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Settlement House Movement

A Region of Overcrowded Homes, illustration from Lillian D. Wald, The House on Henry Street, 1915.
"A Region of Overcrowded Homes," illustration from Lillian D. Wald, The House on Henry Street, 1915.

The settlement house movement began in Britain in 1884 when middle-class London reformers established Toynbee Hall, the first settlement house, in East London to provide social services and education to the poor workers who lived there. Inspired by the British movement, American social reformers began founding settlement houses in the late 1880s to respond to growing industrial poverty. In 1886, Stanton Coit founded Neighborhood Guild, the first US settlement house, in New York City. In 1889, Jane Addams and her friend Ellen Starr founded Hull-House in Chicago, which would eventually become the most famous settlement house in the US. By 1887, there were 74 settlements in the United States, and the number had ballooned to over 400 by 1890. Forty percent of settlement houses were in Boston, Chicago, and New York—the leading industrial centers—but most small cities had at least one settlement.

The major purpose of settlement houses was to help to assimilate and ease the transition of immigrants into the labor force by teaching them middle-class American values. In Chicago, for instance, Hull-House helped to educate immigrants by providing classes in history, art, and literature. Hull-House also provided social services to reduce the effects of poverty, including a daycare center, homeless shelter, public kitchen, and public baths. Settlement houses like Hull-House were a nexus for political activism, with reformers like Jane Addams becoming involved in advocating social legislation to combat poverty in local, state, and national politics.

Although the mainstream settlement house movement was nondenominational and abstained from proselytizing, many religious organizations were responsible for establishing settlements, including the Roman Catholic Church, the YWCA, and the Women's Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. In response to black migrations from the South to the northern industrial centers, African-American churches founded settlement houses to provide social services to newly arrived black migrants. In Chicago, for example, Reverend Reverdy Ransom founded the African Methodist Episcopal Institutional Church to provide employment, education, and welfare services to black migrants.

By joining the movement, African-American churches were also responding to the racism that affected many settlement houses. While European immigrants were judged to be capable of being assimilated into middle-class American society, many white settlement reformers viewed African-Americans as incapable of entering mainstream American society, which ultimately led to segregation of black settlement houses from white settlement houses for European immigrants.

One of the revolutionary characteristics of the settlement house movement was that many of the most important leadership roles were filled by women, in an era when women were still excluded from leadership roles in business and government. Approximately half of the major US settlement houses were led and staffed predominantly by women. Among the most influential leaders were Jane Addams, Mary Simkhovitch, Helena Dudley, Lillian Wald, Mary McDowell, Florence Kelley, Alice Hamilton, and Edith Abbott.

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Settlement House Movement


Carson, Mina. "Settlement House Movement," in The Reader's Companion to US Women's History.

Davis, Allen. "Settlement Houses," in The Reader's Companion to American History.

Lasch-Quinn, Elisabeth. "Religious Settlements," in The Encyclopedia of Chicago.