Settlement Houses: Definition, History & Effects

Instructor: Jason McCollom
Located in urban areas of poverty, settlement houses aimed to address the problems of the rapidly growing American cities. Jane Addams and her Hull House led this movement in the 1890s and early twentieth century. Learn about settlement houses and test yourself with a quiz.

The Progressive Era Background of Settlement Houses

In a poor, immigrant neighborhood on Chicago's West Side in 1889, a well-dressed and well-off young lady drew the attention of residents. She was misplaced among the grime, dilapidated buildings, and scenes of poverty. Over time, however, Jane Addams became a fixture of South Halsted Street, after she leased two floors of the Hull House, an old structure built by Charles Hull.

Twenty-nine-year-old Jane Addams was a reformer of the Progressive Era, a period from the 1890s to around 1920. Progressives sought ways to bring greater democracy to Americans, to make government more efficient, and, like Addams, clean up urban areas and help those in poverty, with the goal of trying to close the gap between rich and poor. Hull House was a settlement house, an institution located in mainly poor and immigrant areas of major cities, which aimed to assist the less fortunate through a variety of measures.

Jane Addams
Jane Addams.

In the late nineteenth century the U.S. rapidly urbanized, and settlement houses were designed to address the problems of growing cities. Between 1870 and 1900, for instance, the urban population of America boomed from ten to thirty million. In 1920, the U.S. Census Office declared that the country was officially more urban than rural.

This rapid urban development made it difficult for local and state governments to provide basic services and build suitable infrastructure. In large areas of major cities, for example, garbage collection services, schools, and street cleaning were rare if not nonexistent. Progressive reformers such as Jane Addams believed settlement houses could begin to address these problems, while also improving the living conditions of the poor in urban areas.

Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890), by Jacob Riis. Riis highlighted the issue of American urban poverty in the late nineteenth century.
riis

The Rise and Spread of Settlement Houses

Settlement houses were safe residences in poverty-stricken, mostly immigrant neighborhoods in major cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. The settlement house movement began in England and then emerged in the U.S. in 1886 with the founding of University Settlement House in New York City.

Settlement houses had two functions. First, they provided a safe place for poor residents to receive medical care and provided nurseries for the children of working mothers. They offered meals and employment placement services. They sponsored lectures and gave music lessons. They trained residents for jobs, and offered gymnasiums to train one's body. Some settlement houses had an on-site savings bank. Hull House built Chicago's first public playground.

Second, settlement houses served a purpose for the reformers themselves, who were mostly college-educated women like Jane Addams. These women wanted to do things with the poor, not just do things for the poor. Settlement houses allowed them to live in and experience urban poverty, learn about the people there, and then figure out ways to improve the situation. For example, Lillian Ward, a nurse and pioneer of settlement houses in the U.S., joined other nurses and moved to the Lower East Side of New York City. She said they wanted 'to live in the neighborhood as nurses, identify ourselves with it socially, and contribute to it our citizenship.'

Hull House today
Hull House today.

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