Education in settlement houses

This past week, our team visited the Chicago History Museum to continue gathering information about our individual topics. I was able to pull boxes from a settlement house in Cook County in the late 1800′s and early 1900′s. Settlement houses are basically where large groups of people would live together in an attempt to improve their lives in poor, urban areas. These settlement houses were typically essential in the care of families by providing a community atmosphere, childcare, as well as education. The education provided to people of all ages at settlement houses was designed to prepare them with skills they would need to succeed where they were, in this case the Chicago-area, to provide immigrants a way of adjusting to the standards and expectations in the U.S. The classes provided at settlement houses were typically geared toward traditional subjects like math and English, but mainly focused on skills and trades that would assist in securing a job, like sewing, stenography and typewriting, and bookkeeping.

While at the museum I was only able to go through one box of information on the settlement house. The box mostly contained the attendance records of students from the ages of 6 to 20 from 1882 to about 1885. When going through the attendance trends of the classes I found that there were a few kids that would miss school for weeks on end. More regularly however, I noted that several students would only attend school for half of the day for several months of the year, most likely indicating that these children were already working to help support their families. ​I also found a book of attendance records for the evening school classes for the school year of 1911-1912. This book was the most helpful in terms of gaining insight into the classes offered at the time. On the back of each week’s attendance sheet was a list of all possible courses and the number of students that were currently participating in each. During this particular year bookkeeping, stenography and typewriting, and mechanical drawing were the three classes being run; while foreign, gradework, manual training, and cooking the elementary classes offered at night that year. From the entire course list the emphasis on languages, math, science, shop work, bookkeeping, stenography and typewriting, and domestic skills like sewing and cooking were seen, since those were nearly all of the classes offered at the settlement house. Having a reference for the classes offered in 1911-1912 allow for a better understanding of the value placed on those skills at the time. For example, sewing was probably an important skill for mending clothing and finding work at the time but today there really isn’t a need to offer a sewing class in school since it isn’t readily required when people don’t often make or mend their belongings, but send them to a seamstress.

Another interesting find from this first box was a journal containing the meeting minutes of student-run organization. The book starts with the class of 1898, with each group would compose a constitution and elect a governing body. The bi-weekly meeting minutes basically just reflected the voting process that occurred once a month to elect new officers. Based on the minutes, the central point of their meetings appeared to be having a debate each week. For example, at the fourth meeting of 1898 the group debated “Is improved machinery a detriment to skilled labor?” another looking at “Does education decrease crime?” and “Should newspapers be issued on Sunday?” and even one topic for the class of 1999 was “Ought American women to vote?” Unfortunately only the tallies in agreement and opposition were recorded in the minutes, leaving out the discussion points that were used in debate.

I am really excited to go back and continuing to look at the contents of the rest of the boxes from this settlement house and see what other sources remain about the education provided there.