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Settlement Houses: An Introduction

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

Edith Abbott
Grace Abbott
Jane Addams
Janie Porter Barrett
Stanton Coit
Jean Fine
Alice Hamilton MD
Harry Hopkins
Florence Kelley
Julia Lathrop
Albert Kennedy
Mary McDowell
Jane E. Robbins
Vida Scudder
Mary Simkovitch
Ellen Gates Starr
Graham Taylor
Lea Taylor
Lillian Wald
Everett P. Wheeler
Robert A. Woods
Charles Zueblin

Background: The Early Years

Toynbee Hall circa 1902
Toynbee Hall circa 1902
Photo: Public Domain

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

Jane Addams and her college classmate, Ellen Gates Starr, founded Hull House on the West Side of Chicago in 1889

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

21 Replies to “Settlement Houses: An Introduction”

  1. Hello, You offer a great framework to understand the origins of the settlement home movement. Given that many settlement homes in the United States “originated” just prior to the Emancipation Proclamation and that “Blacks were not welcome at the major settlements“, can you direct me to research about settlement homes started by and for Black people in the late 1800s? Thank you!

    • The best response to your comment is to suggest you read about specific settlement houses, e.g., Hull House, Chicago Commons, Baden St. Settlement and Baltimore Settlements. Also, read about some of the residents who lived in a settlement house and launched their careers. Good luck. Jack Hansan

  2. Hi,can anyone answer these, I have two questions related with this article:
    1. Identify a group of people who lived in the settlement houses.
    2. Name two groups serviced by the settlement houses.

    Thank you! greatly appreciated.

    • Dear Aggiebaby: It is easy to answer your question: First, before we were married, my wife and I lived as residents on the third floor University Settlement in Philadelphia. Also living in the “Unie House” at the same time were two dental externs, a heart surgeon from Bari, Italy, two other social work students and a psychology major plus two other administrative staff and the the Executive Director, his family and one daughter. Second, there are countless groups serviced by settlement house since their founding. All you need to do is read the histories of most any settlement house on the SWH web site. Good luck, Jack Hansan

  3. Hi Mr. Hansan,
    thank you for this contribution as your article carries a spirit of this movement which is sometimes hard to place in words and often gets lost in translation when transferred into historical scholarship.

    I am teaching a social work practice with groups class and was wondering if you can direct me to resource with specific examples of group activities (i.e. social/fun/recreational) that I could use to, in addition to providing theory and historical overview, demonstrate and engage my class into a type of activity such as the ones you describe in your article….?

    Thank you for your time, Dunja

    • Dear Dunja: Sorry for the delay in responding to your request. It would take more time than I have to give to fully answer your question; however, I have several resources for you to consider. 1) Read the entry under SOCIAL WORK titled: “More Than Sixty Years with Social Group Work” by Katy Papell who died just recently. 2)Another entry to read is listed with the tab for Settlements. It is “The Position of United Neighborhood Houses on Issues.” 3) Google “National Association of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers.” 4) Read the entry titled “Phillip Schiff Presentation” under the tab for Settlements. 5) Google: “United Neighborhood Centers of America.” 6) If your students are required to do field work direct them to engage in organizations dealing with current social problems, e.g., homelessness, food banks, teen pregnancy, poverty, immigrants, etc.

      Good luck with your practice. Jack Hansan

  4. Thanks for a great article. I have been involved in settlement house programs for a number of years beginning in the 1960 while in undergraduate school and then later during and after my MSW at Washington Univ. in St Louis Mo. Now late in life I find my self on a settlement house board of directors who is trying to re program an organization that lost its way. Do any of you have suggestions to update my knowledge of what kind of programs are operating in contemporary settlement houses. We are in Brownsville Texas at the Texas Mexico boarder.

    Any suggestions will be most appreciated.

    Jack White

    • Dear Jack White: I am pleased to reply to your comment. I started to work in a Kansas City, Mo. neighborhood center in 1950 and received my MSW in Social Group Work from the Univ. of PA in 1956. While I have been retired for many years, I have created the SWH Project and it has helped me keep up to date on the history of settlement houses. In response to your question I have several suggestions: 1) the successor of the National Federation of Settlements & Neighborhood Centers is the “United Neighborhood Centers of America.” It recently merged with the Alliance; however, it would be a good place to start your search for help or resources. Another suggestion is to contact the United Neighborhood House of New York, or Northeaster PA. If you search for United Neighborhood Houses you will learn several areas of the US have such organizations.

      Good luck in locating some help. Regards, Jack Hansan

  5. Dear Mr. Hansan,
    In my field of clinical social work we are so entrenched in the notion of individual pathology that it is next to impossible to find support for the idea that doing what we can to focus on the health of families and neighborhoods and the social and economic policies that effect them, is always a part of our work. And listening to the people we serve to better understand what they need! Thank you for reminding me of why I got into social work in the first place.

  6. Mr. Hansan,
    I am attending school at the older than average student age of 46 for social work. I have read and enjoyed your writing on Settlement Houses. I think my plans for social work may have hung a sharp left. Thank you so much.

    • Thanks for the nice comment. If you follow through, contact the director of United Neighborhood Centers of America. He would be interested in communicating with you. Regards, Jack Hansan

    • Dear Raymond Sims: It is difficult to put a time frame on that article. I started working in a neighborhood house in K.C. Mo in 1950 and with the exception of two years active duty during the Korean War I continued to work in settlements until 1965. During that time I acquired a great deal of knowledge about settlements and their contribution to American social welfare. If it is important, I can tell you when the article was posted on the SWH web site. Warm regards, Jack Hansan

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