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What The Settlement Work Stands For (1896)

What The Settlement Work Stands For

By Julia C. Lathrop, Hull House, Chicago

A Presentation at the Twenty-Third Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities And Correction, Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 1896

(Editor’s NoteJulia Clifford Lathrop attended the Rockford Female Seminary after which she transferred to Vassar College where she received her degree in 1880. Julia returned home to Rockford, and became her father’s personal secretary and law assistant; but her life changed dramatically when, in the winter of 1888-1889, Ellen Gates Starr and Jane Addams traveled to Rockford Seminary, their alma mater, to promote Hull House settlement in Chicago to the students and the community. Inspired by their presentation, Lathrop, at the age of 32, joined the residents of Hull-House in 1890.

When the Children’s Bureau was formally created in 1912, President William Howard Taft appointed Lathrop as Chief, the first woman bureau chief in the federal government. She brought to the position her experiences and contacts from 22 years as a resident of Hull House.)

Julia Clifford Lathrop
Julia Clifford Lathrop
Hull House Resident and First Chief of the Children’s Bureau
Photo: Social Security Administration History Archives

Before this great audience, composed of people of different views, different activities, representing the most distant parts of our country, and yet drawn together, animated by a common impulse, to consult about our common social welfare, I realize the importance and at the same time the difficulty of stating briefly, or at all, what the settlement stands for. Some of those who will speak at this meeting and those who will speak at the succeeding sessions of our committee will give what is far better than abstract explanation: they will state what settlements are doing in various fields.

We feel that we may safely depend upon interest in the social and industrial problems which will be touched upon, because this meeting and this discussion are not so much the suggestion of our committee as they are the request of the officers of the Conference and of the Grand Rapids Committee.

We are turning from those subjects which drew this Conference together, leaving the painful and almost disheartening questions of the care and prevention of abnormalities of mind or of body or of both, to follow the great normal trend of human progress and the efforts of those who are trying to aid the universal development at points where it is most halting.

Thirteen years ago, when Arnold Toynbee died, his friends sought how best to perpetuate his memory. This young Oxonian was a student of history and economics, but his studies did not withdraw his interest from the life outside academic halls. Rather did history and economics, interpreted by his passion for humanity, irresistibly thrust him out into the thick of life, — into that life whose unregarded misery in many a town besides London has finally made the whole world shudder at the cheerful laissez-faire of the old political economy. He lived for a time in East London, going there first as a charity organization visitor. He made a wide acquaintance among workingmen, and knew Whitechapel by actual contact. He lectured much in London and the great English manufacturing towns. A book of fragments, “The Industrial Revolution,” is all that is left in print of his work. After his untimely death his friends determined to build a house in East London where university men might live, as has been said, “face to face with the actual conditions of crowded city life, study on the spot the evils and their remedies, and, if possible, ennoble the lives and improve the material conditions of the people.” The opening of Toynbee Hall was a natural and intimate sequence of the labors of a whole circle of social students and reformers. Toynbee was the first so-called Settlement, and the forces which initiated it show that union of brotherly zeal for humanity and scientific ardor for truth which should characterize every settlement. Thus the settlement recognizes, as this Conference recognizes, that goodness of individual sentiment, unguided by science and exact knowledge, is belated. It is outgrown. The laboratory of the biologist, the researches of statisticians, do so much to alleviate the material ills of life that poor rule-of-thumb good will must cease her fumbling, and submit to be the willing handmaid of the new philanthropy and the new education.

Following Toynbee Hall since I885 have come about seventy-five small groups of people, some perhaps far afield from the ideal suggested above, all independent of each other, and varying in almost every respect save that of residence in the district it is desired to influence. They have made their homes in the most arid and crowded parts of various English and American cities, to lend a hand toward improving their neighborhoods and toward gaining a little exact knowledge of social conditions. Forty-four settlements are in the United States, some details of whose scope and work will be found in the report which our committee has filed with the Secretary of the Conference. It will be shown there, as I have just suggested, that the movement is loose and unorganized, without any centre or head, that there is between some of the settlements little in common save the name and the fact of residence, so that what I may say cannot describe accurately all, but is only offered as, in my opinion, describing those which are representative and wisest.

Living in such a neighborhood as the University Settlement at Delancy Street, New York, or the College Settlement, St. Mary’s Street, Philadelphia, residents usually establish kindergartens, clubs, and classes for children as a beginning, because these means of training children too young for public school and giving social pleasure to older children are usually lacking in such neighborhoods. As an acquaintance between the residents and the settlement and the neighborhood grows, and the character of its need becomes more evident, the sort of work undertaken depends upon the ability of the settlement to furnish from its residents or its friends people to undertake the work; for the settlement, having once become established in the good will of its neighborhood, is able to exercise its most gracious function and extend a double hospitality, so that people can know each other whose different lives within the same city, strangely enough, preclude personal acquaintance. I sometimes think that the usefulness of a settlement to its city is best measured by the number of non-residents whose personal help it can obtain.

The Hull House, Chicago
The Hull House, Chicago
Photo: Public Domain

A club of women from one of the Chicago settlements chances to be first on a printed list of Illinois Federated Women’s Clubs; yet the suggestion of the possibility of such a club’s existence in the east end of the Nineteenth Ward not only would have been thought absurd, but the club could not have existed without the effort and common meeting ground of the settlement. One settlement may develop an evening academy, with nominal fees, with great classes of young men and women, supplying a sort of instruction not given by the public school or any night school. Another may do most in more purely social lines, supplementing the crowded loneliness of the tenement house by all sorts of gayeties and merry makings. Another may put its chief strength into co-operation with city authorities, — upon urging better tenements to the public and to wealthy investors, better sanitary inspection, better public schools, pure water, proper sewerage, clean streets, small parks, an indefinite variety of things. Another settlement may do charity work, although, when the word “charity ” is mentioned, the settlement usually shivers as though its mantle were a wet blanket; but really what a travesty upon neighborliness it would be to open your door to a neighbor hungry for learning and close it to a neighbor hungry for bread! In most settlements some or all of the residents are people who have had the best that our schools and universities can give.

They are trained to look for causes. Eager, as they are to meet the immediate wants of a meagre life, they are not satisfied with that, and are earnest to find the roots of the matter, — to learn the conditions which have made that meagreness. They are inevitably drawn to try to learn the conditions of industrial life, upon which the conditions of social life so largely hinge. They become acquainted so far as they can with those who from the standpoint of the workingman are giving the same problems the intensest  thought. Necessarily, they welcome opportunity for the discussion of those problems from every point of view. The settlement stands for a free platform. It offers its best hospitality to every man’s honest thought.

Lecky has pointed out in a little essay on the “Political Value of History” that there was a time when the best patriotism, all the most heroic self-sacrifice, was thrown into the defence of such causes as the free expression of religious beliefs, a free press, a free platform, and an independent jury box, that these are now secure, and that a kind of language which at one period of history implied the noblest heroism is now the idlest and cheapest of clap-trap, that men are called upon to consider new issues in each generation. If this be true, then the settlement asks earnestly, What are the crucial questions of this day? Nor does it hesitate to answer that on the material side they are the industrial and economic questions upon which social questions so largely hinge. On the moral side it is the question of an enlargement of our notion of personal responsibility, a quickening of the sense of social interdependence. If individual good will is outdated because it is unscientific, it is again outworn because its scope is inadequate.

At the time of the American Revolution there were men who had a clear and beautiful ideal of social democracy, and there can be no doubt that in the simpler conditions of that day it seemed to be secured by the personal and political freedom which they had gained. Does not, however, the complexity of life in which each household is changed from a self-sustained producer to a purchaser, with all the ramifying interchanges so familiar to us, so absolutely unknown to them, compel a readjustment, a new understanding, of our social interdependence? May not our morality be too small for our relationships? Everything grows great. Interests interlace. Tremendous physical forces, set at work, have compelled tremendous combinations of money and men. Greatness begets greatness; and great combinations of wealth will be met by great combinations of men. The cost of misunderstanding between these great combinations has become so alarming and so well understood that we see already more and more exemplified between them that armed peace which exists between European powers. But is this enough? War is better than piracy, and an armed peace is better than war; but does it satisfy the ethical sense of civilization that these great interests should be left merely resting upon their defences?

Finally and briefly, then, I would venture to say that, considered upon American soil, the settlement may be regarded as a humble but sincere effort toward a realization of that ideal of social democracy in whose image this country was founded, but adapted and translated into the life of to-day.

This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.

Reference: Proceedings of The National Conference of Charities And Correction at The Twenty-Third Annual Session Held In Grand Rapids, Mich. June 4-10, 1896

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Lathrop, A.C. (1896, June). What the settlement work stands for. Presentation at the Twenty-Third Annual Session of the National Conference of Charities And Correction, Grand Rapids, MI.