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Henry Street Settlement Pioneers: Lillian Wald and Helen Hall

Lillian Wald And Helen Hall – Henry Street Pioneers

Ed. Note: This entry is an original document prepared and distributed by Henry Street Settlement sometime in the late 1960’s when Bertram Beck was the Executive Director (1967-1977).

For its first 74 years Henry Street had but two directors, one served 40 years, the other 34.  Our current executive director, Bertram M.  Beck, follows the tradition of Lillian Wald and Helen Hall by living in the House at 265 Henry Street.

Lillian D. Wald, Founder and Head Worker
Lillian D. Wald, Founder and Head Worker

Lillian D.  Wald was born on March 10, 1867 and educated in a private school in Rochester, N.Y.  Then for a few years she lived  the life of a stylish young lady until she was sent one day to get a nurse for her married sister, who was having her first baby.  Professionally trained nurses were rare in those days, and Lillian plied this one with questions about nursing as a career.

In August, 1889 Lillian entered the School of Nursing of New York Hospital in New York City and was graduated in March 1891.  After a year as nurse in an orphan asylum, she spent another year studying in the Women’s Medical College.  It was during this period that she first went down to New York City’s Lower East Side as the volunteer teacher of a class in home nursing for immigrant women.  On a rainy March morning in 1893, a frightened little girl led her from this class through filthy, evil smelling streets to a rear tenement where a family of seven shared their two rooms with boarders.  And there she find the little girl’s desperately ill mother lying on a “wretched unclean bed soiled with a hemorrhage two days old.”

Spiritually, that was a journey from which Lillian Wald never returned.  It was her “baptism of fire”, and after a sleepless night she decided to live on the Lower East Side.  The Lower East Side of 1893 was a bottleneck of overcrowded, rickety tenements and narrow streets into which hundreds of thousands of immigrants were pouring every year.  There the sweated trades still flourished, the sick and dying lay untended in their miserable homes, and the death rate rose to terrifying heights in the so-called “lung blocks.”  And there, early in September, Lillian Wald and her colleague Mary Brewster established themselves on a vacant floor at the top of a house in Jefferson Street.  Lillian Wald’s activities soon outgrew the rooms in Jefferson Street.  In her search for more spacious quarters she found the House at 265 Henry Street, which was to be her home for nearly four decades and a source for the outflow of ideas which were to have a profound effect both upon public health nursing and upon social work.

 Henry Street Settlement
Henry Street Settlement

Because of Lillian Wald, a great many pioneer social work and health movements got their start.  Examples include:  the first university program for the training of public health nurses (Columbia University, 1910), the first American Red Cross town and country nursing service in the world (New York City), and the Federal Children’s Bureau (1912).

Much of Lillian Wald’s work revolved around children and their interests.  Because the Lower East Side children had no place to play except the narrow filthy streets crowded with dangerous traffic, she converted three back yards into a miniature playground during her first summer on Henry Street.  Largely through her efforts, Seward Park, the first municipal playground in New York City, was established in the settlement neighborhood in 1902.  The social life of the settlement, which later embraced many different activities for neighbors of all ages got its start in 1895 with the organization of “The American Heroes”, a club of 11 and 12 year old boys who grew up to be her most loyal supporters.

It was inevitable that Lillian Wald should be a fearless fighter for every liberal cause of her day.  Visiting the sick in their homes means she saw the conditions which in most cases had made them ill.  To her, something remediably wrong in any situation which involved human beings meant that there was something remediably wrong with society.  Morbidity and mortality statistics were not figures to her- they were sick and dying people she had tended.  Descriptions of wretched unlighted tenements in a report on housing were not so many words to her- they were the homes of families she knew.  Most of us only read about or heard about the things that Lillian Wald actually saw and heard.  We think of them in general as social and economic problems.  Lillian Wald thought of them individually as the troubles of her friends.

The last years of her life were passed at her country home, House on the Pond, in Westport, Connecticut, and there on September 1, 1940, her life came to an end.

Helen Hall, Director of Henry Street Settlement
Helen Hall, Director of Henry Street Settlement

Our second director, Helen Hall, also had an experience in her youth that turned her in the direction of helping others.  In her book, Unfinished Business, Miss Hall describes her first experience with the extreme hardships that poverty brings.  When she was fourteen, she brought some food to an Armenian family who had just escaped the Turkish massacres.  One of the family members, a girl her own age, was ill, and she remembers that seeing the young girl, sick in bed, surrounded by her obviously hungry brothers and sisters, aroused both her sympathy and indignation.  Other experiences also brought her the realization that no child, however sheltered.  Can really escape sharing in any profound worries that beset its parents.

Thus, Helen Hall changed her plans to become a sculptor and went into social work instead.  She finished a year at the New York School of Philanthropy (now the Columbia University School of Social Work) and, after graduating, organized a small settlement in Westchest County.  Her early experience included work at the Weschester Department of Child Welfare, and working for the Red Cross and the Army during and after the First World War.

At the time Helen Hall came to Henry Street in 1933 from University House in Philadelphia, there was an increasing trend to specialization in social work.  But she felt that if social services were to be more and more specialized, then there would be more need than ever before for general practitioners in the neighborhoods.  The settlement house provides this.  Miss Hall says that “a settlement should be a place where adventure may build and not destroy.  And what we do must hold its own in competition with so many neighborhood factors that tear the child apart.  And this is basic to the Settlement philosophy – to win out, our work must not only be good but within easy reach.”

Helen Halls’ tenure at Henry Street lasted from 1933 to 1967.  She tends to see the years divided by different overriding problems.  The depression years of unemployment from 1929 to 1939; the war years; the post-war years of 1945-1955; when neighborhoods were disrupted through gang warfare; 1955-1965, the years when drug addiction became an epidemic on the Lower East Side; and the mid-sixties on, the years of mass violence.

During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Helen Hall worked very hard to get Congress to pass an unemployment insurance bill.  She traveled to the South, the Midwest and to England to gather evidence about the hardships people were suffering.  The prevailing attitude toward the unemployed at that time was that “these people don’t want to work.”  Miss Hall testified before Congress on the result of her studies and also served on an advisory committee for President Roosevelt.  In the early thirties, the Civil Works Administration was initiative and gave work to four million unemployed.  Henry Street Settlement became a local office for the CWA and may people lined up a night in advance on the hop they would be able to get a job.  Later, when the Civil Works Administration turned into the Works Project Administration, persons involved in the WPA became supplemental staff at Henry Street.

The post war years brought many changes to the Lower East Side.  The soldiers coming home needed places to live and the five year gap in building caused by the war meant that housing was very hard to find.  There was great relocation of many families and ethnic groups.  Puerto Ricans and blacks began to move into the Lower East Side area.  It takes time for a new family to put its roots down, but it takes mush less time for adolescent gangs to form its roots down, but it takes much less time for adolescent gangs to form to keep intruders out.  Settlement workers found it was hard to reach the teenagers who were already active gang members.  Younger boys, aged seven to ten, were being trained by older gang members to take over!  Helen Hall decided to work with these younger boys and their families to insure that they wouldn’t graduate into the senior gangs.  The settlement started working with pre-delinquent gangs in the mid-fifties and by the end of three years were working with five pre-delinquent gangs.  The behavior patterns of these youngsters had been changed so completely that the chain of succession had been broken and one of the more vicious gangs of the neighborhood eliminated.

The problem of gang warfare was followed by drug addiction of the young, accompanied by the acts of individual violence by addicts looking for money to buy their drugs.  Kids as young as thirteen were being given free heroin to get them hooked as future customers.  The response outside the Lower East Side community was to ignore the problem, until Addict in the Street, a collection of addicts’ experiences recorded by a Henry Street social workers was published in 1965.  It was during these years of gang warfare and drug addiction that Helen Hall helped organize the Mobilization for Youth program.  It dealt with the problems of a wide slum area and its concentration of multiple service to meet these problems was an important innovation.  Mobilization for Youth also served as a starting point for many other metropolitan programs, as well as becoming the forerunner of the Anti-poverty program in Washington.

Helen Hall retired as Director of the Henry Street Settlement in 1967.  She holds the position of Director Emeritus of the Settlement, as well as being active in other social welfare organizations, such as U.S. Committee for UNICEF.  She divides her time between her New York City apartment and Newburgh, N.Y. home.

Source: Henry Street Settlement Records. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, Social Welfare History Archives. Minneapolis, MN:

4 Replies to “Henry Street Settlement Pioneers: Lillian Wald and Helen Hall”

  1. Hi, I have been trying to see if there are photos of the students that attended ballet class during the year 1960-1965. I was also in a play that I think it was in the Broadway theater.

    My parents had taken pictures, but were never develope and we moved to PUERTO RICO. I don’t remember the exact year because I was small, but I do remember coming out in the play. We are 2 girls with really large dresses.

    • Thank you for your question re: Henry Street Settlement activities. The Social Welfare History Project does not maintain any photos or list of participants in the Settlements History. I would recommend you contact Henry St. Settlement directly and inquire if their historical files may contain some of the information you are seeking. You can Google the current address and Web site for Henry St. Settlement since it continues to serve residents of New York City. Good luck with your search, Jack Hansan

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