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7.2: Progressive Social Reformers

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Beginning around 1870, a Christian movement called the Social Gospel sought to apply the teachings of Jesus in the urban condition, helping immigrants and the poor and fighting vices such as alcoholism. Organizations such as the Salvation Army and the YMCA were formed as a part of this movement. One offshoot of the Social Gospel was the settlement house movement, in which well-educated white Christian women established houses in poor urban areas, from which they worked to educate the poor and help them out of poverty. The most famous such effort, Hull House, was established on the south side of Chicago by Jane Addams. As you read the documents about Hull House below, think about the attitude that advocates of the Social Gospel held toward the people they tried to help.

The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets

Source: Excerpt from Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, 1909. As more and more young immigrants moved from farms in the country to urban areas, dance halls became a popular form of recreation. Many progressive reformers found these dance halls to be inappropriate and pushed to create alternative forms of entertainment for youth, like amusement parks.

“One Sunday night at twelve o'clock I had occasion to go into a large public dance hall. As I was standing by the rail looking for the girl I had come to find, a young man approached me and quite simply asked me to introduce him to some “nice girl,” saying that he did not know any one there. On my replying that a public dance hall was not the best place in which to look for a nice girl, he said: “But I don't know any other place where there is a chance to meet any kind of a girl. I'm awfully lonesome since I came to Chicago.” And then he added rather defiantly: “Some nice girls do come here! It's one of the best halls in town.”....

The public dance halls filled with frivolous and irresponsible young people in a feverish search for pleasure, are but a sorry substitute for the old dances on the village green in which all of the older people of the village participated. Chaperonage was not then a social duty but natural and inevitable, and the whole courtship period was guarded by the conventions and restraint which were taken as a matter of course and had developed through years of publicity and simple propriety....

Let us know the modern city in its weakness and wickedness, and then seek to rectify and purify it until it shall be free at least from the grosser temptations which now beset the young people who are living in its tenement houses and working in its factories.”

“Dance Halls” – Louise de Koven Bowen

Source: Excerpts from an article by a Progressive social reformer, Louise de Koven Bowen, called “Dance Halls,” published in June 1911.

The dances are short--four to five minutes; the intermissions are long--fifteen to twenty minutes; thus ample opportunity is given for drinking....

In these same halls obscene language is permitted, and even the girls among the habitues carry on indecent conversation, using much profanity, while the less sophisticated girls stand around listening, scandalized but fascinated....

Many of the halls are poorly lighted--172 belong to this class. There is very little protection in case of fire....

A city ordinance should be enacted covering the following points:

... 2. All dance halls should be made to comply with the regulations of the Building and Fire Departments so as to insure proper sanitation and adequate fire protection. By this means many small and poorly built halls would be forced out of business because they could not pass inspection.

3. The sale of liquors in dance halls or in buildings connected with them should be prohibited....

7. No immoral dancing or familiarity should be tolerated.

8. People under the influence of liquor or known prostitutes should not be permitted in dance halls....

11. There should be an inspector of dance halls who should have in his department a corps of assistants who would regularly inspect the dance halls and make reports concerning them to him weekly.

Passage from Twenty Years at Hull-house

Source: Excerpt from Jane Addams’ book, Twenty Years at Hull-House, (1910). This passage comes from a chapter called “Immigrants and Their Children.”

[A]n Italian girl who has had lessons in cooking at the public school will help her mother to connect the entire family with American food and household habits. That the mother has never baked bread in Italy–only mixed it in her own house and then taken it out to the village oven–makes all the more valuable her daughter's understanding of the complicated cooking stove. The same thing is true of the girl who learns to sew in the public school, and more than anything else, perhaps, of the girl who receives the first simple instruction in the care of little children–that skillful care which every tenement-house baby requires if he is to be pulled through his second summer....

Thus through civic instruction in the public schools, the Italian woman slowly became urbanized in the sense in which the word was used by her own Latin ancestors, and thus the habits of her entire family were modified. The public schools in the immigrant colonies deserve all the praise as Americanizing agencies which can be bestowed upon them, and there is little doubt that the fast-changing curriculum in the direction of the vacation-school experiments will react more directly upon such households.

I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl

Source: The document below was written by Hilda Satt Polacheck in the 1950s, in her book I Came a Stranger: The Story of a Hull-House Girl. She tells about her memories of Hull House from 1896.

Several days before Christmas 1896 one of my Irish playmates suggested that I go with her to a Christmas party at Hull-House....

I then asked her if there would be any Jewish children at the party. She assured me that there had been Jewish children at the parties every year and that no one was ever hurt....

The thought began to percolate through my head that things might be different in America. In Poland it had not been safe for Jewish children to be on the streets on Christmas....

The children of the Hull-House Music School then sang some songs, that I later found out were called “Christmas carols.” I shall never forget the caressing sweetness of those childish voices. All feelings of religious intolerance and bigotry faded. I could not connect this beautiful party with any hatred or superstition that existed among the people of Poland.

As I look back, I know that I became a staunch American at this party. I was with children who had been brought here from all over the world. I was with children who had been brought here from all over the world. The fathers and mothers, like my father and mother, had come in search of a free and happy life. And we were all having a good time at a party, as the guests of an American, Jane Addams.

Section Questions:

  1. How do you think immigrants viewed progressive reformers like Jane Addams? As genuinely helpful? As overly judgmental? Provide three pieces of evidence from the documents in support of your argument.

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CK.SOC.ENG.SE.1.History-U.S.-Adv.7.2

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