What Was the Settlement House Movement? | History & Purpose

Reed Hepler, Jason McCollom
  • Author
    Reed Hepler

    Reed Hepler received an M.L.I.S. from IUPUI, with emphases in Digital Curation and Archives Management. He received a Bachelor’s in History from USU, with minors in Religious Studies and Anthropology. He also earned a Certificate in Museum Studies. He has worked in museums, libraries, archives, and historical sites for the past four years.

  • Instructor
    Jason McCollom

    Jason has a PhD.

Learn all about the settlement house movement. Understand what settlement houses were, their purpose, and who received benefits from settlement houses. Updated: 11/03/2021

Table of Contents


Settlement House Movement

What was the settlement house movement? The settlement house movement was a social movement that supported the idea of creating large housing projects to provide mobility for the working class. It grew out of a desire for reform that had already had effects in several other areas, such as the creation of numerous charities to help people in poverty. Widespread support for this idea began in Great Britain in the 1860s and quickly spread to other Western countries such as the United States and Canada. The Industrial Revolution and its social effects, such as long working hours, the safety hazards of the factory system, and the self-absorption of industrialists, alarmed the idealistic Christian Socialists who desired to help the poor rise above their condition through education and moral improvement.

Settlement work was concerned with helping the poor as a social class rather than on an individual basis. It was theorized that if members of the poor working class lived in proximity to educated, refined people, their work morale and education status would improve as well. To aid this, half of the tenants of these houses were ''refined'' graduates of upper-class colleges who lived there to aid the working class by association. House organizers hoped that the sub-culture of higher education would elevate the paradigm of the poor and help them to rise out of their situation.

The origins of the settlement house movement lie in the Industrial Revolution. In the late-19th-century, there were no organized reform movements or labor laws to aid the working class. The factory system had just barely begun, which led to workers' income becoming drastically reduced. In the United States, a massive influx of immigration made this problem much worse. Christian leaders advanced the theory of the Social Gospel. The Social Gospel stated that true Christians cared more for the poor workers and immigrants and that wealthy Christians had an obligation to help the lower classes of society rather than work toward their own capitalist interests.

Some of these houses aided the entire working-class population, but others were created to work with a specific subgroup. In Cleveland, Ohio, for example, different settlement houses served different immigrant populations. Hiram House, for example, mostly worked with Jews, Italian immigrants, and African Americans. East End Neighborhood House and Goodrich House served east European immigrants.

Samuel and Henrietta Barnett founded the first Settlement House, Toynbee Hall, in Great Britain.

Color painting. Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, who look seriously at the viewer, founded the first Settlement House in Great Britain.

One of the first settlement houses was created in East London in 1875. Samuel A. Barnett, the vicar of a local Anglican congregation, and Arnold Toynbee, an Oxford graduate, attempted to create an environment in which they could aid the poor working class through education. Under Barnett's direction, Toynbee lectured the working class on economics and politics. Nine years later, after Toynbee's death, Toynbee Hall was founded in Whitechapel. Most of the students who worked with the poor tenants were volunteers who worked at the house for various reasons (course credit, desire to do relief work, career experience, etc.).

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Settlement Houses

What is a Settlement House? The settlement house definition is best understood as being a housing project designed for the purpose of elevating the situation of members of the poor working class. The organizers of these houses hoped to reform the characteristics, actions, and perspectives of their tenants. Once these aspects of their lives were changed, they could become educated and take higher-paying jobs, moving out of the settlement houses and providing more for their families.

Only a few rooms were intended as residences. The bulk of the house was reserved for food preparation, education, exercise, recreation, and other activities to assist the poor. Tenants, mostly college graduates from upper-class universities and colleges, maintained the building and worked with the working class.

Administrators of the houses and educators worked not only with the tenants of the houses but also with leaders of the community, including factory owners and politicians. Services offered included infant nurseries, job training, and medical care. Although the founders of the houses had high aspirations, many of the workers who had the most interaction with the working class were amateurs who could not have much effect.

In the United States, Robert A. Woods founded the Andover House in Boston in 1892. His perspective viewed the settlement houses as natural opportunities for college students to study the causes of working-class poverty. He urged his students to find the root of these causes and help their tenants in a malleable, flexible way rather than relying on idealistic standards.

Jane Addams was a major proponent of the settlement house movement, co-founding the Hull House in 1889.

Black and white photograph. Jane Addams leans against a balcony, looking toward the camera with a serious face. Addams was a proponent of the settlement house movement.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Was the settlement house movement successful?

Settlement houses were successful in some ways but not in others. They failed to eliminate poverty and all of its causes, but they were able to alleviate some of them.

What did the settlement house movement do?

The settlement movement was part of a broader effort for social reform. House founders attempted to uplift the working class urban poor by exposing them to high society, assisting their families, and providing educational opportunities.

How did settlement houses work?

Settlement houses were housing projects designed to elevate the situation of the members of the poor working class. University students and other volunteers lived in the houses and provided a variety of social, cultural, and educational programs for community members.

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