The Settlement House Movement
by John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
One of the most influential organizations in the history of American social welfare was the “settlement house.” The establishment and expansion of social settlements and neighborhood houses in the United States corresponded closely with the Progressive Era, the struggle for woman suffrage, the absorption of millions of new immigrants into American society and the development of professional social work.
Settlements were organized initially to be “friendly and open households,” a place where members of the privileged class could live and work as pioneers or “settlers” in poor areas of a city where social and environmental problems were great. Settlements had no set program or method of work. The idea was that university students and others would make a commitment to “reside” in the settlement house in order to “know intimately” their neighbors. The primary goal for many of the early settlement residents was to conduct sociological observation and research. For others it was the opportunity to share their education and/or Christian values as a means of helping the poor and disinherited to overcome their personal handicaps.
What actually happened was that residents of settlements learned as much or more from their neighbors than they taught them. The “settlers” found themselves designing and organizing activities to meet the needs of the residents of the neighborhoods in which they were living. While trying to help and uplift their neighbors — organizing classes, clubs, games and other educational and social activities — settlement house residents and volunteers experienced first hand the powerlessness of the poor, the pervasive abuse of immigrants, the terrible conditions in which men, women and children were required to work in factories and sweatshops, the failure of public officials to enforce laws, the dangers of unsanitary conditions and the debilitating effects of tuberculosis and other diseases. Settlement house residents soon learned that the low standards of living and unsafe working conditions that were the usual lot of poor people in the neighborhoods were most often not the result of choice but of necessity.
When neighborhood conditions and individual or social problems seemed too pressing to be ignored, settlement workers tried to meet them. Their efforts often led to confrontations with local and state officials. At other times, bringing about a change required becoming advocates for a specific cause or acting as spokespersons appealing to a wider public for understanding or support for a proposed civic matter or political measure. From their advocacy, research and sometimes eloquent descriptions of social needs afflicting their neighbors, lasting contributions were made by residents of settlement houses in the areas of education, public health, recreation, labor organizing, housing, local and state politics, woman’s rights, crime and delinquency, music and the arts. Settlements soon became renown as the fountainhead for producing highly motivated social reformers, social scientists and public administrators, including such early notables as
Janie Porter Barrett
Alice Hamilton MD
Jane E. Robbins
Ellen Gates Starr
Everett P. Wheeler
Robert A. Woods
Background: The Early Years
The settlement house movement started in England in 1884 when Cannon Samuel A Barnett, Vicar of St. Jude’s Parrish, founded Toynbee Hall in East London. The settlement idea, as formulated by Cannon Barnett, was to have university men “settle” into a working-class neighborhood where they would not only help relieve poverty and despair through their good works but also learn something about the real world from living day-to-day with the residents of the slums. According to an early Toynbee Hall report, it was “…an association of persons, with different opinions and different tastes; its unity is that of variety; its methods are spiritual rather than material; it aims at permeation rather than conversion; and its trust is in friends rather than in organization.”
Several Americans visited Toynbee Hall and were so influenced by the English experiment they decided to organize similar “settlements” in the United States. Among them:
Stanton A. Coit who founded the first American settlement in 1886 — Neighborhood Guild — on the Lower East Side of New York City (Note: the name was later changed to University Settlement)
Christina Isobel MacColl and her friend Sarah Carson founded Christodora Settlement House in the slums of New York City’s Lower East Side
Vida D. Scudder and Jean Fine organized College Settlement in New York City
Robert A. Woods established Andover House in Boston (the name was later changed to South End House.
The settlement idea spread rapidly in the United States. By 1897 there were seventy-four settlements, over a hundred in 1900, and by 1910 there were more than four hundred in operation. Most settlements were located in large cities (40 percent in Boston, Chicago, and New York), but many small cities and rural communities boasted at least one settlement house. In the early years settlements and neighborhood houses were financed entirely by donations; and the residents usually paid for their own room and board.
The American settlement movement diverged from the English model in several ways. More women became leaders in the American movement; and there was a greater interest in social research and reform. But probably the biggest difference was that American settlements were located in overcrowded slum neighborhoods filled with recent immigrants. Working with the inhabitants of these neighborhoods, settlement workers became caught up in searching for ways to ease their neighbor’s adjustment and integration into a new society. Settlement house residents often acted as advocates on behalf of immigrants and their neighborhoods; and, in various areas, they organized English classes and immigrant protective associations, established “penny banks” and sponsored festivals and pageants designed to value and preserve the heritage of immigrants.
It is important to note that settlements helped create and foster many new organizations and social welfare programs, some of which continue to the present time. Settlements were action oriented and new programs and services were added as needs were discovered; settlement workers tried to find, not be, the solution for social and environmental deficits affecting their neighbors. In the process, some settlements became engaged in issues such as housing reform, factory safety, labor organizing, protecting children, opening health clinics, legal aid programs, consumer protection, milk pasteurization initiatives and well-baby clinics. Others created parks and playgrounds or emphasized the arts by establishing theaters and classes for the fine arts and music education. A number of settlement leaders and residents conducted research, prepared statistical studies, wrote reports or described their personal experiences in memoirs (e.g., Hull-House Maps and Papers, Robert Woods’s City Wilderness, Jane Addams’s Twenty Years at Hull-House, and Lillian Wald’s House on Henry Street).
Early settlement house residents did not escape the prejudice nor completely overcome the ethnic stereotypes common to their generation and social class; they tried consciously to teach middle-class values, often betraying a paternalistic attitude toward the poor. On the other hand, and this was typical of progressives, most settlements were segregated. Although Hull-House and other settlements helped establish separate institutions for Black neighborhoods, pioneered in studying Black urban communities, and helped organize the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black people were not welcome at the major settlements.
The Contributions of “Living” in a Settlement House
A distinctive feature of the early years of the settlement movement was “residency.” By design, staff and volunteers lived communally in the same house or building, sharing meals and facilities, working together and spending some or all of their leisure time together. This arrangement fostered an exciting environment in which university-educated and socially motivated men and women enjoyed the opportunity to share their knowledge, life experiences, ideas and plans for the future. Working and living together, even for short periods, the residents of a settlement house bonded around specific projects, collaborated on social issues, formed close friendships and experienced lasting impressions they carried with them for a lifetime.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Hansan, J.E. (2011). Settlement houses: An introduction. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/settlement-houses/settlement-houses/