Between the 1880s and 1920s, hundreds of settlement houses were established in American cities in response to an influx of European immigrants as well as the urban poverty brought about by industrialization and exploitative labor practices. Settlement houses were organizations that provided support services to the urban poor and European immigrants, often including education, healthcare, childcare, and employment resources. Many settlement houses established during this period are still thriving today.
The first settlement house in the United States was Hull House in Chicago, founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in 1889. Significantly, many settlement houses were established, led, and staffed by women, often from middle and upper classes. Addams believed in the interdependence of social classes; rather than encourage charity towards the poor, she advocated the importance of working with and among working class communities.
Settlement houses reflected a broader commitment to social reform during the Progressive Era. Jane Addams and Lillian Wald, founder of New York’s Henry Street Settlement, for example, were also active in campaigns against child labor and for public health, sanitation, industrial workplace safety reform, and women’s suffrage. Programs for children and young people featured prominently among settlement houses’ services. Many offered kindergarten classes before kindergarten was offered in many public school districts. Settlement houses also provided classes, clubs, and social opportunities for children and teenagers.