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University Settlement, The Nation’s First Settlement House, Founded 1886 on the Lower East Side of New York City
Note: This history of University Settlement is taken from “Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Hundred Years,” a 32-page pamphlet written by Jeffrey Scheuer, 1985. The photographs and news clips were provided by Amanda Peck, Assistant Director for External Affairs and Donor Relations for University Settlement and its subsidiary organization: The Door. To learn more about the work and activities of University Settlement today, visit: www.universitysettlement.org
Background: During the year 1886, in the heart of the Lower East Side, upwards of 3,000 people lived in a single square block. The tenement buildings of the area normally had four apartments on each floor; a typical apartment would consist of one small room that was well-lighted and ventilated, and several others that were wholly dark, and might house a family of five or more, and perhaps a boarder. The annual income of that family might be $600 to $700, if the mother or an older child worked, and a third of that sum might go to pay the rent.
Most of these people were immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe: Romania, Hungary, and the Russian pale. And in some respects, they had never known such freedom. In Russia, for example, the Jews—when not actually massacred in pogroms— were confined to the towns of the western pale; they could not own or deal in real estate, hold public office, or work for the Czarist government, even as common laborers; and they were allowed very limited educational opportunities. Thus persecuted and confined, they had made the synagogue the center of their world. But they did not easily adapt to the chaotic freedoms of the New World, and disillusionment was common: they found, not milk and honey but poverty and crime, political corruption and yellow journalism. The work available to them was menial.
Indeed, the immigrants not only lived in squalor, but worked in it as well. With the labor movement still in its infancy, and little government regulation, they formed a vast pool of unskilled labor for the garment industry. Working for meager wages, in crowded, uncomfortable, and dangerous sweatshops, they endured the most exploitative conditions in American history after the end of slavery, producing about half of the ready-made clothing sold in the United States.
Few of them spoke any English; and the fact that their children learned the new language more quickly only intensified the generational tensions in their culturally uprooted families. It was hardly an ideal place for a child to grow up: aside from the sweatshops and street peddlers, the most ubiquitous forms of commerce in the district were saloons and houses of prostitution.
The Settlement Movement Begins: Into this world, in the 1880s and ‘90s, came a group of reformers from the mainstream of middle class Anglo-Saxon America. They were outsiders; but their purpose was not simply to patronize the immigrant poor by dispensing charity, or to proselytize any religious or social doctrine. Rather, they aimed to perform a bold new social experiment: to settle in the community, learn its particular problems and needs, and provide a place where people could come for social and recreational activities, for advice, assistance, or learning. These oases of hope in the squalid immigrant neighborhoods were called social settlements.
University Settlement, founded on the Lower Fast Side in 1886, was the first such settlement to be established in the United States, and the second in the world. Dozens of other settlements would follow in its wake —in New York and Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other ports of entry for immigration. By 1910, there would be over 400 settlements in cities across America. Nor was University Settlement alone on the Lower East Side: in a few years, it was joined by Henry Street Settlement, Grand Street Settlement, Christodora House, the Educational Alliance, the Church of All Nations, Stuyvesant Neighborhood House, and others.
In 1886 a young American from Ohio named Stanton Coit, a graduate of Amherst College who had been an assistant to Dr. Felix Adler at the Ethical Culture Society, earned a doctoral degree in Berlin. On his way home to the United States, Coit stopped for two months in London to visit Toynbee Hall and study the settlement movement first hand. In August, he arrived in New York, taking rooms in a basement at 146 Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side, and there established a boys’ club called the Lily Pleasure Club. Coit’s enterprise, an ember of idealism and hope transplanted from England, marked the beginning of the American settlement movement. It would soon become a lamp in the darkness of the Lower East Side.
Six local boys formed the initial membership of Coit’s Lily Pleasure Club. The motto of the club was: Order is our basis; improvement our aim; friendship our principle:’ They met twice a week, paying a weekly membership fee of 10 cents. One quarter of the proceeds went for relief for the sick and the poor on the Lower East Side; contributions were also made toward keeping the street clean. Club activities included excursions, recreation, classes in wood carving and clay modeling, and debates on the social questions of the day, such as: “Resolved: that the liquor saloons should be closed on Sundays”; “Resolved: that girls under 18 should not be allowed to work in factories.”
Three additional clubs were soon established: one for young women, one for girls, and one for young boys. The latter developed into the first kindergarten in the United States, and the prototype for all future public school kindergartens in the nation. In the following year, the residence was organized as the Neighborhood Guild. Inspired by Toynbee Hall, it would become a model for other American settlements: a place where residents, under a head worker, could involve themselves in the community and study its problems; a base for the reform work of the Settlement’s leaders and allied civic groups; a center for the social, educational, and recreational organizations belonging to the Guild and other community groups.
“One of the leading factors working for the betterment of conditions on the Lower East Side … is the University Settlement.” – NY Times, Nov. 25, 1900.
Volunteer workers, most of them college students, began to appear, and then a few residents. By 1889 the Guild had nearly 150 members in its various clubs; and after moving to more spacious quarters across the street, at 147 Forsyth, Coit left to travel in Europe, leaving an assistant, Charles B. Stover, in charge of the work. Stover, a Pennsylvania native, was a former divinity student who had suffered a painful crisis of faith and turned his attention to secular works. While studying at Johns Hopkins University, he had written a report on The Neighborhood Guild of New York: Stover moved into the building at 147 Forsyth Street and lived there for many years, even after the Settlement had moved on to other quarters. In time he became a leader not only of the Settlement, but of the reform movement in New York City.
In 1891, although the Guild had grown to 250 members, financial problems compelled the formation of the University Settlement Society as a subscription organization to fund the activities of the house. At the time, it was hoped that the Society would eventually be able to establish other settlements as well, building toward a vision of having one in each ward. Its stated aim was ‘to bring men and women of education into closer relations with the laboring classes in this city, for their mutual benefit: The president of the society was Seth Low, president of Columbia University, later elected a reform mayor of New York; vice presidents included Dr. Coit (who would eventually settle in London as head of the Ethical Church, and become a British subject), and the great German-American reformer Carl Schurz. The Society also included such prominent figures in the world of finance as Andrew Carnegie and Jacob H. Schiff; the publishers Henry Holt and R.R. Bowker; Elihu Root, Secretary of State under Theodore Roosevelt, later a U.S. Senator from New York, and winner of a Nobel Peace Prize; and Gifford Pinchot, later Governor of Pennsylvania.
With the formation of the Society, the headquarters of the Neighborhood Guild officially became the University Settlement. The Constitution of the University Settlement Society declares:
The work of the calls for men who will reside in the Neighborhood House and give to the people of the neighborhood a large part of their time and services; it calls also for men and women who can give it but a small portion of their time, but who are willing to assist by taking charge of the kindergarten class, clubs for boys and girls, meetings and entertainments for men and women; it calls for subscriptions and donations from all who believe that good results can be accomplished by bringing men and women of education into closer relation with the laboring classes.
After Coit’s return from Europe in 1893, the Settlement again moved to a larger space, this time at 26 Delancey Street. By now it already included a permanent kindergarten with over 70 children, a full-time librarian, and a variety of clubs. The Delancey Street building housed a residence and administrative offices for the settlement workers, and served as a meeting place for the Society and for the clubs belonging to the Guild.
The building itself had four floors: the first three contained two large assembly rooms, a gymnasium, a library and reading rooms, a room for the cooking school, a pool and billiards room, and various club rooms; the top floor was for the residents, and included a sitting room, dining room and kitchen, and three bedrooms. There were three workers in residence in 1893; in the following year, under head worker James B. Reynolds, the number of residents increased from two to six, with work broadly divided between internal management of the clubs and external cooperation with other community groups. Demand was so great that for the first time the Settlement stayed open through the summer: over 2,000 adults were enrolled in clubs or classes, and some 500 children used the facilities on a regular basis.
In his report for that year, Reynolds, a former divinity student at Yale, decries the overcrowding of the neighborhood, inadequate sanitary facilities, street cleaning, and building inspection. Our aim, Reynolds explains, is in every way possible to give the people a chance to make their lives more wholesome and their environment more elevating. Because we believe that many of these elevating influences must come from municipal institutions, we have worked to secure the improvement of the public schools, the more efficient service of the Board of Health and Street Cleaning Departments, and an honest and intelligent government which will provide for the people all those legitimate contributions to health and right living such as are supplied by the best governments of Europe.
By now the Neighborhood Guild consisted of some 20 clubs and organizations. These included the kindergarten, with a daily enrollment of 52, suffering a shortage of space and teachers; five different clubs for children of various ages and sexes; an Improvement Society devoted to cooking, calisthenics, and millinery classes for women; a Sunday evening lecture series; a parents’ and teachers’ conference twice a month to discuss child life in the Tenth Ward”; a Penny Provident Bank with some 450 depositors, mostly children; a free class in crystals and minerals, and one in American history; the gym, pool room, and library; and a weekly dance series for children, and one for adults. A public appeal for funds by supporters of the Settlement, appearing in the New York Evening Post in 1896, called the dance classes “…priceless engines for the improvement of manners and the minor moralities.”
In a city that was roughly divided north-south by class, the aim of bringing the classes together meant attracting affluent New Yorkers from uptown to work at the Settlement. Early reports indicate some difficulty in attracting young people of means to settlement work; but New York society was forthcoming with moral and financial support. When expansion necessitated a final move, in 1898, to a newly erected building on Eldridge Street—the same five-story brick building that houses the Settlement today—Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy and recently New York’s police commissioner, spoke at the dedication. In the following year, when subscriptions were established to retire a $75,000 debt incurred in acquiring the new building, John D. Rockefeller contributed $15,000, and other donations came from such Social Register names as Pinchot, Holt, Warburg, Huntington, and Macy.
A typical day at the Settlement, at the turn of the century, would begin with the kindergarten classes at nine in the morning. A model pawn shop, the Provident Loan Society, would be open all day, as would the Legal Aid Society, with two lawyers giving advice, referrals, and in some cases direct legal assistance. Soon after 3 p.m., as schools in the neighborhood let out, the club rooms at the Settlement and the roof playground would begin to fill with young people. A hundred or more children would be lined up on Eldridge Street to make deposits in the Penny Provident Bank; others would come to the study room to do their lessons. The library, with 6,500 books, loaned several hundred volumes each afternoon.
By evening, older boys would be playing basketball on the roof, and young men and women in their teens and twenties would gather to socialize, or to attend clubs devoted to drama, literature, debating, and music; a trade union meeting might be in session as well. And men on their way home from work would stop by to make use of the first public baths in New York. Installed in the basement of the Settlement in 1900, the baths remained a vital service to the neighborhood for many years. Few tenements had plumbing, and during the hot summer months as many as 800 people a day would avail themselves of the Settlement’s 41 showers and 2 tubs. In the year 1913 alone, 157,000 bathers paid a nickel apiece to use the facility, making up an important portion of the Settlement’s perennial deficit. The baths were only phased out after the City established public baths on Allen Street, modeled after those at the Settlement.
Labors Of Love
In 1890 Jacob Riis published his famous study of tenement life, How the Other Half Lives, which became a source of inspiration for a generation of reformers. And about three years later, the University Settlement began to play a major role in virtually every aspect of the growing reform movement in New York City. Under the leadership of James B. Reynolds and Charles B. Stover, working first through the Chadwick Civic Club and later the Tenth Ward Social Reform Club, Settlement workers joined what proved to be a prolonged battle on many fronts. The campaign against the political corruption of the Tammany Hall machine helped to elect two reform mayors William Strong in 1893, and Seth Low in 1901. The Settlement also worked to build safer tenements, and to establish parks; to improve sanitary conditions on the Lower East Side; and, in cooperation with labor leaders, to improve working conditions by eliminating sweatshops, home work, and the contract system that exploited so many Lower East Side residents. The work of the Social Reform Club’s “Anti-Sweating Section” involved, among other things, tracking the movements of each sweatshop, and reporting their locations to authorities, until they were compelled at last to land in shops of lawful size and conditions.
Relief was also directed at immediate problems, for example, during the cloak- makers’ strike of 1895, and again in 1913, when striking women in the garment industry were found to be malnourished; during the depression winter of 1914, some 250 homeless, unemployed men slept on newspapers in the Settlement’s assembly halls. But the more systematic campaigns to improve all aspects of life on the Lower East Side were ongoing. Stover, Reynolds, and their colleagues circulated petitions, testified at hearings, wrote letters to the press, and travelled frequently to Albany to lobby for reform bills. And in keeping with the settlement movement’s emphasis on scientific” study of the neighborhood, as a basis for reform, University Settlement residents undertook a series of studies of local problems and the life of the neighborhood, dealing with a wide range of subjects—from the trade union movement to probation work, from the hardship of life in the neighborhood to the vitality of the Yiddish stage. The resulting essays were published in the Society’s annual reports, and eventually in a periodical, the University Settlement Society Quarterly.
In 1894 an investigation was made of unemployment in the area; a canvas of 500 families in the neighborhood, conducted jointly with the College Settlement, indicated that 40 percent of the population was unemployed, 40 percent only partially employed, and a mere 20 percent employed regularly. In 1895, the subject was the condition of working women on the Lower East Side; in 1896, medical conditions. The most prevalent disease was diphtheria, but the neighborhood also suffered from scarlet fever, measles, mumps, small pox, influenza, and typhus. During the 1890s, upwards of 1,500 people a year died of these illnesses in the Tenth Ward alone, the area served by the Settlement. In 1898, benefit societies were the subject of research; in 1899, recreational features of the neighborhood. In 1900, residents gathered information for the Tenement House Commission, of which James B. Reynolds was a member.
The man who comes to settlement as a resident comes not only as a worker but as a student. He comes to study the conditions and people of our quarter; to investigate and analyze the controlling forces of its life…” – James B. Reynolds.
Concerned above all for the welfare of the neighborhoods children, Settlement reformers campaigned for the New York State law restricting child labor, which passed in 1903 and became a model for other states, and for the national legislation ending child labor that finally passed in 1912. The Settlement also provided the voluntary probation officers in New York State; maintained a paid probation service until that work was assumed by the city; and figured important in the camp leading to the passage of the Juvenile Court Law in 1901. And as part of the effort to improve the moral atmosphere of the neighborhood, the Settlement (according to a contemporary newspaper account) “collected evidence which closed several houses of a notorious type.”
Another front in the reform campaign was improvement o the street-cleat service in the neighborhood. As reported in the Christian Herald (May 22, 1905) “The people of Delancey Street have the same rights that the people of Fifth Avenue have to the attentions of the street-cleaning bureau, but they never received them the same extent until pressure was applied from the University Settlement…” Meanwhile, with the steady immigration into the Lower East Side, the public schools literally overflowed; between 2,000 and 3,000 children in the Tenth Ward were being routinely turned away. The Settlement offered classes for them.
On the cultural front, it was under Charles B. Stover’s direction that the Settlement, cooperating with a labor group called the East Side Arts League, rented a space on Grand Street and sponsored a series of East Side Art Exhibits, which were held annually from 1892 to 1897, with paintings loaned from museums, and led to the Metropolitan Museum’s decision to open its doors to the public on Sundays. Attendance in the year of the exhibition was 35,000, and in the following year 50,000.
By 1911 —its twenty-fifth year—University Settlement was a regular meeting place for 142 different clubs, with some 3,000 members. The Society was now headed by Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University; the New York Central Federation of Labor met weekly at the Settlement, and the Social Reform Club had become a regular weekly meeting for the most prominent reformers in New York City. The Settlement had also come to attract a number of residents who achieved distinction in their contributions to the reform movement, many of whom went on to become head workers at other settlements, or to write about their experiences on the lower East Side. They included the novelist Ernest Poole; William English Walling, a founder of the NAACP; Arthur Bullard, Walter Weyl, Robert Hunter, Isaac Friedman, J.G. Phelps Stokes, and Howard Brubaker.
These and other residents contributed to the several publications sponsored by the Settlement during the early part of the century. The Guild Journal, a monthly begun in 1907, was published and edited by club members, and contained news of the Settlement and discussions of topics of neighborhood interest. And a series of occasional monographs on urban problems, titled University Settlement Studies, was initiated in 1911, replacing the University Settlement Society Quarterly.
Typical of the University Settlement Studies was a pamphlet reporting on the strike against shirt-waist manufacturers by a local affiliated with the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, during the winter of 1909-1910. At issue were the most fundamental aims of the labor movement: recognition of the union and of the principle of collective bargaining, and a closed shop. The strikers held out for several months, and won some important concessions. The brief report, by head worker Charles S. Bernheimer, offers a factual account of the strike and its background, noting that it resulted in part from the subcontracting of piecework, which in the aftermath of the strike would be significantly curtailed. As Bernheimer observes, “. . . the strike is really a revolt against some features of the sweating system, by which is meant long hours of work for little pay, under bad physical. . . conditions.
A similar report a few years later, titled “The Men’s Garment Industry in New York and the Strike of 1913″ by Herbert Best, focused on the prolonged strike, beginning in early 1913, of some 85-100,000 workers in the garment industry. The 1913 strike lasted nearly nine weeks, and was costly to both sides. Again the main issue was a union shop. Best describes how the strike came about, and provides a detailed overview of the structure of the garment industry, in which workers were at the mercy of contractors—the industry’s middlemen—and thus subject to the exploitive pressures of their cutthroat competition.
By this time, the garment industry was the seventh largest in the United States, and second largest in New York City, which was its capital; well over a quarter of a million New Yorkers worked in the needle trades. And except for the cutters, who were to some extent an elite within the trade, the industry was slow to be organized by the United Garment Workers of America, its labor pool consisting mostly of unskilled immigrants. The 1913 Strike, which failed to win further gains for the garment workers, resulted from long-simmering discontent; the 38,000 union workers voted to strike by a ratio of nearly fifteen to one. Their principal demands were increased wages and a 48-hour week. After the various unions rejected an initial settlement proposal, employers ceased to recognize them, and the strike was gradually broken as different bargaining units settled with their respective employers, weakening the position of the holdouts. The garment workers did achieve some modest wage increases, and reductions in working hours (typically from a 56-hour week to 52 or 53. The individual unions came out stronger, hut still lacking cohesion; the principle of arbitration was belatedly affirmed.
In the early years of WWII, children and adults from University Settlement’s neighborhood participated in fund raising efforts to purchase “ambucycles” for the settlements located in bombed-out areas of Great Britain. An item in the Survey carried this account:
To help their neighbors in Great Britain, American settlements are collecting funds for the use of British settlements in blitzed areas. Children and adults of the neighborhoods, staff, group leaders, and board members are sharing in the giving. Hundreds of members already have made contributions, which are being transferred through the “Young America Wants to Help” campaign of the British War Relief Society.
The children of University Settlement, New York, set out in November to raise $600 for the purchase of an ambucycle to be used in England. When gifts from their friends, parents, and neighbors had reached this sum, the settlement board of directors matched it. so that two ambucycles were purchased. University Settlement, the oldest in America, was founded two years after the establishment of London’s Toynbee Hall, the mother of all settlements. (Source: Survey Mid-Monthly: Journal of Social Work (Vol. 79, p. 9)
Source: Legacy of Light: University Settlement’s First Century, Jeffrey Scheuer, University Settlement Society of New York – 1985 – 32 pages