A Day in the Life of Madison House – 1938
(Source: Madison House archives. Author unknown)
(Note: This entry about Madison House, located in the Lower East Side of New York City, was contributed by Jeanne Talpers, daughter of Philip Schiff who attended Madison House as a youngster from the age of 10 and grew up to become the Headworker in 1934.)
“Eight thirty is often a grim, bleak hour on the narrow, dirty East Side streets. But at Madison House by eight -thirty, there is already a line of mothers carrying, leading, or dragging babies to nursery school and kindergarten. What a relief to put your baby into the hands of a competent teacher and go off to a morning of real work. … The first thing that Sarah does is to take off her coat and hang it up on her own hanger. Then she goes over to the doctor to be checked for any signs of communicable illness. After that the real business of her day begins. Free play, stories, singing, rhythms, crafts that are purely manipulative, all take place in sunny rooms decorated by gaily-colored pictures drawn by the children.
Lunch is a marvelous institution. Sarah’s mother knows that her child will get a hot, well-cooked, and well-planned meal and the child has a chance to learn habits of behavior and consideration for her companions that are fundamental. For Sarah, too, there is cod-liver oil in the morning.
While the nursery schools are in progress until three o’clock, the clinics are busy also. Into the dentist’s office come children of all ages, but it is the special pride of the House to do the preventive work on the milk teeth that will make for better health and disposition in adult life.
And other clinics are busy. Mrs. K. comes in dragging two skinny babies behind her to ask for more milk. Yes, she admits, there are eleven children in all. Her income? Oh, $22.88 from the Home Relief. No, she doesn’t want any more mouths to feed. Well– yes, she will at least listen to what the doctor in the birth control clinic has to say.
And then the English classes. One of the ideas of the founders of Madison House was that the gap must be bridged between the cultural background of parents and children. Today with the restriction of immigration, this problem is less overwhelming, but there are still mothers and fathers who cannot speak the language of their adopted country.
All day long the office of the social worker is open. Madison House has no money to give its neighbors except very small sums in acute emergencies, and sixty percent of its membership is directly or indirectly on relief. But it can and does give advice, information, and encouragement. There is no red tape about intake. Any neighbor can come in with his problem.
Izzy is not doing well in school. There isn’t milk enough for the seven F. children. Sarah J. needs shoes so she can go outdoors. Sam L comes in white with nervousness. He has been unjustly fingerprinted, and it may hurt his career for he is a student at NYU. Small Stanley Z. was taken off to Bellevue, and his mother is scared about what they are doing to him there. Mrs. K’s husband deserted her– no money. Hundreds of these situations come through the office.
Jackie’s kindergarten teacher cannot keep him from disrupting his group. She talks to the Child Guidance Committee of the House. The social worker goes to visit Jackie’s home. Are there any special difficulties there to account for Jackie? If necessary, a family casework agency is interested or tests are made, and, if possible, Jackie is straightened out before the trouble goes any further.
At three o’clock Madison House becomes a mad house. The six to fourteens are here. Divided into age groups, they are assigned to homerooms and leaders. Four days a week, squirming nine and ten year olds delve into the mysteries of cooking. Five days a week interested youngsters make puppets–doing carving, modeling, painting, and sewing as well as getting a high degree of manual dexterity in the manipulation of the toys at theatrical performances. In the art room earnest children stand before easels, evolving miraculous murals, paintings, and drawings. Next door in the clay room, extraordinary sculpture is created… There is so much to do that at five o’clock the children are dismissed with the greatest difficulty.
Evening: At five, a lull comes on, but it is only temporary and only comparative. By seven-thirty the House is alive again. And the evenings are the maddest of all. Young people fairly bulge out of the doors and windows. Clubs squabble for space to meet, and a quiet corner is an unheard of luxury.
But it is all enormously earnest and purposeful. Clubs meet working on all kinds of programs, amusing or uplifting. And they talk, and talk. Some evenings leaders come in for training. For it is a cardinal principle of club work that a club will be no better than its leader and so leaders must be carefully chosen and more carefully trained. Young men and women from colleges volunteer or house members who have shown especial aptitude are selected and given a thorough preparation in the techniques of leadership.
From this kind of leadership has come the Senior Employment Council. This year the older group decided that, if anyone was going to get a job, it would only be by making an effort. Pooling their money, these eighteen and nineteen year olds prepared a letter and a card that they mailed to a list of prospective employers. They then canvassed the neighborhood in person and listed the resources of the city in terms of educational and vocational training possibilities.
Next door in a basement there is a clay room that is a kind of haven. Here quietly absorbed young people, individually and in groups, work out their ideas. In a corner, a young boy is casting his work in plaster. In the spring, all the work will be exhibited.
Back in the House, the alumni are meeting, reminiscing, and planning for the future. A choral group across the hall is practicing Russian folk songs. A group of fathers and mothers are eagerly discussing their problems and those of their children. The floor quakes from a folk dancing class. On the stage of the auditorium, a drama group is working. Not only do members of the drama group act; they also make all the scenery and costumes.
Ten thirty is closing time at Madison House, but often it is nearer midnight when the last eager youngster leaves, and a weary staff locks up till another day.”
Commentary by Jeanne Talpers, daughter of Philip Schiff, the Headworker of Madison House in 1938
“Now I know why most of my early memories of my Dad were watching him shave in the morning and taking Sunday rides with him along Riverside Drive. Six days a week he would probably not leave Madison House until around midnight after everything was locked up.
“I don’t know whether Dad ever had a job description. If so, this is what it might have included: Oversee activities for hundreds of children, teenagers, young adults, older adults; select and train club leaders for 49 clubs; coordinate all activities; emphasize democratic process throughout the House; supervise staff, including dental, family planning, SDT, and child guidance personnel; run summer camp; and help create social action network of social service agencies in Lower East Side. If time permits, run for public office.
“What made Madison House such a vital place? What was the magic that turned bricks and mortar into a living, loving, welcoming haven for hundreds of people of all ages from the late 1890s through the stressful years of the Depression?”
“It is what goes on the inside that counts,” said Henry Moskowitz, headworker, in 1910 when Madison House was preparing to move into a larger building at 216 Madison Street. “Sometimes I have thought it fortunate that we were not housed in a pretentious building, where brick and mortar concealed and separated folks. In 300 Madison, there has been little brick and mortar to boast of. That makes it easier for us to learn that not the bricks, but the spirit of cooperation in the folks that makes the house work.” (Downtown Ethical Society, January 1910)
Clubs: The Core of Madison House
From the very beginning, clubs and club leaders were a core part of Madison House.
“The club is at all times the primary group in our small community, influencing our behavior and acting as the framework upon which we build all sections of our House experience. Almost without exception it is the active, interested and cooperative club member who stands for the best interest of our entire house and one upon whom the staff, the leader, and other members of the house may depend and turn to when an emergency arises or a need expresses itself.” (Madison House News, 1926)
“No one who has ever belonged to a club need be reminded of the part that club life plays in the development of a high standard of conduct and of fine human relations. When we have worked together for our club’s good, when we have gladly submitted ourselves to the control of officers whom we have chosen, when we have felt the warmth of friendship, when we have discussed together the thousand and one problems of personal life or world affairs, when we have sought in cozy, quiet chat with our leader light in a dark place we know, with all the power of knowing, that is in us, how our club is helping forward a finer standard of conduct and nobler human relations.”(Walter Leo Solomon, headworker (1921)
Clubs were formed by age and interest. Programs ranged from reading and discussing books by Jacob Riis, Rudyard Kipling, Plato, Bible stories, Tales of King Arthur, Plutarch’s Lives. were also popular. Club members participated in athletics, music, and drama. All groups were encouraged to discuss subjects such as Madison House problems, the nature of true friendship, and community and national issues.
One visitor described walking into the House and hearing loud arguing coming from one of the Midget Clubs. On looking into the room, the visitor realized that these 9 and 10 year olds were debating the war in Spain.
Club members learned about democracy first hand. Each club elected a representative to a board of delegates. The Board of Delegates met with the staff and was very involved in running the House. One member of the Board of Delegates was elected to the Board of Trustees. Through this democratic mechanism, every voice from the youngest to the oldest got heard.
It was not always smooth sailing. Issues about governance, finances, programs had to be thrashed out. Commitment and responsibilities to The House were sometimes questioned. But everything was out in the open, and decisions were made only after debate and discussion.
The First Step
So how did a newcomer become part of Madison House? Again the archives give the answer.
“Its Not What the Boy Does to the Wood, Its What the Wood Does to the Boy.” This caption could be a metaphor for how Madison House changed so many lives.
This is how it played out.
A small boy comes into the House. He visits a club. He meets the young man who is the leader of this club, hears all about the constitution, next Sunday’s hike, the game room, the club basketball team, and the various other things that are being planned. He is voted upon. He is a club member. From now on there begins a process of readjustment, his adjustment to the other boys and theirs to him. This is not always easy for he likes some of the fellows much better than others. He becomes interested in the things they are all doing together, however, and so differences do not seem too important. The years go on, and perhaps he joins the Madison Players, qualifies for one of the basketball teams, or is a representative of his group on the Board of Delegates. Incidentally, he still belongs to his club, since membership at Madison House means membership in a club.
Club Leaders Make It Happen
Because club leaders were key to the success of the clubs, they were carefully selected. All were volunteers who had to meet certain criteria: a love of children; an ability to let a group grow at its own pace; an understanding of the needs of youngsters such as those who come to Madison House. Leaders also were expected to be resourceful and creative, have a social philosophy, and be committed to the job of developing the personality of individuals as well as the group itself. In a way, this became the prototype of the group work profession
In one of the 1920 newsletters, a writer put together a Guide for Club Leaders
“Leading a club we all too quickly learn is a serious job, with a serious purpose requiring thought and energy. If we are to believe that to put through a successful club, we are to lead our boys to a fuller value of ethical living and an intelligent understanding of citizenship, our course is laid. Therefore, the following suggestions will not go amiss.
1. It has been the opinion of most successful leaders that the more a leader puts into his club, the more he gets out of it. A leader, who kills time, kills his group.
2. A swiftly moving club never stagnates; keep your boys stirring. Don’t allow business to drag.
A club wishes to feel your presence and will call on you for much advice. This should be given freely but carefully.
The writer then offers suggestions for the Midgets (10-14 year olds) and the Junior (14-17). Books to read, games, discussions on health, history of athletics, relationships between members and member and club, member and House, member and parents, member and school, and member and city. Juniors also discuss problems of adolescence, value of education, choosing a trade or profession, and relationship with girls.
Who Were the Club Leaders? Where Did They Come From?
Some like Nate Leibowitz had grown up in the House. Born on the Lower East Side, Nate went to Madison House as a kid, became a club leader and, until his untimely death, headworker. Nate loved being out of doors. He also knew what it was like to live in dismal, crowded surroundings. He started the Bob White Clubs and would take the young members on day trips to New Jersey where they would hike, explore, learn to identify birds and flowers, and just observe the beauty of sky and woods.
“It was Leibovitz who connected every newcomer with the history and traditions of the House…He had become an integral part of the House itself… It was a short life that our friend led, but it was a rich one. It was the kind of life that he had mapped out for himself. He was happy and he made others happy. (Moritz Kirschberger, president of Board, Madison House News Jan. Feb. 1920.)
Some leaders were benefactors like Moritz Kirschberger and Emanual Moses (Robert Moses’ father). Although much older, these men not only gave money but gave of themselves.
Moritz Kirschberger drew what few people get from life, a large joy in the work of his later years…. Because of his deep interest in people, he threw his intense self into their lives, reaching out into their minds and hearts, and having thus become part of them and they part of him, through his work with the various groups of the parent Ethical Culture Society, the Felicia Committee, and with Madison House, he was able to obtain a rarely loyal support which he could confidently rely on to the end.”(Madison House News, Jan. 1928.)
“In Emanuel Moses kindliness and gentleness ruled supreme. He was a …person of simple tastes and modest and unassuming ways. Unlike many men of means, he found his greatest happiness not in the fashionable clubs, nor in rubbing elbows with men of wealth and position, but rather in devoting his time and means by adding to the comfort and happiness of those whose lives were largely devoid of comfort and happiness. From the day he first joined the Board of Trustees of Madison House, he became one of its most loyal and devoted workers. The young people have been deprived of a lovable companion, whose kindly ways endeared him to all.” (Madison House News, 1925.)
Many club leaders were alumnae who although” out in the world,” wanted to give something back to “The House.”
These are but a few of the “magicians” who made Madison House so special. Staff and volunteers juggled space and time for club meetings, discussion groups, drama and music classes, mothers’ and fathers clubs, and socials and dances. .
Madison House was a pinprick on the Lower East Side map. Thousands of people lived within a few crowded blocks of The House, which could only scratch the surface of the needs of the community. But for those like Dave Shakow and Philip Schiff who discovered the House when they were youngsters, Madison House not only was a refuge but a launching pad for life.
“We couldn’t wait for the school day to be over in our eagerness to get to the House. For Madison House, aside from the immediate gratifications it afforded, provided a different kind of school, a school where we learned so much more–particularly tolerance, and understanding, and democracy by doing. And it was Madison House which encouraged us toward high aspiration levels, and in untold ways– material and spiritual– helped us achieve them.” (David Shakow Symposium, National Institutes of Health, May 8, 1971.)
When I found A Day at Madison House, I was overwhelmed. It captured the heart and soul of all the minutes, newsletters, reports that were in the archives and in the memories of those who loved Madison House. I wanted to take this document and send it to all local governments struggling so hard to fund accessible human and social services. To have under one roof preschool classes; health and dental care; recreation and athletic programs; art, drama, music; financial assistance; adult education courses seemed so logical.
The settlement house concept is still alive in Ys and Jewish community centers; neighborhood after-school programs; police boys and girls clubs; recreation centers; and public housing projects. Unfortunately, funds for these preventive programs are often the first to be cut,
Perhaps by visualizing the inner workings of a place like Madison House, community planners and organizers can pull together health, welfare, and recreational resources, including funding, and create neighborhood–based, accessible, one-stop centers. “Your Potential, Our Passion,” Microsoft’s inspiring ad, could become the underlying theme for this commitment.