What Makes a Settlement House? Blogging SSAWW 2009

After our panel presentations yesterday, Voices from the Settlement House an interesting question was posed by University of California, San Diego professor Nicole Tonkovich about whether or not settlement houses were exclusively an urban phenomenon. The discussion that evolved during the Q&A period and then after lunch showed that this not a easily answerable . . . .

Sarah Lock, a professor from Weatherford College, who presented on the panel, offered a really nice explanation about other contemporary (Progressive Era, 1880-1920) institutions that fulfilled same functions but in different locales. “Settlement houses”or “social settlements” bearing that specific moniker do seem to be largely urban, most likely because of the concentration of money and people that are needed to offer the breadth of resources to a mass of people. Moreover the social settlement is also a institution in space, a building or a series of buildings, not just a collection of services.

However, as Lock pointed out, there are examples of other organizations that offered many of the same programs that were associated with African American schools in the south, thus they are not exactly urban (or in the north) but they are institutional in organization and had a community of people to serve and from which to draw resources. I suggested that some of the work that was conducted at or by asocial settlement did on occasions get taken up by women’s groups, thus extending the borders of one institution across the nation. The example I was thinking about was when a group of women at Hull House were reforming child labor practices and in an effort to document incidences of child labor they sent out a call to women’s groups across the country asking them to begin documenting incidents that they saw firsthand in their own communities of children working. This call was met by women who were awakened to the reality of child labor in their communities and then their results were brought into the larger work of the activists based in the urban (northern) social settlement.

Another question that arose from this conversation was posed over lunch by Judith Ranta. Ranta works on women and girls who labored in the New England textile mills and she delivered the third paper on our panel. Her paper discussed Jennie Collins (1828-1887) and Boffins’ Bower, which was an institution that helped find work for women and offered a myriad of much-needed services to the poorest women of Boston. Over our Chinese food, Ranta asked if we thought Boffin’s Bower was a settlement house. Obviously, I thought it fit enough to include her paper on the panel, but when we started to discuss it many questions about category distinctions arose.

Boffin’s Bower was established in Boston’s East Side in the 1870’s, many years before Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened Hull House. Boffin’s Bower was started by Jennie Collins who was not a college-educated reformer, but who already lived in the southside neighborhood in which she established her organization.

Ranta noted that the wealthy women of Boston who engaged in philanthropy were suspicious of Collins and Boffins’ Bower. However, these same philanthropically-minded women did, a few years later, give money to the college-educated women who arrived in Boston to do reform work. Ranta’s work on Collins is fascinating, and she has edited and written an introduction for a new addition of Nature’s Aristocracy: A Plea for the Oppressed (1871) by Jennie Collins that will be released in May 2010 by University of Nebraska Press.

Some of the questions that we identified that might be pertinent to the question of what distinguishes a settlement house from something else might include:

Is a social settlement defined by the fact that educated middle-class women (and men) establish it or provide the services to the neighbors?

Does it need to be located in an urban environment? Is there something particular about social settlements that mean they are defined by the structure that they take in relation to the surrounding neighborhood?

Are there types of services that are included in a number of social settlements that can be used to define them?

I imagine that there are other questions that I will come upon that will flesh out this discussion, but these are my initial thoughts. None of us could think of any texts that have defined settlement houses or taken on this question. Obviously social settlements began in England, so perhaps looking to the origin of the name and the institution there would be a place to start. I imagine that in the U.S. the use of the term social settlement or settlement house began after Addams and Starr returned from London, which is why Jennie Collins didn’t call Boffins’ Bower a settlement house. Of course other American reformers may have imported the term as well.

Perhaps another place to look for information about the question of locale and the kinds of work that was done in social settlements might be on the little bit of scholarship that links the black missions of the south to the settlement houses of the north.[1] I think it is significant to this relationship that Victoria Earle Matthews, named her settlement the White Rose Mission. Matthews was a African American journalist, who’d been born into slavery and eventually move to New York City and opened a social settlement after the death of her teenage son.

[1] See Luker, Ralph E. “Missions, Institutional Churches, and Settlement Houses: The Black Experience, 1885-1910.” The Journal of Negro History 69.3/4 (1984): 101-13. I haven’t yet found any more recent work that addresses this issue.