Settlement House History

In 1886, Stanton Coit founded America's first settlement house, the Neighborhood Guild (later renamed University Settlement) on New York City's Lower East Side. Over the next decade, Jane Addams founded Hull House in Chicago, and other civic leaders, including Lillian Wald, John Lovejoy Elliott and Mary Simkhovitch, established settlement houses in New York City. Many of these individuals had been influenced by the founders and staff of London's Toynbee Hall and other British social activists who believed that students and people of wealth should "settle" in poverty-stricken neighborhoods both to provide services to help improve the daily quality of life, as well as to evaluate conditions and work for social reform. The settlements taught adult education and English language classes, provided schooling for immigrants' children, organized job clubs, offered afterschool recreation, initiated public health services, and advocated for improved housing for the poor and working classes.

From the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, settlement house staff resided in the same buildings in which neighborhood residents participated in programs and activities. Living in close proximity, settlement staff regarded the people who used the settlement as "neighbors," not "clients."

Many settlement staff today continue to live in the same neighborhoods as their settlement’s program participants. The shared sense of community still exists between settlement staff and the people who participate in settlement programs.

New York City settlement house leaders in the early 20th century helped to establish the national organization of settlement houses, called the National Federation of Settlements (NFS) which became United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA) and is now known as the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities. UNH and New York City settlement houses are also members of the International Federation of Settlement Houses and Neighborhood Centers. IFS is an association of national, regional and local organizations working to strengthen communities in our society. Its membership represents thousands of multi-purpose community based organizations based in over 30 countries, ranging from small self-help groups to large agencies. For further information about these organizations, contact:

International Federation of Settlements
1201-37th Avenue North
Minneapolis, MN 55412

Alliance for Children and Families
11700 West Lake Park Drive
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53224

Below is a video produced in 1986 by the Museum of the City of New York with settlement house Executive Directors to celebrate the Settlement House Centennial (the founding of University Settlement by Stanton Coit in 1886). It shares the history of settlement houses and the important work they do. Narrated by Burt Lancaster, an alum of Union Settlement Association (via

Treasures of New York: Settlement Houses

For further information about the history of New York City settlement houses, both The LaGuardia-Wagner Archives in New York City and the Social Welfare Archive of the University of Minnesota have indexes of historical documents and photographs belonging to many of these organizations. Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53224 Save