Massachusetts)
Founded in 1892 by activists and recent women’s college graduates Vida Scudder, Katherine Coman, and Emily Green Balch, Denison House began with one building at 92 Tyler Street in the crowded immigrant enclave of Boston’s South Cove neighborhood. Closely associated with Wellesley College, from which Scudder graduated and at which Green Balch would soon become an economics professor, Denison House was one of three settlements established by the College Settlement Association, founded in 1890 with the mission to “bring all college women within the scope of a common purpose and a common work.”
Like in most settlement houses, the women volunteers paid a small rental fee for their own room, assisting the house supervisors with daily operations. As one volunteer explained in an 1895 Wellesley Magazine editorial, “when it comes to the actual activities, each hour of each day, of each member of a settlement family is so wildly divergent,” that it would be impossible to describe in a short article.
For Denison House volunteers, tasks included the management and organizing clubs for local community members, teaching hygiene, cooking, or sewing classes, operating the kindergarten and summer camps for local children, or overseeing milk distribution to families throughout the neighborhood. By 1900, Denison House thrived, expanding the residence to include four additional buildings on Tyler Street and boasting a successful campaign to build a local branch of the public library, a public gymnasium, and a health clinic.
Denison House’s vibrant programming and commitment to serving their local communities also illustrates the tensions between a desire to embrace diversity and an insistence upon immigrant assimilation. Denison House workers engaged daily with their Italian, Syrian, Armenian, Irish, and Eastern European Jewish neighbors—many of whom would themselves become volunteers. These ambitious women pushed back against anti-immigrant sentiment by embracing cultural diversity and working to eradicate the oppressive social and environmental conditions in poor neighborhoods.
They also welcomed intellectual and political collaboration to help solve society’s ills. In the same editorial, the Wellesley volunteer explained that a Social Science Club founded at the House soon expanded to include “clergymen, students, the head of the workingman’s institute, a factory inspector, and several labor leaders,” while the House also served as a meeting site for the local garment workers’ union.
At the same time, however, the editorial reveals the fact that settlement workers did not wholly embrace their immigrant neighbors as their equals, noting that “nothing could have been finer than the way in which the more intelligent, conservative leaders succeeded in controlling the general multitude…one could not but wonder at the patience and self-control of such masses of more or less ignorant and ill-disciplined men, many of whom were foreigners, with ideas of government quite opposed to those of our American republic.”
Though leaders of the settlement movement pushed back against the hostilities of nativists and celebrated the cultural and intellectual contributions of the communities amongst whom they lived, they nonetheless insisted upon the superiority of American cultural and political ideologies, while prioritizing their own approaches to child-rearing, hygiene, and education that often denigrated the traditions or overlooked the priorities of the communities they hoped to serve.
White Rose Mission (Harlem, New York City, New York)
As millions of mostly Eastern and Southern European immigrants flowed into American cities at the turn-of-the-twentieth century, a domestic migration was also transforming the demographics and culture of American urban life. The first Great Migration—the mass movement of Black Americans out of the rural south and into industrializing city centers between 1910-1930—drew millions to northern cities in search of opportunity. The failure of settlement houses to welcome Black migrants, as well as the many West Indian immigrants also arriving in New York City, highlighted the limits of the pluralism espoused by many movement leaders.
The first Great Migration saw many young women arriving alone in New York City, often vulnerable to the predation of those who sought to exploit their labor. Victoria Earle Matthews, a woman born into enslavement (her mother was Caroline Smith, an enslaved woman; her father, presumably their white master) who would become a teacher, journalist, suffragist, civil rights activist, philanthropist, and founding member of the National Association of Colored Women, set out to create a settlement house that welcomed Black migrants when others wouldn’t.
Historian Steve Kramer quoted Matthews’ observation that for “the young and unfriended [women] of other races, there are all sorts of institutions,” but for Black girls and women “there is nothing.” The result of her efforts was the White Rose Mission settlement house, founded in 1897 and which continued its operations until 1984.
White Rose Mission was operated and funded by Black volunteers and philanthropists, and Matthews was a leading figure in the movement for racial uplift promoted most famously by Booker T. Washington. White Rose provided women and men with vocational training as well professional coursework in stenography, bookkeeping, and typing.
First located at 234 E. 97th Street, the small space, according to the 1898 New York City Mission Monthly periodical, hosted a “kindergarten, and sewing and cooking classes [for girls and women], and boy’s work with tools are all very simple and carried on with little money and in small space, but the results prove the great need of an industrial center for teaching the colored youth of our city.”
Beyond occupational advancement, White Rose Mission was also committed to advancing African American scholarship, hosting classes and lectures on Black history and literature and promoting the work of Black writers.
Northern cities, of course, were not immune to the racist ideologies that pushed so many migrants out of the south. Providing lodgings for Black migrants in NYC proved a challenge as White Rose Mission struggled to secure a lease for larger facilities. In 1902, Matthews was able to lease a building on E. 86th street without informing the owner of its intended use. Tragically, she would not survive to see the Mission’s final home on 136th Street in Harlem, which was bought in 1918, eleven years after Matthews passed away from tuberculosis.
The White Rose Mission and Denison House are only two of the hundreds of settlements that reimagined how Americans thought about diversity, social service, equality of opportunity, and expanded access to education. More than simply a women’s history site, Black history site, immigration history site, or a Progressive Era history site, the settlement house stands at the intersection of multiple narratives that reveal a broad, complex, and fuller American story.
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Tamar Rabinowitz is the former ACLS/Mellon public fellow at the National Trust for Historic Preservation and currently an adjunct assistant professor of history at Brooklyn College.