Urban Concerns

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An excerpt from a Tenement House Commission report, 1900. Courtesy of Princeton University via HathiTrust.

In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, child welfare became a paramount cause for activists. To the Progressives, no environment seemed more at odds with healthy child development than over-crowded and polluted manufacturing cities like Chicago and New York City. There, hundreds of children were raised in tenements where entire families might share a single room, often in close quarters with other families.

Reformers sought to study the impact of such urban environments, or “slums,” on children. In 1900, New York City’s Tenement House Commission issued a report that investigated the ability of tenements to provide not merely housing, but a home. They were found lacking, particularly because they did not accommodate the needs of children. The report noted that the tenements' meager back yards had actually shrunk over time, currently averaging ten feet of yard for an entire building. As a consequence, neighborhood children were “driven to the street.”

Progressives feared that the streets exposed children to the vices typical of cities, including gambling, prostitution, drunkenness, and crime. They felt that the threat upon children’s moral character was equally important as the physical hazards of tenement life and factory work. Simply put, slums were no place for children.