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University of Chicago Settlement

The University of Chicago Settlement

4630 McDowell Avenue

Chicago, Illinois

History of the Settlement:

The University of Chicago Settlement was established in the packing-house area in the fall of 1894 by a group of faculty members of the University of Chicago. In what is known as the “Back of the Yards” area, the heterogeneous foreign-born population had a peculiar quality that appealed to the new University: This was a place where peoples of different backgrounds might work together.

Upon advice of Jane Addams this group of faculty members from the University of Chicago selected Miss Mary McDowell, one of the founders of the Northwestern University Settlement and a former co-worker with Miss Addams at Hull House, to take charge of a new “laboratory of social service” in the district just back of the Union Stockyards. Miss McDowell had no formal training in this type of work—indeed, it was not taught in any of the schools or universities. She had helped the refugees of the great fire in Chicago and, with Jane Addams and Julia Lathrop, had been instrumental in the organization of the “Relief and Aid Society” which was created to help the refugees of the fire disaster. It was from this “Relief and Aid Society” that the United Charities of Chicago was later developed.

The Settlement, with Miss McDowell as Head Resident, began life in a little flat in back of a small shop. One of her first activities was the opening of a kindergarten. At first it grew slowly, for the parents were suspicious of the motives behind it. Gradually the eagerness of the children spread to the parents and it was not long before the parents, too, were coming to find out for themselves. The small shop soon became the club-room, play-room and general auditorium as the women and children came in greater members to seek help and guidance from the “Settlement Lady.” Other clubs and activities were formed and soon eight other small rooms were taken over in the same building; in 1895 a still larger hall was necessary. In 1896 four flats over a large feed store, together with a shop room nearby, were rented in order to accommodate clubs, classes, lectures, concerts, etc. In 1897 four lots on Gross Avenue were purchased and an auditorium was erected. This auditorium was a gymnasium with a manual training room, shower baths and locker rooms in the basement. In 1906 the quadrangle of buildings which now exist on McDowell Avenue (changed from Gross Avenue in honor of Miss McDowell) was completed and ready for occupancy by the University of Chicago Settlement.

It was to a neighborhood of social unrest, economic insecurity and industrial turmoil that Miss McDowell came to live. There was a floating population of foreign-born packing-house workers, who had come to America from peasant villages of their native lands and who were thrown into the chaos of a rapidly developing industry, supervised for the most part in an alien tongue and subject to laws and customs and living conditions they did not understand. “Americanization” was an unknown term and littler serious consideration was given to the social and economic problems arising from migration.

From the beginning, the Settlement identified itself with the needs of the people of the neighborhood. It served then, as now, all groups from the nursery through old age. New Americans were taught English and encouraged to participate in local affairs. (Today, citizenship and language classes are two of the most active groups among the adults). The foreign-born very quickly recognized that the Settlement was a center where they might come with their needs and problems and find practical and sympathetic response. Miss McDowell wrote long ago: “Settlement residents do not go to the people with a plan, a policy, or a proposition; they go as friends, as neighbors with a keen sense of the commonness of all that is best in all.” Until Miss McDowell’s death in 1936 and ever since, the Settlement has acted as a “home” for the neighborhood it serves—a place where the interests of individuals and their needs for the future are developed to encourage a more meaningful life, regardless of race, nationality or language.

The Settlement is not a charity organization, but during the strikes that occurred during the development of the new meat packing industry, the depressions, economic disaster, and other times of stress and strife, relief funds were made available to many needy families, thus giving the Settlement opportunities to show its neighborhood that it identified itself with their problems.

Perhaps the first outstanding instance of the Settlement’s service to the community, through Miss McDowell, was its successful petition to have a public bath-house erected in the area (12,000 persons used it in August, 1900). Another instance was the successful campaign to have the alleys and streets of the district cleaned, and trash and garbage hauled away. Efforts on the part of the Settlement resulted in a series of events which led to the present system of neighborhood playgrounds. The Settlement was instrumental in the establishment of summer schools or “vacation schools,” and vocational schools where classes in manual training, domestic science and vocational guidance were held.

It sponsored nutrition and hygiene classes, provided a nursing clinic and visiting nurses and the services of cooperating doctors, all before these functions were recognized as a municipal responsibility. The Settlement even served as a hospital ward on two occasions, once during an epidemic of whooping cough, and again during the influenza epidemic of 1918. Miss McDowell led the campaign for the abolition of the great garbage dumps in the area and for the filling in of the notorious “Bubbly Creek”—a stagnant branch of the Chicago River into which was poured raw sewage.

The Settlement House is a member of the Chicago Federation of Settlements and Neighborhood Centers, the National Federation of Settlements, and the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago; it is endorsed by the Subscription Investigation Committee of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry.

The Operations of the Settlement are complex, but its purpose is simple: To enable a diverse population to work together—to apply democratic principles to the fulfillment of needs for day-to-day living. It has earnestly sought for better conditions for families in the neighborhood. Its purpose is: “To promote neighborhood unity and the improvement of neighborhood and municipal conditions.”


The Settlement sees the family as the basic unit in its service, and parents are involved informally in many aspects of planning and in actually carrying out the program. Current emphasis is on planned activities for the total family group.

There are families from 17 different nationalities (Polish, 42.5%; Lithuanian, 28.8%; Mexican, 9.7%; Czechoslovakian, 3.1%; and others, 15.9%), all residents of the “Back of the Yards,” who participate in the activities of the Settlement. Most of the work is done with small groups, of which there are 54. There are afternoon groups whose members range in age from 6 years through 13 years, and evening groups from teenagers through the old-age pensioners.

All activities are carried out under the supervision of trained workers (15 full-time, 13 part-time, and a number of volunteers), whose aim is training the youth to become leaders in the Settlement and in the Community. A skilled staff supervises sports club and recreation programs for youngsters and teenagers. Settlement workers are available for counsel and guidance on personal problems. They suggest the use of the library to supplement school reading as well as for recreational reading. The staff assists in the production of plays, choral groups and holiday festivities.

The physical facilities are: 2 gymnasiums, 7 club rooms, a library, two game rooms, craft rooms, a wood shop fully equipped, a kitchen, a nursery school and kindergarten rooms. Adjoining the building is a playground, and the roof of the main gymnasium is fitted for recreational activities.

During the past year over 100,000 persons have participated in the activities of the Settlement, including all organized groups, the Nursery School, Camp Farr, special events, individual use of facilities, etc.

The approximate area served by the Settlement is bounded by Western Avenue on the West, Racine Avenue on the East, Pershing Blvd., on the North and 55th Street on the South.

In addition to the four-story Settlement House on McDowell Avenue, the Settlement owns Camp Farr, a summer camp near Chesterton, Indiana.

The Settlement, from the first year in its history, has cooperated with the public schools and continues to cooperate with all municipal organizations and neighborhood activities.

The Adult Groups: The adult program of the Settlement frequently provides new experiences for its older members, new knowledge and skills which the individual previously has been unable to obtain. On three nights a week, for example, 50 citizens-to-be learn the requirements and duties of American citizenship. There is a Nursery School Mother’s Club, men’s and women’s special interest groups, activities for old-age pensioners, and numerous chances for interested adults to help with the Settlement’s constant refurbishing and programming needs. Cultural and self-help meetings are popular events to these groups.

Group activities include:

Arts and Crafts                             Sewing-Cooking                               Discussion Groups

English-Citizenship                     Adult Council                                   Volleyball

Mother’s Club                             Keep-Fit Classes

(One group, The Settlement Mothers, is the oldest organized group in the Settlement, it was one of the groups started when Miss McDowell was Head Resident, and has as its sole purpose the raising of money in support of the Settlement. Another group, “The Jolly Rippers” is made up of women interested in sewing)

Teenagers and Young Adults: Special interest groups in this age bracket form some of the most vital evidences of responsible democratic living, conducting programs and activities grow from those enjoyed by younger members, frequently “co-ed” programs involving picnics, outings, sports, shows, dramatics, journalism and dances.

The basic belief of the Settlement is that “every privilege carries a corresponding responsibility.” That is why its activities center on the development of ideals and standards among the young people who share in its program. An example of that belief: Some 270 teenage and young adult members formed a representative council of its members and established and maintain a democratically operated self-governed teenage and young adult lounge. It took this group nine months to write and approve a constitution, and six months to formulate a policy of operation before they opened the doors of this lounge. This phase of the House program is a living example of what teenagers and young adults can do under guidance for themselves. As one of its recent projects, this group has taken on the responsibility of giving the House a “new look.” They are working in small groups to paint and make repairs on the 60-year old building.

A large portion of the members of the Settlement are in this age bracket, and it is here that the Staff is concentrating on the indigenous leadership training program.

Some of the groups are the “King Kats,” a boy’s social group; the “Dukes and Duchesses,” co-ed, who are now redecorating the entrance and hallways; the “Gremlins,” a men’s sports group; the “Flamingos,” a girl’s social group; others are, the “Unknown,” “Unicorns,” “Black Panthers,” and the “Slick Chicks.”

Girls and Boys—Ages 6 to 13: Girls and boys of grammar school age have their separate activities after school and keep the Settlement’s two gyms and craft shops fully engaged. A variety of groups meet frequently, joining with a leader once a week. The groups also have special projects, frequently for fundraising or area improvement purposes. The boys and girls in this group form the great bulk of Camp Farr children and are aided by many adult volunteers.

Group activities include:

Clubs                     Handicraft               Folk Dancing                 Girl and Boy Scouts

Game Rooms       Clay Modeling         Sewing                           Playground

Workshops           Story-acting             Cooking                         Art

Basketball             Volleyball               Gymnasium                   Rollerskating

Nursery—ages 3 to 6 years: (Licensed capacity of 30). The nursery is an integral part of the total agency program. It was one of the first programs developed in the agency and has been in existence for almost 60 years. Although it has always had a predominant number of children of employed mothers, the nursery has long accepted children for other personal or family reasons. It is open from 8:00a.m. to 5:00 p.m., five days a week. Children are accepted without reference to race or religion and on the basis of the urgency of the child’s need.

The nursery occupies space on the third floor, consisting of a large room and two adjoining small rooms, two bathrooms, and a kitchen dining room on the second floor. The gymnasium may be used for rough play in bad weather and a roof garden and outside play yard are available for outdoor activities.

The Infant Welfare Society cooperates in the health program by providing pre-admission and follow-up physical examination of the children, including the usual inoculations. Daily inspections are done by the teachers. The nursery is licensed by the Illinois Department of Public Welfare and holds a Chicago Board of Health Permit.

The program is that of the usual nursery, with time for free and supervised play; creative activities in music, rhythm and art; daily routines of eating, napping, etc. The youngsters are divided into two groups, depending upon age and maturity.

The nursery is operated by a staff trained in primary and kindergarten work, aided by older residents of the area who can advise on the problems the children will meet in the neighborhood as they grow up. A caseworker has been hired to handle intake studies. In addition to the director, there is another full-time and two part-time teachers, also a cook who prepares the lunches.

Camp Farr: This summer camp, an important part of the Settlement program, is located near Chesterton, Indiana (about 40 miles from Chicago), on a 40-acre tract of wooded hills with a natural stream, plus an additional 40-acres under cultivation as a laboratory project where campers actually participate in gardening, harvesting crops, and caring for farm animals. (The first summer camp was in a crude shack on the Indiana Dunes).

The camp itself consists of 6 well-equipped cabins, each housing 10 children; a modern swimming pool with showers; a recreation hall with a wide, open fireplace, library, ping-pong tables and games; a separate craft house; dining room and kitchen; farm house and barns with farm machinery, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and geese.

Groups from the Settlement (including mothers and pre-school children) usually spend two weeks at camps. There they raise vegetables, help with the care of animals and fowl, help with the farming and harvesting of crops. The campers help to raise a godly portion of the food eaten during the summer, as well as help with the canning and processing of vegetables, freezing of chickens, which are used as food for campers during the next summer. They also help to take care of the cabins and grounds.

A special period is set aside at camp for those children from the House and Camp who have demonstrated leadership abilities. This camp period is geared program-wise to further developing these skills and interests. These same boys and girls are then given an opportunity to assist in the program, under special supervision, at the House and at the Camp.

The second and third weeks in May of each year are set aside for children from the University Laboratory School.

The camp provides the one experience most campers have with natural and rural life and provides an intimate experience of living and working together. Parents are encouraged to visit the camp while the children are there—thus the camp provides an opportunity for good interpretation of what the whole Settlement program means. The teaching of democratic ways of living together is an important aspect of the purpose of the camp, and helps the Staff to integrate the camp services into the year-round program of the Settlement.

The Camp is under the direction of the year-round Settlement Staff with the addition of junior counselors (more of the youth leadership training program) largely taken from the older young people in the Settlement program, trained counselors who supervise each cabin, supervisors and life-guards at the swimming pool, and a year-round farm supervisor.

How the Settlement is Supported: Although the Settlement was an outgrowth of interest and action on the part of faculty members of the University of Chicago and still draws from the University community for a substantial part of its budget and volunteer leadership, as well as for many and varied gifts, the Settlement is an independent, self-governing organization, and has been since its incorporation in 1898.

It depends upon the citizens of Chicago for its continuation and growth. While some of its funds come from benefit performances and foundations, most of the financial support must come from individuals and groups interested in promoting the type of democratic living for which the Settlement stands.

There are 30 members of the Board of Directors, which include faculty members from the University of Chicago, businessmen and interested citizens, and the financial responsibility of the Settlement rests with the Board of Directors.

Where the money comes from:

Voluntary contributions from individuals and firms.

Participating members of the House: dues, benefits, bazaars, etc.

University sources: Settlement League, Rockefeller Chapel, Tag Day, Gifts from

University employees and groups, Children in Laboratory School.

Foundations and Trusts

Community Fund

The University of Chicago Settlement League: President William Rainey Harper of the University of Chicago organized the wives of the faculty members into the University of Chicago Settlement League in 1895. The purpose was to arouse interest in the financial support of the Settlement and its work. That is still the purpose of over 700 members of the Settlement League, whose membership is open to “any woman connected with the University of Chicago or who is interested in the work of the Settlement.”

The President of the League and Chairmen of certain committees represent the Settlement League on the Board of Directors of the Settlement.

In addition to membership dues, the League holds an annual benefit party in the Fall and a special fundraising program in the Spring to raise funds for the support of the Settlement and Camp Farr.

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


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