The American Settlement House Movement: Page 2

Fortunately, a trip to Toynbee Hall in 1888 provided Addams with a solution to her quandary. For unlike medicine or law, which required specific professional training that was often closed to nineteenth-century American women, social settlement work was more or less “‘free from professional doing good’.” More importantly, it offered Addams an opportunity to engage in socially-meaningful work -- in this case, helping the urban immigrant poor -- without forcing her to step outside the accepted women’s vocational role of nurturer or “bread giver” (a role that Addams actually embraced). And so, infused with a new sense of purpose, a jubilant Addams wrote to her close friend Ellen Gates Starr from London, beseeching her to consider founding a settlement house similar to Toynbee in an urban American neighborhood. Starr agreed to do so, and in 1889, the two opened Hull House in Chicago, Illinois’s squalid Nineteenth Ward.

At first, Addams and Starr offered cultural “uplift” programs to the immigrants who patronized Hull House, such as reading aloud to them from books or showing them slideshows of famous paintings. But these activities were eventually set aside as impractical, for they failed to address the true problems of urban immigrant life. What the poor needed was education, suitable health care services, better homes, and an advocate in their struggle to secure safe working conditions; “cultural uplift,” important though it may have been, was of dubious immediate value to struggling working-class families. With this in mind, Addams and Starr adopted a more pragmatic approach in their relationship to the community, allowing the needs of their clients, rather than their own perceptions of what their clients needed, shape Hull House policy. In this they were aided by reformer Julia Lathrop, a trained lawyer, who worked tirelessly to curb the ills of industrial capitalism. They also benefited from the advice of such luminaries as John Dewey (among the foremost pioneers of American public education) and W. I. Thompson (a renowned Progressive Era sociologist), both of whom served on the faculty of the University of Chicago and both of whom made periodic forays to Hull House.

In time, and with a great deal of work, Hull House developed into a truly remarkable institution. Using their own funds, as well as those donated by wealthy Chicago philanthropists, Addams and Starr provided a kindergarten for the children of working mothers; social clubs for boys and girls; a coffee house; an art gallery; a movie theatre; and the nation’s first indoor gymnasium. The Hull House staff also encouraged immigrant workers to unionize and seek better working conditions, despite the fact that this position, which was viewed as dangerous and radical by many Americans, served to drive a wedge between the settlement and some of its patrons.
Taking a cue from Addams, and from other settlement house pioneers such as Lillian Wald, who founded New York’s Henry Street Settlement in 1893, American women flocked to the social settlement movement. There were, by 1900, an estimated one hundred settlement houses scattered throughout the nation’s largest cities, most of which were similar to Hull House in terms of goals and infrastructure, and all of which were staffed primarily by unwed, college educated women.

Eventually, as early twentieth-century American civic governments took a more active role in tackling the problems associated with industrial life, the need for urban social settlements began to wane. And yet, the settlement house spirit lived on, for there were vast regions of the United States -- most notably the Southern Appalachian Mountains -- that had been passed over by the perceived benefits of Progressive Era American life. For approximately four decades beginning in the late 1880s, American Progressives migrated to the Appalachian South, founding an archipelago of social settlement and vocational schools. Among them was the Pi Beta Phi Settlement School, which opened its doors in the hamlet of Gatlinburg, Tennessee in February 1912.

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Teachers and Pi Phi Administrators on horseback, circa 1925

Settlement School teachers and staff, circa 1920

 
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