Social Reform through Social Service: The Settlement Movement in South Philadelphia
by Richard N. Juliani
In its December 1881 monthly report, the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charity revealed the disturbing findings its volunteer neighborhood "visitors" had encountered in the area of St. Mary, Spafford, and Alaska streets, as well as its vision of charity:
The wretched life, led by the criminal poor who crowd this region beggars description. Drunkenness, prostitution, thieving and beggary, go hand in hand. The old live like beasts of prey; the children are born to be trained in wickedness; little boys and girls of twelve and thirteen—often as young as ten, one Visitor believes, are confirmed prostitutes and thieves. Dens of vice are supported by beggary, and every crime nourished by the laxity of public sentiment which allows hideous old men and women to ply their trade throughout the city, obtaining easily the means, not only of living, but of sensual indulgence and beastility [sic]. . . .Men, women and children, huddle together like animals, in filth, often in want, always in wickedness. . . .What can be done for human creatures sunk so low? Wrong as is the ordinary promiscuous alms-giving, and unavailing for the healing of the miseries of the poor as are the doles, here it becomes almost fellowship in crime with the miserable recipients of such charity. Would that the brain and heart of this great city would set to work upon the problem! And the possibility of removing this plague-spot depends upon the active cooperation of forces that we have among us—our City Government, our Health Board, and the Charities that already give so much in alms and attention. . . .
While this report focused on arguably the worst section of the city, its description applied to other districts as well. These middle-class visitors—who seemed almost as concerned with the intrusion and inconvenience the poor imposed on other Philadelphians—presented a somewhat Dickensian portrait of squalor and degradation. Though these conditions had existed since colonial times, immigration, class antagonisms, political corruption, and labor militancy promised even wider disturbances to the social order of the late 19th-century city. Their report, however, also implied that the remedy not only had to meet the exigencies of survival and adjustment for needy inhabitants but also to allay the fears and uncertainties of other Philadelphians. And while other areas faced similar issues, South Philadelphia, with its distinctive confluence of industry and housing, provided a primary location to test the good will and efforts of those who would accept this challenge.
While various agencies and institutions had provided charitable services to less fortunate Philadelphians throughout the 19th century, reform now entered a new chapter in humanitarian care, one that moved beyond the preoccupation with "progress" that so captured the imagination in the Victorian period. These reformers recognized the less welcome consequences that industrialization and urbanization brought along in their wake. Dismissing the simplistic view that poverty and crime came from deficiencies of personal character, the reformers sought to understand better, as well as to alter, the social structure within which human life unfolded. Rejecting the premise of Social Darwinism that society could heal itself, they recognized the need to intervene in order to alleviate the miseries of, if not to rescue, its victims. Convinced that corporations were far more concerned with profit than the welfare of workers, they turned to the plight of families whose labor generated the wealth but who reaped few of the benefits of the industrial order. This generation of academic scholars, "muckraking" journalists, and more-or-less radical activists who sought to reform policy and redirect action ushered in America's Progressive Era.
In Philadelphia, reformers sought to ameliorate social conditions by combining innovative initiatives with traditional beliefs. Members of affluent and privileged Protestant families were attracted by the ideas of the Social Gospel Movement, which proposed that the tenets of Christianity required the pursuit not only of personal redemption but also a better temporal life for those less fortunate human beings. The church itself was not only a vessel of spiritual transport, but also an instrument to redeem society. And with this awakening, the settlement movement, with its combined goals of social service and social reform, established itself in Philadelphia. The settlement movement represented a shift away from more traditional approaches in charity work, such as had long been conducted by the Southwark Soup Society at 833 S. Hancock Street and similar organizations in South Philadelphia, which mainly distributed food, fuel, and other forms of assistance to the needy.
The Neighborhood Guild, generally regarded as the first settlement in the United States, opened in New York City in 1886 and was modeled after Toynbee Hall, which had been founded in London's East End two years earlier. In that same year, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull House, destined to become the most celebrated settlement in the United States, in Chicago. And with the opening of the College Settlement in 1892, originally at 617 St. Mary Street (now Rodman) and later moved to 423–33 Christian Street, the movement reached Philadelphia. By 1911, some 24 settlement houses and neighborhood centers maintained programs throughout the city and as far away as the New Jersey seashore. While they generally provided a broad spectrum of activities, some of them, such as the Settlement Music School, offered more specialized agendas. Along with nonsectarian agencies, settlements operated under Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, Roman Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Jewish, and unspecific, but Christian, auspices.
Several settlements sought to improve neighborhood life in South Philadelphia. Evolving from the St. Mary Street Library Association (founded in 1884), the College Settlement mainly served African Americans before reaching out to immigrants as well. By 1904, its constituency included African Americans, Russians, Italians, Poles, Austrians, Germans, Irish, Romanians, English, and Americans living between Pine Street and Washington Avenue, S. Eighth Street and the Delaware River. The Starr Centre, located at 7th and Lombard, where the College Settlement had moved its library and kitchen, absorbed both operations by 1900. Seven years later, the Starr Centre relocated its pure milk Baby Saving Station to Casa Ravello, a "model tenement," at S. Seventh and Catharine streets. It used the "planting of kitchens" not merely to feed the poor, but to nourish their moral improvement as well. The settlement's concerns ranged from protecting children from exploitative employment and parental cruelty to ensuring high moral standards, physical health, and good public sanitation. In addition to the milk program, the Starr Centre also provided a medical department, home doctor visits, a savings club, and cooking and sewing classes.
The Starr Centre used material support, however, as a means to pursue other objectives. Its work only began with such concerns of the poor as "where to live, what to eat, and wherewithal to be clothed." Its larger goal was "the Americanization of the immigrant," and "the providing of pure honest milk to a helpless mother in the hour of her baby's greatest need" furthered this goal as it led "one straight to the immigrant's heart." While its annual reports offered a patronizing depiction of those immigrants—"An acquaintance with the Italians will do us all good. They love beautiful music, pictures, flowers—the things that add grace to life"—the oddly gratuitous effort to teach cooking to Italian women revealed another objective—in teaching "the mother to cook American food in an American way . . . in a very quiet and unobtrusive way [the settlement worker carried] on intensive Americanization." The ambivalent attitude reflected in this approach, however, reflected far more tolerance for immigrant peoples than they encountered elsewhere at this time.
Not far from the Starr Centre, the Reed Street Neighborhood House, located at 714 Reed Street, had evolved from the St. James Industrial School for Girls and Women (1875–1913), founded by upper-class members of St. James Episcopal Church to rescue destitute girls from the streets. On Easter Sunday of 1913, the school moved to South Philadelphia, where it introduced a new program that included boys and all age groups, before becoming the nonsectarian Reed Street Neighborhood House six years later.
From its inception, the Reed House offered a kindergarten, library, children's bank, sewing instruction, summer school, girls club, and bathing facilities. In order to reduce infant mortality in the area, by 1916 its staff included a physician, who reportedly spoke standard Italian and understood regional dialects. The settlement's focus on the needs of Italians, however, created some challenges for its workers. The popularity of its summer camp program, which removed children temporarily from their surroundings, became an issue when it seemed as if every boy in the neighborhood applied. However, teaching domestic skills to neighborhood children proved difficult when it appeared that the boys really had only one thought—basketball. At the same time, workers often learned as much from their immigrant neighbors as they taught. When Italian mothers attended a house party with their children, they taught resident workers how to perform the tarantella, a regional folk dance. A response to reformers' misgivings about the influence of neighborhood "dance halls," such activities offered a more wholesome setting for younger members who wished to dance, while furthering cultural understanding.
By the 1920s, with the growing participation of Italians and Jews, the Reed House offered gymnastics, basketball, dancing and sewing classes, and lectures on the childhoods of American heroes. But for Americanization to succeed, settlement workers needed to be culturally sensitive so as not to alienate those they served. The Reed House staff drafted a carefully worded plan that not only eschewed ridicule of the practices of immigrant parents, but encouraged "reverent obedience" and mutual love between parents and children.
Beatrice Tokatline, who long served as Reed House's resident head worker, epitomized these cultural tensions. Madame T, as she was known by her young clients, ruled the house with a firm hand, and parents approved of her sternness. One participant in house programs remembered Tokatline years later with a lingering mixture of respect and fear and described how she inspected the fingernails of boys before allowing them to pass through its entrance. But participants were less likely to be aware of and certainly unlikely to appreciate her deprecatory perception of them. In annual reports she described the Italian girls in her sewing classes as "a very desultory group of no talent." Noting that "Italians have an inborn cowardice," she also emphasized the need to cultivate a healthy spirit, courage, and self-control in the immigrant boys. Yet the formidable Madame T kept her views at least somewhat hidden from her clients, some of whom remembered her years later as someone who loved the Italians of the neighborhood.
While immigrant families were highly receptive to the programs and personnel of South Philadelphia's settlement houses, some aspects of their agenda caused concern. Although their children were routinely excused from activities with Protestant overtones, some Italian Catholics remained suspicious that the Reed House, despite its nonsectarian identity, sought to convert them to Protestantism. In 1904 the Archdiocese of Philadelphia initiated its own version of the settlement movement with the Madonna House, at 814 S. 10th Street, under the auspices of the Catholic Missionary Society of Philadelphia. Aware of what settlement houses, whether affiliated with other denominations or secular, were accomplishing, the Catholic settlement movement offered similar programs. But if other places held the threat of Protestant proselytization, Catholic settlements sometimes attempted to convert Italians into Irish Catholics. Nonetheless, as Catholic efforts expanded, Italian families who feared what might happen at a "Protestant" settlement could find programs more to their liking at the Madonna House and similar facilities.
St. Martha's House, founded by Episcopalians in 1901, was located at 2029 S. Eighth Street, near Snyder Avenue, in a still developing section of South Philadelphia. Its Domestic Circle, a "society of American women," but largely of English, Irish, Swedish, and German origins, sought to elevate home life as well as to integrate the neighborhood as a more harmonious community through lectures and exhibitions. Deaconess Jean W. Colesbury, who served as director for many years, earned a reputation as a kindly leader. While intending "to use democratic methods" in addressing health, housing, and recreational interests, however, St. Martha's ambitious program faced a formidable challenge in the ethnic diversity of its surrounding area. Like the Starr Centre, the broad gamut of services offered to a diverse population of Italians, Russian Jews, Irish, Germans, English, and Austrians included a medical and dental clinic, milk distribution center, savings bank, library, and kindergarten. As the Italian population greatly increased between 1910 and 1918, it became the predominant group served by St. Martha's.
Like the settlement movement almost everywhere, St. Martha's wrestled with the difficult task of providing social services that facilitated adjustment while respecting the cultural integrity of the peoples that it served. Even if workers did not proselytize, they could be insensitive in their efforts to shape children along cultural and religious paths. For instance, St. Martha's denied Yetta and Elizabeth Glazier its customary prizes for scholarship because they were not Christians. Instead it gave them cards depicting the life of Christ, thereby dismissing their family's Jewish faith. St. Martha's remained under church control until it became a United Fund agency and was renamed the Houston Community Center in the 1960s.
The settlement movement lasted in Philadelphia up to the mid-20th century, when the remaining houses were reconstituted as community centers or YMCA branches. But its impact had reached well beyond the assistance provided to the families and children of immigrants, the poor, and the working classes in city neighborhoods. The settlement houses had also undoubtedly helped to nurture social work as a modern profession. And the New Deal, with its efforts through governmental means to rescue Americans from the depths of the Great Depression, drew inspiration from the settlements' work—to provide better housing for the poor, public recreation space, job retraining for the unemployed, day care for children, activities for the elderly, and health care for entire families. By immersing its resident workers in the communities that they sought to serve, the settlement movement also anticipated the Peace Corps. Settlement programs were not always guided by pure altruism, and sometimes camouflaged sectarian and class interests. But they offered a more palatable alternative to the harsher strategies of Americanization widespread during this era that were motivated by fear and hostility toward foreign cultures and peoples. With their softer approach to assimilation, the settlements, in South Philadelphia and elsewhere, often sought to unite the diverse racial and ethnic groups of their neighborhoods in an exemplary experiment in pluralism and democracy.
Rich Juliani teaches sociology at Villanova University and it the author of Building Little Italy: Philadelphia's Italians before Mass Migration (1998) and Priest, Parish, and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia's "Little Italy" (2007).
- This article originally appeared in the November 2007 issue of Pennsylvania Legacies, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania's illustrated public history magazine. http://www.hsp.org/default.aspx?id=69