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McDowell, Mary

in: People

Mary McDowell (1854 – 1936): Founder of the University of Chicago Settlement House and Co-Founder of the National Women’s Trade Union League


Editor’s Note: This entry is a composite of information about Mary McDowell.  The name of the author is unknown; however, many of the quotes are attributed to individuals who knew her or wrote about her accomplishments.  One of the contributions of this entry is the history of Chicago’s packing house industry and the impact it had on the Back of the Yards community, immigrants, public health and sanitation.

Mary McDowell seated in ornately carved chair. She holds a book in her lap. She wears glasses and her hair is white.
Mary McDowell, Pioneer Settlement House Director
Photo: Library of Congress
Digital ID cph 3b20584

Mary McDowell was born in 1854 near Cincinnati, in a house overlooking the Ohio River, which had been built by her enterprising grandfather who had a business of his own and had built his first steamboat before he was 21. Her grandmother came from an old Maryland family. Their daughter married Malcolm McDowell; his family too went back to the days of the Revolution.

Malcolm McDowell, Mary’s father, pursued his interest in machines and steelmaking until he was called to serve in the Civil War, on the staff of his older brother, General Irvin McDowell. Malcolm McDowell knew and greatly admired Lincoln and served at Lincoln’s order as paymaster of the Army of the Tennessee. After being wounded, he returned to Ohio; but by war’s end had moved his family to Chicago, had built a brick house on Webster Avenue and had established a rolling mill at the edge of what was then a prairie at Noble and Clyborn Streets. Very creative, he patented new methods and built new products of steel, including the framework of Chicago’s old Exposition Building, a huge hall built in 1873, which stood where the Art Institute stands now.

Some of Mary’s social conscience surely was developed through her close relationship with her father. He was dedicated to the men who worked for him and to their families. He had left the Episcopal church of the well-to-do in Cincinnati and had joined a little Methodist Chapel, which workmen attended. He sought there a relationship with God, which he saw and admired in simple, laboring men. Young Mary, then 11 or 12, went with her father, saying: “If father is going to heaven, so am I.” When they came to Chicago, they joined another working man’s church where she taught a class of boys in Sunday School.

At time of the great Chicago fire, (Mary was 17) her father, though ill himself, consented to her taking their horse and wagon out to help rescue fleeing citizens and some of their possessions. The governor of Ohio, Rutherford B. Hayes, an old friend of the McDowells, was one of the first to rush aid to the stricken city and, of course, he sent it to the home of the McDowell’s for distribution. Mary worked unceasingly in those first days after the fire, before central relief forces were organized and helped form the “Relief and Aid Society” from which later emerged United Charities of Chicago.

But Mary’s young life was not all work and no play. When Rutherford Hayes became president, Mary was invited to spend a month at the White House, and later spent a summer in California with her uncle, now Major General McDowell. In the early 1880s, her family moved to Evanston, a very Methodist suburb at the time. There Mary became a friend and follower of Frances Willard, founder of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. After graduating from the National Kindergarten College, and teaching for a private family in New York, she returned to Evanston in 1890. Her interest in the social experiment, which Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr were beginning in General Hull’s old mansion in Chicago led her to help found such an experiment in Evanston, the Northwestern University Settlement.

Jane Addams and Mary McDowell stand outside a building on the steps. They wear hats and look powerful.
Jane Addams & Mary McDowell
Library of Congress
Digital ID hec 05316

Soon thereafter she was living at Hull House as one of the first kindergarten workers, until the illness of her mother called her back to her family (she was one of six children) in Evanston. She was still able to study and read and make occasional visits to both settlement houses and constantly sought information about the “unrest in the cities of America,” as she called it, the underside of the rapidly developing industrial life. She found few answers to her questions. “In Evanston,” she said, “they knew all about temperance, but very little about labor.”

Soon after the workers at the Pullman Car Company went on strike in 1894, and workers from the great packing plants in Chicago went out in sympathy, Mary went to Pullman to learn the facts for herself.

“I was living in the nineties in a university town near to that great seething, restless Chicago, where the workers, the mass of the population, were struggling for something as to which our community, a small minority, was restfully ignorant. The Pullman Strike was on.  Evanston saw no reason why wage earners who had work should be disturbing the peace of our cultured community with its Browning Societies and many churches.

“There came to me such a concern as the Friends would say, that I searched until I found a citizen of Evanston who was kind enough to take me to see Reverend Carwardine, pastor of the Methodist church at Pullman. This Methodist preacher helped me to see that the Pullman strike was only typical of a great world of unrest which must be understood.”

In the meantime, a new University of Chicago was being established and members of its faculty transformed an association called the Christian Union, determined to learn the causes of this pervasive unrest and at the same time, to minister to the needs of a neighborhood in the mode of Hull House. It was agreed that the district just in back of the Union Stock Yards–Packingtown–the scene of bloodshed and rioting during the recent 1894 strike, was greatly in need of such a center. At the recommendation of Jane Addams, Mary McDowell, then 40 years old, was invited to take charge of the new house. Mary accepted this opportunity to learn from the source, so to speak, some answers to the difficult questions she had been asking.

In November 1894, she settled in a building in the heart of a most difficult, transient area, in four small rooms, in a tenement on Gross Avenue (now Mary McDowell Avenue) and she began to live there as a neighbor to the workers of Packingtown.

University of Chicago Settlement House. A large brick building
University of Chicago Settlement House
Photo: Public Domain

“In these early days the Settlement home was upstairs over a Day Nursery; every morning when it was barely light in the winter, I would be wakened by the cry of the little children who wanted the mother to stay at home and not go to work. Here again for the first time in my life I saw the meaning of the job and how wage-earning women had to carry two burdens–that of the home and that of the wage-earning world. In that day there was no child-labor law and the packing industry found useful the boys and girls of eleven years of age, and men and women and children had no limit to their day’s work. When I would ask why the people came from work at all hours of the day and in the evening, I was told that the killing had to go on until there were no cattle left to be cared for overnight; and when in my greenness I would ask why a packing industry could not keep cattle overnight when farmers did it very well, I was surprised to learn that because it cost something to feed and water them, men must butcher often sixteen hours at a stretch. It was then I learned for the first time how it happened that when in the morning these men, women, and children went out to work, large numbers of them could not tell whether they would return home for supper, or work from one to sixteen hours.” (M. McD., Illinois Historical Society, 1920)

Girls sit at tables working in this Sewing class at the University of Chicago Settlement Trade School, 1918
Sewing class at the University of Chicago Settlement Trade School, 1918
Photo: The University of Chicago Archival Photographic Files

By 1906, the Settlement House had moved to a new building on the same block, which remained its home for some 60 years. By the 1930s, the site contained 45,000 square feet, much of it in a central, four story building and included a boxing room, five club rooms, a game room, junior and senior girls rooms, a library, manual training and sewing areas, a music room, nursery, showers, and two play lots-one on the roof.

Eventually, there were two gymnasiums, one for boys and one for girls, and a visiting nurse program. The residents worked with those of all ages–from infants in the nursery to senior citizens. Most attention went to the children; having children at the Settlement house meant that parents would come too. The Mothers’ Club was an active organization for many years. Older children took classes in wood-working, manual training (for the boys), cooking and sewing (for the girls) and arts and crafts (for both). Some children had their own plots of land and learned to keep a garden. Once a week there was a movie or a show produced by the youngsters. Settlement house clubs participated in sports and other activities with the many ethnic, Parish-sponsored social and athletic clubs. Howard Wilson, in his biography of Mary McDowell writes:

“Almost from the first, a music committee of the Settlement League–a group of women in the University neighborhood organized to aid and support the Settlement work–had been active. Proceeding in the belief that music is a positive agent in cultural development, the committee secured pianos and made it possible for two Settlement residents, aided by several volunteers, to organize classes in music. Individual lessons were given to many; then came the organization of a children’s chorus, which grew into a great group of three hundred singing the folk songs of their native lands and the better songs, which knew no national boundaries. There was an adult chorus also. Artists in all parts of the city volunteered their services for Sunday concerts, given free for all who crowd into the living room of this new outpost in the musical world…

“Lectures and picture exhibits, concerts and recitals brought more people in contact with the new neighborhood house… This contact, good for those who lived in Packingtown, was equally good for those who came from other sections of the city…like a window opening in the wall, which separated socially different classes of the city. The Settlement League and the leading packers of the city raised money for the support of a trained nurse in the house who visited the sick, organized nutrition classes, etc…”

(Howard E. Wilson, Mary McDowell, Neighbor)

The Settlement House stressed brotherhood…

“…all are brothers and all are citizens…the things that are common to all are stronger than the things that are different to all. It is difficult for us to be simply human, to know each other as brothers and sisters. Yet that is religion in all its essence. God the Father, human beings our brothers. My democracy and Christianity must be blended. Are not both loving God with all your heart and your neighbor as if he were yourself?”

(Mary McDowell)

But…nothing is simple. The settlement was not universally welcomed. Politicians, who were certainly wary of reform, would have little to do with it and it was viewed with suspicion by many ethnic enclaves and their parish organizations, which were from the beginning so segregated. And, after all, it came from Hyde Park, and the University of Chicago, which some considered snobbish, condescending, middle class, and Protestant! And support came from the rich in the far-off North Shore and, worst of all, from the Swift and Armour clans themselves!–the hated overlords of the packing plants. Even the Settlement house residents were outsiders! Of course, many of these early objections were gradually worn away as Mary McDowell and her co-workers became real neighbors to the residents of Packingtown.

Packingtown was not always an industrial center. In its early days it was part of the township of Lake — called “Lake” because of the low level of its marshy land, only a few feet above the level of Lake Michigan. The area was incorporated as a village in 1865, though pools of various depths dotted the area. It must have been much like Jackson Park before it was drained and filled. One early dweller reported: “In the 1880s, young parishioners went frog, crab, and even snake hunting in the dozens of miniature lakes around St. Augustine’s Church near 51st and Ashland; they caught fish in the big ditch on Western Avenue. Time and time again, wedding carriages got stuck in the mud…the bridal couple had no alternative but to walk or wade to church.” Some of the ditches bordering the plank streets reached depths of ten feet (you will remember that tragic scene in “The Jungle” when the hero’s infant son drowned in such a ditch!) and children built rafts to travel on the south branch of the Chicago river.

In the mid-1800s, the packing industry, which had been centered in Cincinnati, began to move west. All cross the city of Chicago, stockyards were opened to house the animals that poured out of boxcars until many yards dotted the whole city. Then, early in 1864, a group of far-sighted investors bought a remote site of 320 acres-four long miles southwest form the city itself–as befit such a malodorous business! Through that summer, nearly 1,000 men labored to build a stockyards center out of the marshes. Often dressed in their leftover Civil War army uniforms, they laid plank roads, dug wells and drainage ditches, erected sheds, permanent buildings, and animal pens. And the railroads laid tracks to the yards. On Christmas Day 1865, the Union Stockyards opened at its Halsted Street entrance.

By 1867, Phillip Armour had built his first plant, Gustavus Swift arrived in 1875. The famous limestone gate, designed by Burnham and Root was erected in 1879, a hotel, Transit House, was built for cattlemen, and the packing industry grew rapidly–especially because of four wondrous developments: the refrigerated railroad car, the canning process, the introduction of assembly line methods, and the discovery that byproducts could be made from what previously had been considered waste material. In 1860, only a few byproducts were harvested, mainly hides, sausage, and lard. But by 1868, a Chicago guidebook claimed:

“One hundred tons of hay is frequently used in the yards in one day. If these yards were in any of the Eastern States, the sale of manure would be an important business. But the fertile prairies of Illinois, not needing anything of the kind, they are glad to sell it at 10 cents a wagon-load, which is less than the cost of shoveling it up.”

However, in 1886, Dr. Herman Schmidt, a professional chemist, was hired and, by 1900, packers were harvesting over 40 byproducts including glue, medicine, bristles, and soap. And, in 1889, the Township of Lake, as well as the Township of Hyde Park, were annexed to the city of Chicago.

By 1910, “the yards” covered 500 acres, had 13,000 pens, 300 miles of railroad tracks, 25 miles of streets, 50 miles of sewers, 90 miles of pipes and 10,000 hydrants. On a hot day, 7 million gallons of water fed cattle, machines, and humans. By 1919, the plants processed almost 15 million animals and employed almost 46,000 persons! One Swift & Company factory had more than 11,000 employees and, that year, the total value of meat and meat products produced in Illinois (largely in the Chicago Stock Yards) reached almost $1.3 billion dollars.

To run these factories, the packers needed workers and worker colonies rose on the west and south fringes of the yards; originally, they were about 60% Irish and 30% German. By 1881, 60 Irish families had founded St. Rose of Lima Church and by 1885, the Sisters of Mercy had opened their parish school. In 1879, German workers had developed their own church and school, St. Augustine. In 1884, St. Martini Lutheran Church was established, just three blocks from the German Catholics. By 1882, Bohemians had opened their church, Community Methodist and, in 1892, Bohemian Catholics had their own St. Cyril and Methodius.

In 1877, Poles began the huge migration of many Slavic Peoples to the Yards: Slovaks, Lithuanians, Russians, Russins, and Ukrainians. Each moved into separate sections of the neighborhood, creating their own churches, societies, and even stores. By 1909, more than 46% of all workers in the stockyards were of Slavic background. By 1910, there were at least 12 churches in the immediate area (some directly across the street from one another), each serving as the religious, educational, and social center of its own ethnic community. In 1913, Mary McDowell wrote that “the 29th ward doubled its population every ten years and changed its nationality every fifteen.”

The Packingtown setting was grim and foul; smoke hung over everything. Cowboys on horseback drove herds through the local streets of the yards and, occasionally, when an animal got loose, through the residential streets as well. Swarms of flies were uncountable–some coming from the fertilizer plants, which bought up all the unusable and spoiled meat from packers and butchers and ground it up to sell as fertilizer. The city dumps, on Damen Avenue between 47th and 43rd streets were four great holes where clay had been removed for the nearby brick yards owned by Alderman Thomas Carey of the 29th Ward. Garbage wagons filled the holes; the city used one, private carting companies filled two others, and the meat packers dumped their waste into the last–which they burned, so that a rancid fire was always smoldering. (Alderman Carey profited every way: he used the clay for bricks, charged the city for dumping and charged professional scavengers as much as $15 a week to go through the garbage.) And, after they had finished, some Packingtown women and children would pick over the remains, retrieving stove wood, worn garments, furnishings, and rarely perhaps, an item of value such as a silver spoon.

Residents had no say about what went into, or out of, these pits. And they had no say about another notorious symbol of the Packers’ disregard: the famous and infamous “Bubbly Creek,” one of the forks of the South Branch of the Chicago River, which was used by the packers as their communal sewer. Despite occasional dredging by the Federal Government, the City, and the Sanitary District, the creek bed rose at the rate of half-a-foot a year between 1900 and 1921. The output of “suspended matter” from the factories to the sewers of Chicago was often a staggering 131,000 pounds daily. All of this matter released a “gaseous ebullience,” or bubbles, thus “Bubbly Creek.” Stories about it abounded, such as the one about the reporter who tried to row across, but turned back when a six foot bubble enveloped his boat. Many people supposedly fell in and never came back, and, as you can imagine, those who did come back were not exactly welcomed! As Upton Sinclair described it: “…here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding…every now and then the surface would catch fire and burn furiously…the fire department would have to put it out.”

Always and overall was the penetrating combination of Packing House smells: fields of rotting hair and scrapings from hides, refuse from animal pens and slaughterhouses, Bubbly Creek and the open dumps of putrefying garbage! Many years after Mary McDowell had settled in Packingtown, a visiting friend complained: “These odors are the worst things I have ever experienced! But you Miss McDowell, have become used to them, I suppose?” Mary McDowell answered, “No Indeed! If we want to get rid of the unpleasant things in our lives, we must train ourselves not to ignore them!”

In 1900, the city built the William Mavor Bathhouse on Gross Avenue under the prodding of Mary McDowell and the Settlement House Women’s Club. The alderman who finally was moved to facilitate its building was so convinced of the potential political power of Mary McDowell that he had to be dissuaded from naming it the “Mary McDowell Municipal Bathhouse.” Consider a bath in the bathhouse: There were separate hours for men and women. Customers gathered in a small waiting room until the operator called their names. When the small cubicles lining the walls were all occupied, a bell rang and the water came on, cold at first, then warming up. After a while, another bell range and the water went cold, producing loud screams. The customers had a clear choice: leave with the soap still on — or freeze. People stood in line for these showers, which cost a nickel, as they did for similar facilities in the city parks and in the Settlement House.

Immigrant families in Packingtown were passionate about owning their own homes, a trait surely stemming from the peasant’s traditional attachment to the land. In the new world, this meant owning one’s home: it represented financial security against the caprices of the packers; in time, the mortgage would be paid off; there would always be a roof over the family’s head, even in bad times. No sacrifice was too great: women did laundry, took in boarders, children went to work. In 1913, a researcher found that about ½ of 300 men who earned less than $2 a day, and 95 percent of the remaining heads of households were property owners!

Newspapers and periodicals were important to the neighborhood. Each nationality had two or three foreign language papers; churches published some, political and fraternal groups others; some came from similar ethnic pockets in Chicago and from other cities. Social clubs developed, some religiously oriented. Other organizations, though centered in the ethnic churches and parishes, had secular purposes such as citizenship, insurance, dramatics, athletics, English language, and others.

But the most important part of a man’s life was work. At the time of the influx of the Slavs, most jobs were unskilled-and whenever possible, packers fired a skilled man and replaced him with an unskilled laborer thus lowering their labor costs. And the assembly line was developed: for example, in 1884, five splitters (a splitter, as you can guess, had to split an animal cleanly down the middle of the backbone) five splitters processed 16 cattle per hour per man. Ten years later, four splitters handled 30 per hour per man — a 100% production increase in ten years — and their pay had fallen from 45 to 40 cents an hour. The hog-wheel propelled a never-ending supply of carcasses along the assembly line where they were skinned and gutted.

Other job classifications noted in a 1896 report (you can easily envision them) included stunner, throat slitter, head holder, leg breaker, ripper open, gullet raiser, breast breaker, hide remover, trimmer of bruises, butcher, weigher, etc. From five to eight minutes elapsed from the time the steer was stunned by a heavy blow to its head until it was placed in the cooler, during which time it passed through the hands of 42 men! Another animal followed in quick succession, another, and another…

There also were other workers who maintained the vast enterprises: each plant had its own railroad yards and shops, tanneries, storage, and plants for byproducts. Cowboys herded the flocks-not Texas cowboys, but men from the farms of Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania.

Wages were terribly low, work was never regular and there was a large surplus of labor. Companies shifted workers to different jobs and pay scales daily and laid them off when they did not need them. The work was hard, heavy, repetitive, the stench unbearable, the heat-or the cold, depending on the work site-intolerable, the pace maddening. Danger was everywhere: within one eight-month period, Swift and Company’s medical department treated 2,371 cases. Within one year, one-half of the Armour workforce had been ill or injured. Cattle broke loose and ran through the killing floors; men sustained terrible knife cuts and burns.

For many years prior to 1900, women had worked in certain areas of the industry: sewing bags in which hams were packed, painting cans and pasting on labels. Later, plants brought in women to replace men in stuffing, canning, and soldering. Mary McDowell noted:

“They next obtained a place in the making of chip beef, beef extract, albumen, in the soap house, where they wrapped and packed soap, then in the laundry and the tin-can works, and in the department where bones were ground for buttons, and knife handles etc., and they began to wield the knife in some departments.”

By 1902, there were more than 3,000 girls and women working in the yards. For many years, efforts to unionize had been ineffective. The packers had wealth and power and the support of the middle class and the government. The workers had poverty, poor English, a desperate desire and need to work and were hampered by their ethnically isolated communities. Efforts at negotiation and strikes during 1880s and 90s were effective.

“…job was almost a sacred word, meaning food, clothes, shelter, and a chance to be human. It is the first word learned by the immigrant. The children lisp it and the aged cling to it to the end.

“In my home life, I had been used to men with courage — men who had gone to battle for a conviction. And now, for the time I was meeting men, who ‘for fear of losing a job’ went to and from work with a silent protest against conditions and a sense of injustice they were afraid to express.”

Her interest in the Labor movement led, in 1903, to the founding of the National Women’s Trade Union League, and her election as its first president. She and Jane Addams and others, convinced President Theodore Roosevelt and the Congress to authorize $300,000 for a study of women in the workplace. This landmark study took four years and filled 19 volumes!

By the early 1900s, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters began to form a more effective union–recruiting local leaders fluent in the languages of the immigrants. In 1904, the union entered into negotiations with the packers who agreed to grant increases to skilled men, but refused to provide a minimum wage for laborers. Holding out for decent wages for unskilled laborers and women members as well, the Union went out on strike on July 12th. Packing plants across the country closed down and the Packingtown community united to seek redress. They made sure the strike was orderly-and even improved their usual behavior: disorderly conduct and drunkenness arrests were down by 90 percent during the strike!

“When the “knockers on the ‘killing beds’” of the six great packing houses in the Union Stock Yards ceased stunning the cattle, and 22,000 workers stopped work, there was a hush of suspense in the stockyards district, for the strikes of 86’ and 94’ were vividly remembered. The wives who had suffered recalled the riots, the bloodshed, and the burning of cars on the railroad tracks that encompass Packingtown…To the surprise of everyone the “walk-out” of 1904 was as orderly as the everyday leaving of work.

‘The orders issued by the unions that every place must be left as clean as on Saturday night, that no material must be left out to spoil, that the stock handlers must feed and water stock until all were cared for, so the animals would not suffer, were obeyed to the letter. The women, who were always the hysterical ones in the past…came out as quietly as did the men. The superintendent of one of the largest plants said, “It is a remarkable experience for the stockyards. We have never had such a strike before.”

(Mary McDowell, Union Labor Advocate, October, 1904)

But replacement workers were hired by the packers, and the strike continued through August. Then, desperate for work to resume, the strike leaders, including Michael Donnelly, Union president, through the efforts of Mary McDowell, met with J. Ogden Armour who represented the packers.

“While the twenty-two thousand waited and talked of the decent American wage ideal, a cattle butcher who waited with me for the momentous word from these two representatives, said a significant thing that I shall never forget. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I think the world has to learn that Michael Donnelly represents quite as important an interest as does the representative of the packers, Mr. J. Ogden Armour.”

But in their desperation, Union representatives convinced Armour to end the strike by taking the workers back. Unfortunately, wages were kept at pre-strike rates and the Union admitted defeat.

“I just sat down and cried, I was so glad. The men lost what they were fighting for, but the fact that an arrangement could be made between their leaders and the packers prevented the loss of all self-respect back of the yards… Eighteen cents an hour, ten hours a day, four days a week, seven in a family-this is the economic problem that Packingtown is trying to solve…the strike failed, but not dishonorably. The cause lives and will be won yet by better methods than those of the past.”

However, further efforts at negotiation, and even further strikes, were fruitless as packers lowered wages whenever they wished. It was not until the 1930s that labor organizations were strong enough to effect better wages and conditions, but the years of organizing and bringing workers together for common cause in a democratic process were not wasted either.

The Strike of 1904 did have one extraordinary result: it brought about a great deal of interest in the meat packing industry on the part of the press, local and national, which in turn brought Upton Sinclair, age 26, to Chicago. Disguised as a worker, he investigated packing house processes and production methods-including production areas usually off-limits. For two months he took notes, often taking his meals at the settlement house and interviewing workers there. He discovered rampant filth and lack of sanitation (as well as incredible disregard for the hardships of the workers’ lives).

His book, “The Jungle,” was published in February 1906. Over 100,000 copies were quickly sold. Despite the packers’ desperate attempts to nullify its effects, the U.S. Congress felt the public’s outrage and by May of that year (only 4 months later!) a Comprehensive Meat Inspection bill had passed and was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt. The power of the pen!

For many years, most Packingtown politicians were Irish. Even here the ethnic enclaves produced interesting outcomes. Big Jim McDermott, alderman from 1933 to 42’ (by all reports a fair and honest alderman!) put it succinctly. He said, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole. A Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian. A German won’t vote for either of them-but all three will vote for a Turkey!” (My husband, also a McDermott, tells me “Turkey” refers to Irishmen–comes from red-neck…turkey neck–as Irishmen were called who were fair-skinned and suffered terrible sunburn while digging various U.S. canals).

Even Mary McDowell herself, at least once, resorted to her ethnicity:

“One night I was awakened by a neighbor who brought an appeal for aid…the woman sent word that her drunken husband had driven her out of the house and her children were waiting in the street hoping ‘the good woman for bad husbands’ would come to their aid. When I came to them…I walked directly into the house and faced him.

‘Look here, Mike,’ I said, ‘You’re Irish and I’m Irish too. When Irish meets Irish something’s bound to happen. Put down that poker and let your wife come in here where its warm.’

And Mike, who also had heard of the ‘good woman for bad husbands’ and of my influence on the local police court, did what his sense of humor prompted him to do — he obeyed me.”     (Howard Wilson, Mary McDowell, Neighbor)

Politicians did help individuals and ethnic organizations and worked for better living conditions, but they brought no changes in the packers’ attitude toward their workers. It wasn’t until the great depression, with the enormous loss of jobs and the failure of banks and businesses, that Packingtown, now calling itself ‘Back of the Yards’ came together. The CIO’s newly established Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee, the churches of all ethnic heritages, and especially two men, Joseph Meegan and Saul Alinsky, with the help of Bishop Bernard Sheil, founded the first Community Organization in the United States, The Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, which brought about outstanding improvements for the workers and the community and led the way for community organizations far beyond the area of Packingtown…but that is another-and inspiring-story.

Mary McDowell worked ceaselessly to better living and working conditions, appearing before clubs and committees, unions and legislatures–wherever her words might be heard and she slowly won precedent-making reforms. She traveled to Europe to investigate the garbage disposal process used in large cities there, and returned to America with practical, technical information, which she tirelessly brought to the attention of state and local governments until, at last, the dumps which were her neighbors at Damen Avenue, which she had fought since the 1890s, were finally done away with in 1913.

She also continued to work on the menace of Bubbly Creek. Jane Adams, in her book, A Second Twenty Years at Hull House recalled:

“During these prewar years, the settlement groups met constantly for civic discussion. I recall an incident connected with the City Club which, when it was first built in Chicago, was used as a meeting place for all sorts of organizations. We talked over all our causes as we ate luncheon…

“One day, as I entered the elevator, the boy who knew me well said casually: ‘Who are you eating with today–with garbage or with the social evil?’ I replied: ‘Garbage,’ with as much dignity as I could command under the circumstances and he deposited me on the fourth floor where I found Mary McDowell, head of the University of Chicago Settlement, pinning on the wall blueprints of a certain garbage reduction plant.

“I had been a little disturbed by my conversation in the elevator, and remarked: ‘Isn’t it amazing the way we eat and at the same time talk about these disagreeable subjects?’ She went on pinning up her blueprints as she replied: ‘If you lived near Bubbly Creek, into which the five largest slaughterhouses in the world discharge their refuse, you would be so interested in garbage that you would talk about it at luncheon or at any other time.’

“I assured her that I was interested in garbage, and instanced that fact that I had once been a garbage inspector myself. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘you are interested, but if you lived back of the yards, you could not think that any mere talk about it was disagreeable’”!

Bubbly Creek still exists. It is no longer used as a sewer, but it still bubbles now and then!

In 1923, reform Mayor William E. Dever appointed Mary McDowell Commissioner of the Department of Public Welfare (a department created in 1914, mainly through the efforts of Charles Merriam, alderman and UC professor), which consisted of a Bureau of Employment and a Bureau of Social Surveys. In 1921, the City Council had been ready to abolish the department saying it was ‘the most useless on the city payroll.’ The Chicago Tribune on June 27th, 1923, quoted an alderman, after some argument, as proposing: “Let’s give Miss McDowell this one opportunity to work out some of her plans, and if she fails, then we’ll repeal the act which created her position.” She was commissioned and the department really began to serve the city and its citizens. It is a story in itself…would that she were here today!

We will run out of time long before we run out of the list of Mary McDowell’s accomplishments in the Settlement House, in Packingtown, in the city, and far beyond. She had campaigned for Women’s Suffrage, for World Peace, for better schools, for improved health care, for honest government, for the day, as she wrote, “when wage-earners would have a decent American standard of living.”

She had moved in prestigious circles too, and sought the help of those in power for her many causes-for those in need whom she considered her friends and neighbors. She had asked the questions and set up the procedures whereby accurate information could be assimilated and used. And she was years ahead of most of her fellow citizens in regard to race relations. As early as 1919, she instigated the establishment of an Interracial Cooperative Committee of Women’s Clubs. Some 80 Women’s Clubs, black and white, participated and, of course, Mary McDowell was elected its president. Her “Civic Code” sums up her philosophy:

“We believe that God has made of one blood all nations of men, and that we are his children, brothers, and sisters all. We are citizens of the United States, and believe our flag stands for self-sacrifice for the good of all people. We want to be true citizens of this, our city, and therefore will show our love for her by our words.

“Chicago does not ask us to die for her welfare; she asks us to live for her good, so to live and to act that her government may be pure, her officers honest, and every home within her boundaries be a fit place to grow the best kind of men and women to rule over her.”

Mary McDowell retired at the age of 75 in 1929, and died at 82 in 1936. The University Settlement, renamed The Mary McDowell Settlement in 1956 in her honor, was put under the wing of Chicago Commons in 1967 and the old settlement house buildings were torn down in the early 1970s.

To close, I’d like to share an article published in the Chicago Daily News in June 1927, describing an interracial dinner given in honor of Mary McDowell by her friends, both black and white. She would have been 73 years old:

“Orators of both races recited the contributions of the founder of the University of Chicago Settlement to the common good, and sweet-voiced colored singers sang the spirituals wherein a race has given voice to the aspirations, which Miss McDowell has tried to realize…

“Wearing the Order of the White Lion, which the young republic of Czechoslovakia had conferred upon her for distinguished service to the people of that land, Miss McDowell beamed as the tributes from her admirers were offered her, and then she told her friends how much it pleased her to have them get acquainted with each other.”

Books re. Mary McDowell

Mary McDowell, Neighbor, Howard E. Wilson

Back of the Yards-Making of a Local Democracy, Robert Slayton

Second Twenty Years at Hull House, Jane Addams

Chicago, Growth of a Metropolis, Mayer and Wade

Settlement Folk, Mina Carson

Crisis and Community, Back of the Yards, 1921, Chicago History, Fall, 1977, Dominic Pacyga

The Ethnic Frontier, Ethnic Chicago, Holli and Jones

Noblisse Oblige; Charity and Cultural Philanthropy in Chicago, 1849-1929, Kathleen D. McCarthy

The Prairie State; Civil War to the Present, Robert P. Sutton, Editor

Chicago Portraits, June Skinner Sawyer

Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon

Chicago’s Pride, Louis Wade

The Yankee of the Yards, Louis Swift

 Source: Hyde Park Historical Society. Collection, [Box 24, Folder 3], Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): “Mary McDowell (1854 – 1936): Founder of the University of Chicago Settlement House and co-founder of the National Women’s Trade Union League (2014). Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from