“Christmas Settlement-Workers...”

December 11, 1909

Mark Henderson

“Christmas Settlement-Workers...”

American Indians; Charity, Poor Relief; Women, Charity;

No 'People' indexed for this cartoon.

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, groups of socially-conscious women (primarily) and men, usually from religious, educated, and middle- or upper-middle-class backgrounds, established “settlement” houses in the impoverished inner-cities of England and the United States.  The settlement workers sought to improve the lives of the urban poor, many of whom in the United States were immigrants, by offering education, job training, and other services, as well as by pressing for government legislation to improve urban conditions. 

Some critics, like cartoonist Mark Henderson, considered the settlement workers to be hypocritical do-gooders.  Here, he contrasts a frontier settler of the early-nineteenth century with a settlement worker 100 years later.  The humble and brave settler, in the midst of clearing the land, must defend his family and home from an Indian attack.  Conversely, it is the modern settlement worker—in her affluent attire, attended by a waiting coachman—who “attacks” the startled inner-city family (whose pose mimics that of the frontier family) by serving them tea.  The artist’s message is that the settlement workers do not meet the needs of those they feign to help, and, perhaps, that the urban poor (like the frontier settlers) are best left to fend for themselves.

The first settlement house was Toynbee Hall, established in 1884 by Samuel Augustus Barnett, an Anglican cleric, his wife, and university students in a poor section of London.  The British settlement house inspired Charles Stover and Stanton Coit to open a similar establishment two years later in the Lower East Side of New York City.  In 1889, Vida Scudder started the College Settlement in New York City, while a week later, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded what would become the most famous settlement house, Hull House in Chicago.  During the period from 1891 though 1897, many of which were years of economic depression, the number of settlement houses in American cities expanded from six to 74.  The movement also spread to cities to Western Europe, Japan, and Southeast Asia.

The settlement house staffs consisted of women and men (many of whom were Protestant ministers) who were part of a larger movement called the “Social Gospel.”  They endeavored to apply the Christian doctrines of neighborly assistance and charity to the poor to those people who were struggling to cope with the problems and challenges of the emerging industrial and urban society:  the poor, working-class, and immigrant populations of inner-cities.  The settlement houses followed no set plan, but were, in the words of Jane Addams, “an experimental effort to aid in the solution of social and industrial problems which are engendered by the modern condition of life in a great city.”

Most of the settlement house workers were college-educated, which was a privileged status obtained by few at the time, and was especially unusual for women.  With the establishment of settlement houses, college-educated women created careers in social work during an era when employment opportunities for women were very limited.  Women ran some settlement houses, such as Addams’s Hull House in Chicago and Lillian Wald’s Henry Street Settlement in New York City, and participated equally with men in other settlements.  By 1910, women constituted about half of all social workers, and made up 62 percent of that relatively new profession by 1920. 

The settlement houses became neighborhood centers, which provided various types of educational courses for adults and children, instruction in English and citizenship for the many immigrant residents, day care for the children of working parents, libraries, health care, recreational programs, summer camps, community theaters, meeting rooms for unions and political groups, and other services.  Some of the settlement houses also collected data about social and economic conditions in their neighborhoods and cities, which they used to agitate for legislation aimed at improving the lives of the urban poor and working class. 

A leading example was Chicago’s Hull House, where settlement house worker Florence Kelley, the daughter of Congressman William “Pig Iron” Kelley (Republican of Pennsylvania), headed the Labor Bureau.  She used statistics and other information collected from her work to lobby the state legislature to prohibit clothing manufacture in tenement houses, regulate child labor, and establish a factory inspector’s office in the state government.  In 1893, the Illinois State Legislature passed a bill crafted from her suggestions for labor reform, and Kelley served as the state’s first factory inspector (1893-1897).  Jane Addams and other Hull House staff also successfully lobbied for the creation of the nation’s first juvenile court system, which treated juvenile’s separately from adults, and a juvenile detention center for the Chicago metropolitan area.

Robert C. Kennedy

“Christmas Settlement-Workers...”
February 22, 2024

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