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.
In 1886 Stanton Coit, American-born leader of the Ethical movement in England founded the Neighborhood Guild on New York’s Lower East Side. In May 1891, the guild was as the University Settlement Society with the aim “to bring men and women of education into closer relations with the laboring classes in this city, for their mutual benefit. The society shall establish and maintain in the tenement house districts places of residence for college men and others desirous of aiding in the work, with rooms where the people of the neighborhood may meet for social and educational purposes.”—Constitution.Incorporated March, 1892.
Co-founded by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr in 1889, The Hull House in Chicago quickly becomes most famous settlement house in U.S. and serves as a model for over 400 other settlements across the country. 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. By 1893 Jane Addams begins referring to herself as “the grandmother of American settlements.”
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.