Who Created the Settlement Houses?

Children at Hull House, black and white photo taken in 1908.

Chicago Daily News / Chicago History Museum / Getty Images

The settlement house, an approach to social reform with roots in the late 19th century and the Progressive Movement, was a method for serving the poor in urban areas by living among them and serving them directly. As the residents of settlement houses learned effective methods of helping, they then worked to transfer long-term responsibility for the programs to government agencies. Settlement house workers, in their work to find more effective solutions to poverty and injustice, also pioneered the profession of social work. Philanthropists funded the settlement houses. Often, organizers like Jane Addams made their funding appeals to the wives of the wealthy businessmen. Through their connections, the women and men who ran the settlement houses were also able to influence political and economic reforms.

Women may have been drawn to the "public housekeeping" idea, extending the idea of a women's sphere of responsibility for keeping house into public activism.

The term "neighborhood center" (or in British English, neighbourhood centre) is often used today for similar institutions, as the early tradition of "residents" settling in the neighborhood has given way to professionalized social work.

Some settlement houses served whatever ethnic groups were in the area. Others, such as those directed towards African Americans or Jews, served groups that weren't always welcome in other community institutions.

Through the work of such women as Edith Abbott and Sophonisba Breckinridge, the thoughtful extension of what the settlement house workers learned led to the founding of the profession of social work. Community organizing and group work both have roots in the settlement house movement's ideas and practices.

The settlement houses tended to be founded with secular goals, but many who were involved were religious progressives, often influenced by the social gospel ideals.

First Settlement Houses

The first settlement house was Toynbee Hall in London, founded in 1883 by Samuel and Henrietta Barnett. This was followed by Oxford House in 1884, and others such as the Mansfield House Settlement.

The first American settlement house was the Neighborhood Guild, founded by Stanton Coit, in 1886. The Neighborhood Guild failed soon after and inspired another guild, the College Settlement (later the University Settlement), named because the founders were graduates of the Seven Sisters colleges.

Famous Settlement Houses

The best-known settlement house is perhaps Hull House in Chicago, founded in 1889 by Jane Addams with her friend Ellen Gates Starr. Lillian Wald and the Henry Street Settlement in New York is also well known. Both of these houses were staffed primarily by women and both resulted in many reforms with long-lasting effects and many programs that exist today.

The Movement Spreads

Other notable early settlement houses were the East Side House in 1891 in New York City, Boston's South End House in 1892, the University of Chicago Settlement and the Chicago Commons (both in Chicago in 1894), Hiram House in Cleveland in 1896, Hudson Guild in New York City in 1897, and Greenwich House in New York in 1902.

By 1910, there were more than 400 settlement houses in more than 30 states in America. At the peak in the 1920s, there were almost 500 of these organizations. The United Neighborhood Houses of New York today encompasses 35 settlement houses in New York City. About 40 percent of settlement houses were founded and supported by a religious denomination or organization.

The movement was mostly present in the U.S. and Great Britain, but a movement of "Settlement" in Russia existed from 1905 to 1908.

More House Residents and Leaders

  • Edith Abbott, a pioneer in social work and social service administration, was a Hull House resident with her sister Grace Abbott, New Deal chief of the federal Children's Bureau.
  • Emily Greene Balch, later a Nobel Peace Prize winner, worked in and for some time headed Boston's Denison House.
  • George Bellamy founded Hiram House in Cleveland in 1896.
  • Sophonisba Breckinridge from Kentucky was another Hull House resident who went on to contribute to the field of professional social work.
  • John Dewey taught at Hull House when he lived in Chicago and supported the settlement house movement in Chicago and New York. He named a daughter for Jane Addams.
  • Amelia Earhart was a settlement house worker at Denison House in Boston in 1926 and 1927.
  • John Lovejoy Elliot was the founder of Hudson Guild in New York City.
  • Lucy Flower of Hull House was involved in a variety of movements.
  • Mary Parker Follett used what she learned in settlement house work in Boston to write about human relations, organization, and management theory, inspiring many later management writers, including Peter Drucker.
  • Alice Hamilton, the first female professor at Harvard, was a Hull House resident.
  • Florence Kelley, who worked for protective legislation for women and children and headed the National Consumers' League, was another Hull House resident.
  • Julia Lathrop, who helped create America's juvenile court system and the first woman to head a federal bureau, was a long-time Hull House resident.
  • Minnie Low, who founded the Maxwell Street Settlement House, also founded the National Council of Jewish Women and a loan association for Jewish immigrant women.
  • Mary McDowell was a Hull House resident who helped start a kindergarten there. She later was a founder of the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) and helped found the University of Chicago Settlement.
  • Mary O'Sullivan was a Hull House resident who became a labor organizer.
  • Mary White Ovington worked at Greenpoint Settlement House and helped found the Lincoln Settlement in Brooklyn.
  • Alice Paul, of women's suffrage fame, worked in the New York College Settlement and then in the settlement house movement in England, where she saw the more radical side of women's suffrage that she then brought back to America.
  • Francis Perkins, the first woman appointed to the U.S. cabinet, worked at Hull House and later in a settlement house in Philadelphia.
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, as a young woman, worked at Henry Street Settlement House as a volunteer.
  • Vida Dutton Scudder was connected with College Settlement in New York.
  • Mary Simkhovitch was a city planner who founded Greenwich House in Greenwich Village, New York City.
  • Graham Taylor founded the Chicago Commons Settlement.
  • Ida B. Wells-Barnett helped create a settlement house in Chicago to serve African Americans newly arrived from the South.
  • Lucy Wheelock, a kindergarten pioneer, started a kindergarten at a Boston settlement house.
  • Robert Archey Woods founded South End House, the first Boston settlement house.


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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Created the Settlement Houses?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/settlement-house-movement-3530383. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2023, April 5). Who Created the Settlement Houses? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/settlement-house-movement-3530383 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Created the Settlement Houses?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/settlement-house-movement-3530383 (accessed June 3, 2023).