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University of Minnesota Press
How Women Saved the City

How Women Saved the City

by Daphne Spain


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780816635320
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication date: 12/28/2001
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 332
Product dimensions: 5.87(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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Chapter One

Voluntary Vernacular

In 1913 the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay joined other adventurous women of her day when she traveled to New York City and stayed at the Young Women's Christian Association. She lived on the eighth floor of the YWCA's recently completed National Training School at East Fifty-second Street and Lexington Avenue. Millay was thrilled with the view. Writing to her family, she observed:

From my window in the daytime I can see everything—just buildings, tho, it is buildings everywhere, seven & eight stories to million and billion stories, washing drying on the roofs and on lines strung between the houses, way up in the air — they flap and flap! Children on roller skates playing tag on the sidewalks, smokestacks and smokestacks, and windows and windows, and signs way up high on the tops of factories and cars and taxicabs — and noise, yes, in New York you can see the noise. (Macdougall 1952, 32)

In addition, from the YWCA's twelfth-story rooftop, Millay might have seen the trees of Frederick Law Olmsted's Central Park to the northwest. To the south was the 700-foot-tall Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower on Madison Square, completed in 1909 by the architectural firm of Napoleon Le Brun & Sons. On a really clear day, further south, Millay might have been able to discern the newly constructed 800-foot tower of the Woolworth Building designed by Cass Gilbert. It had just surpassed the Metropolitan Life Tower as the city's tallest building. The factories Millay saw were possiblythemanufacturing loft buildings of the garment industry creeping up Fifth Avenue from Thirty-second Street, the very ones that prompted New York City to restrict building height in its historic zoning law of 1916 (Fenske and Holdsworth 1992; Weiss 1992).

    Had Millay looked to the northeast from her rooftop, it would have been difficult to make out the small public bathhouse at 342 East Fifty-fourth Street that opened in 1911 to serve Irish immigrants. Nor could she have spotted the modest Wesley House Settlement, established in 1908 at 212 East Fifty-eighth Street, much less the more renowned Lenox Hill Settlement on East Seventy-second Street. The settlement houses in Millay's neighborhood that provided kindergartens, libraries, playgrounds, and public baths for poor workers and their families, like their numerous counterparts on the Lower East Side, were less visually prominent than the landmarks typically noted by visitors and historians. Few were designed by an Olmsted, Le Brun, or Gilbert. Easily recognized, skyscrapers and elaborate parks have endured for more than one hundred years. Harder to identify are the buildings and small places that filled the spaces between those towers and parks. In fact, many of these places disappeared as their functions were absorbed by the private or public sector. Yet they were just as important to people living in cities as the more famous structures that survived.

    The purpose of this book is to illustrate how women saved the American city between the Civil War and World War I, when women volunteers created hundreds of places like the YWCA boarding house that sheltered Edna St. Vincent Millay. Millay was representative of one type of newcomer to the industrializing city: she was a "woman adrift," seeking her fortune independently of her family. Such women worked and lived in cities on their own and often invited public criticism for rejecting traditional family roles (Meyerowitz 1988). Whether from Europe or from small towns in America, they were strangers to the city who needed to learn how to prosper (or just survive) as soon as they arrived. Some of Millay's neighbors would have been single women living at the YWCA while attending its training school to become "typewriters" for companies like Metropolitan Life.

    Two other groups of people, equally unfamiliar with American urban customs, arrived in midwestern and northeastern cities about the same time as single working women: European immigrants and black migrants from the rural South. Few immigrants spoke English, which presented serious difficulties in finding jobs, housing, and schools for their children. Many practiced Catholic or Jewish religious traditions that were out of place in a largely Protestant country. Few had much material wealth when they arrived. Black migrants from the South, although they spoke English and most were Protestant, also were unprepared for urban life. They had low literacy rates and had been agricultural rather than industrial laborers. Like European immigrants, blacks brought few economic resources with them to their new homes. Immigrants and African Americans were the most highly visible poor in the industrializing city.

    A fourth category of stranger was the female volunteer. Women had been active in cities for some time, of course. Middle-class women had occupied urban public space for decades, shopping in the streets, demonstrating for temperance, and promenading in parks (Cranz 1982; Ryan 1990). They took part in public life and, in unusual circumstances, they just took, as when Victorian ladies became shoplifters (Abelson 1989; Walkowitz 1992). Women could vote on local issues in some states and they occasionally held public office. Yet the spaces of political activism remained gendered, with men monopolizing the formal discourse carried out in central squares and women relegated to the margins. Before universal suffrage women lacked the range of civic privileges men enjoyed. Voluntary associations, however, gave them new avenues by which to pursue the public good (Ryan 1990, 1997; Sklar 1993).

    The end of the nineteenth century marked the first time women played an active role in creating the urban spaces they occupied (Deutsch 1992; Enstam 1998; Spencer-Wood 1996; Turner 1997). Women volunteers were critical to this process. In addition to boarding houses, they produced vocational schools, hotels for transients, playgrounds, and public baths. These were places in which urban newcomers were quickly assimilated, places that simultaneously met women's goals as well as those of the city. The American city was able to accommodate the tremendous onslaught of strangers that threatened social order largely due to the efforts of women volunteers.

    Virtually everyone was a newcomer during this period of intense urbanization. Before 1870 three-quarters of the American population were rural and those who lived in cities were predominantly native-born. Most African Americans were slaves, the economy was based on agriculture, only white men could vote, and private charity was the solution to poverty. After 1920 over one-half of the population was urban and more than one-third of those in the largest cities were foreign-born. Slavery had been abolished, industrial production had replaced agriculture, women and blacks could vote, and poverty was defined as a public responsibility. So much change made growing cities a threat to national morals and to Jeffersonian democracy, strengthening Americans' antiurban sentiments of earlier centuries (Beauregard 1993).

    Newcomers included a diverse mix of men, women, and children. The men typically were laborers who might or might not speak English. Most young women adrift had chosen to work, but there were also many working mothers who would have stayed home with their children if not for economic necessity. Women volunteers were typically middle or upper class. Some, however, were of the same working-class origins as those they served. Regardless of class affiliation, women in voluntary organizations had many more options than their more traditional sisters who stayed at home.

    As Tocqueville observed on his visit to America in the 1830s, voluntary associations make a significant contribution to the cultural health of a nation. They mediate between the individual and the state by educating the electorate and empowering them through political action. Voluntary organizations also define and clarify a nation's values, especially those with a religious affiliation. Faith-based associations, for example, are most likely to promote responsibility for those unable to care for themselves — the poor, the sick, children, and the very old. A strong voluntary sector is thus "a necessary component of a vibrant public sphere in which collective values can be articulated" (Calhoun 1993; Watt 1991; Wuthnow 1991a, 5).

    The public sphere can be either a physical place (like the Greek agora) or a process of communication, in which case it may be called "public discourse." Public discourse refers to the kinds of questions we ask ourselves about who we are, how to live morally, or how to create a strong community—what is now called a "national conversation" Public discourse is a continuing process because it represents enduring issues. Tocqueville and others since have argued that the very shape of public discourse depends on the existence of a dynamic voluntary sector (Gamm and Putnam 1998; Habermas 1989; Watt 1991; Wuthnow 1991a, b).

    Race relations, immigration, and women's status were controversial at the end of the nineteenth century, just as they are today. That they were subjects for debate meant that they were central to people's daily lives. The sheer numbers of newcomers demanded attention. They changed the demography of the city and placed strains on the newly emerging system. Race relations, of course, were contentious because of the nation's history of slavery. Blacks' Great Migration out of the South was accompanied by violence as African Americans competed for jobs and housing with countless immigrants. Immigrants, in turn, were struggling in factories and tenements just to stay alive. Suffragists were demanding the vote, outraged that black and immigrant men had access to formal political representation before they did. All of these issues found vigorous expression in the city.

    Women's voluntary associations created actual spaces in which problems associated with race relations, immigration, and women's status were worked out. A typical day in the life of a settlement house worker illustrates the point. In 1893 the parade of visitors to the Philadelphia College Settlement included children and adults from the neighborhood, "philanthropic ladies," clergymen, and students of social work. In addition, the "general public comes. It insists on discussing Woman Suffrage or the Elizabethan Drama with you while you are trying in vain to put thirty coats on thirty small children simultaneously, without getting mixed" (Scudder 1893). Since the coats belonged to immigrant children attending the settlement-house kindergarten while their mothers worked, more was going on than an academic discussion of women's rights. The daycare provided by the settlement house was tangible evidence of its support for employed women.

    Race relations were debated in questions about whether to provide separate facilities for whites and blacks. Assimilation of immigrants occurred in settlement houses, on playgrounds, and in public baths. Women boarders who lived and worked away from their families challenged prevailing ideals of "true womanhood" (Welter 1966). These themes were embedded in concerns about poverty, children's welfare, and organized labor. By providing the stages on which these issues played out, women volunteers met a critical need in the industrializing city.

    Women's voluntary associations accomplished this feat by occupying territory that sociologist Lyn Lofland (1998) identifies as "parochial"—the world of the neighborhood as opposed to the totally private world of the household and the completely public realm of strangers. Social order in parochial space depends on local institutions and the labor of volunteers (Hunter 1985). This type of labor is not paid, but neither is it voluntary because it is necessary: "Like domestic work, it is cyclical, never-ending, and essential. Its spatial location is neither home nor work place, primarily, but community" (Milroy and Wismer 1994, 72).

    Community work is a separate area of productive effort that connects the concerns of both private and public spheres. It brings domestic problems like sick children and drunken husbands into the public eye. Community work simultaneously addresses the effects of trends influenced by the market and state, such as unemployment and housing shortages, on private lives. The boundaries between domestic, community, and paid work are porous, just as they are between private, parochial, and public spaces (Lofland 1998; Milroy and Wismer 1994). Women's voluntary associations breached those borders when they translated private troubles into public issues (Mills [1959] 1967).

    Initially, many voluntary organizations in which women were active sprang from the Social Gospel theology that took religion out of the church and into the streets. The Social Gospel attributed poverty to social, economic, and political conditions rather than to the personal failings of individuals. Its disciples drew no distinctions between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor. They believed slums were created by society, not by sinners, and that squalid living conditions were a public rather than a private responsibility.

    Social Gospel ideas were eventually augmented, and sometimes displaced, by the tenets of "municipal housekeeping," the term used to describe women's responsibility for keeping the city as clean and well functioning as their own homes. Advocates of municipal housekeeping promoted similarities between the home and the city, particularly the need for cleanliness and order, as a way to establish their credentials for civic involvement. The Woman's City Club of Chicago, for example, published a diagram depicting fourteen institutional links that bound the home to city hall. These included food inspection, factory safety, clean air, and marriage and birth licensing bureaus. Municipal housekeeping thus represented a clearly political agenda in an era when women had few direct avenues of influence (Blair 1980; Flanagan 1990).

    Women used voluntary associations fueled by religious and domestic doctrine to create a network of places that addressed the needs of new arrivals in large and small cities throughout the country. These places included boarding houses and hotels, vocational schools, settlement houses, public baths, and playgrounds. Settlement houses, for example, provided essential daycare in immigrant neighborhoods, while settlement workers lived (settled) in the house for months or sometimes years. Middle-class women volunteers who sponsored settlements established their own niche in the city.

    The voluntary activities to which Tocqueville referred are now part of a three-sector model of society in which the state represents formal coercive powers, the market involves the exchange of goods and services for profit, and the voluntary sector is composed of activities that are neither coerced nor profit-driven. Participation in the voluntary, or third sector, is free from economic motivation and is chosen willingly (Wuthnow 1991a, b). The concept of voluntarism therefore has dual meanings.

    Voluntarism was equally complex at the end of the nineteenth century. Some women donated their labor, while others financed buildings or paid the salaries of city employees who supervised public baths and playgrounds. Many of the women whose names appear in this book did both. They were active volunteers and philanthropists, like YWCA president Grace Dodge. For each of these women who was recognized in her own time, however, there were hundreds more whose names are lost. It took an army of volunteers to save cities from social disorder.

    Of the three sectors, the profit-making sector was the most highly visible in cities one hundred years ago. Urban development in the late nineteenth century was characterized by a commitment to privatism that overshadowed public concerns (Warner 1968). The Gilded Age (roughly 1870 to 1900) championed capitalism and growth. These priorities became manifest in the built environment and were especially obvious in Chicago and New York, where corporatism was the driving force behind the construction of skyscrapers. Those cities dedicated dominant spaces to the enhancement of capitalism. They also tried to counteract its consequences. New York's Central Park, for example, was meant to provide respite from the noisy, polluted city and its relentless rationalization.

    Skyscrapers came to represent America's transition from a mercantile to a corporate economy. Compared with the horizontal expanse of department stores like Chicago's Marshall Field and New York's Lord and Taylor, skyscrapers created a vertical skyline that captured the public's imagination. The Woolworth Building in New York was dubbed the "Cathedral of Commerce" when it was built in 1913, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company tower became a popular New York City tourist attraction. For America, becoming urban meant becoming corporate, and skyscrapers became the monuments to commercial power that defined the corporate city (Bluestone 1991; Domosh 1996; Landau and Condit 1996; Monkkonen 1988; Trachtenberg 1982; Zunz 1990).

    New York City was the quintessential city of contrasts. Architects were designing opulent mansions for millionaires on Fifth Avenue while impoverished workers lived in grim chaos on the Lower East Side. Banks, hotels, and city halls were the domain of the powerful, while back alleys, cheap lodging houses, saloons, and tenements dotted the lower-class landscape. Women's city-building activity was more than just an antidote to men's commercialism, though. Women volunteers often bridged the chasm between social classes (Deutsch 1992).

    The turmoil of the late nineteenth century created a strong desire for social order among reformers and businessmen (Boyer 1978; Hays 1995; Wiebe 1967). Architects and planners had the tools to provide (at least the appearance of) order. Male professionals built grand boulevards and civic monuments in search of the City Beautiful. Female volunteers built the places of everyday life, the neighborhood institutions without which a city is not a city — hallmarks of the City Social movement (Wirka 1996). Gender thus played a significant role in the construction of the emerging urban landscape. Crudely stated, men emphasized economic growth and progress (the City Profitable), while women invoked religiosity and domesticity for the benefit of strangers (the City Livable) (Flanagan 1996). Men and women both built the industrial city.

    Municipal housekeeping was more than just the literal effort to sanitize cities. It also created mechanisms by which the city could be cleansed symbolically of strangers. According to anthropologist Mary Douglas, dirt is essentially disorder. Attempts to banish dirt are attempts to reorganize the social system within understandable boundaries. Thinking of dirt as anything out of place implies two conditions: "a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order. Dirt then, is never a unique, isolated event. Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter [that] takes us straight into the field of symbolism." People are considered dirty when they are in a marginal state, placeless, left out of society's patterning by some indefinable status (Douglas 1966, 35, 95).

    Douglas's theory presupposes the presence of order, whereas cities at the turn of the century were barely organized. The whole enterprise was new to Americans, who were constructing a novel urban culture out of a world of strangers (Lofland 1973; Schultz 1989, xvi). Thus women volunteers did more to establish order than to restore it. This perspective explains the zeal with which nineteenth-century women embraced the Social Gospel and municipal housekeeping. Women volunteers were apostles of sacred and secular campaigns to convert the disorder of so many newcomers into a recognizable pattern by giving them actual places to make the transition into a different life.

    The issues most important to the nation one hundred years ago all revolved around who belonged where. Should America open its doors to so many immigrants. Would women abandon their homes completely if they could enter colleges and the workplace? How would society change when blacks left southern farms for northeastern and midwestern cities? If immigrant and black men could vote, why not women? People who were once easy to classify by their proper place—in Europe, at home, on the plantation—were pushing their way into the public realm.

    Together the Social Gospel and municipal housekeeping promoted a vision of the good city. Both ideologies legitimized contact with newcomers and justified voluntary activities for middle-class women. By invoking familial metaphors — "Slum Sisters" and boarding-house "matrons" taking care of "poor motherless daughters" — women volunteers positioned themselves to save strangers from being defeated by the city. They also saved cities from being overwhelmed by strangers.

    For all these reasons, I have labeled the places created and operated by women volunteers "redemptive places." They were sites of assimilation, both socially and politically, and of moral influence. They allowed immigrants to move from Europe to America, black migrants from the rural South to the urban North, and women from dependence on their families to economic independence. Redemptive places were temporary institutions for a society in flux.

    The rationale for their existence was the salvation of souls, yet redemptive places did more than rescue men, women, and children. They also saved the city from the tremendous strains resulting from shifting population dynamics. Through voluntary associations, middle-class women began to shape what municipal governments needed to do to balance the city's exaggerated emphasis on growth and profits. In addition to staffing YWCAs and settlement houses, women volunteers were crucial to the playground movement, the public bath movement, housing reform, and public health. Even if women did not personally design or build redemptive places, such places would not have existed without women's voluntary work. Redemptive places lacked the vertical presence of skyscrapers, the horizontal sweep of City Beautiful public spaces, or the commercial utility of factories and railroad stations, but their importance transcends their scale and cost, demonstrating that women, too, shaped the city at the end of the nineteenth century.

Why Cities Needed Saving

Late-nineteenth-century American cities were nasty places. People threw swill out their windows onto muddy, unpaved streets where pigs scavenged for garbage. Open cesspools fouled the air. Public transit, consisting of horse-drawn trolleys, relied on thousands of draft animals that produced tons of manure every day. Horses dropped dead on the streets. Children played in these same streets unless they were in school or working in factories. Tenement residents had to carry water from the street to their rooms if they wanted to wash, so it was impossible to keep families or homes clean for long. Inadequate municipal water supplies and delivery systems meant that fires regularly killed vast numbers of people and destroyed acres of property. Contaminated drinking water was almost as dangerous as fire, contributing to lethal epidemics and high infant mortality.

    The environmental problems of one hundred years ago were accompanied by rampant political corruption. Cartoonist Thomas Nast's images of Boss Tweed personified the worst of big-city machine politics. Ward bosses routinely delivered neighborhood services in exchange for votes before civil service reform was enacted. Journalists Jacob Riis, Lincoln Steffens, and Upton Sinclair made their careers exposing municipal and industrial sins to the public during this era.

    Because cities concentrated and highlighted vast inequalities between social classes, they were often the sites of labor riots. Two of the most famous incidents occurred when anarchists bombed Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886 and when Pinkerton's men fought off rioting workers at Carnegie's Homestead steel plant outside Pittsburgh in 1892. Factories' belching smokestacks made cities literally filthy, while dirty politics and labor unrest made them difficult to clean up. City life seemed messy, dangerous, and out of control.

    Cities were symbolically dirty because of the influx of newcomers. Strangers were quite literally "out of place"; they polluted the city by challenging what it meant to be an American. The 27 million European immigrants who arrived between 1870 and 1920 settled mainly in cities, where they spoke strange languages and practiced different religions than native-born Americans. About one million black migrants from the rural South soon added race to the urban ethnic mix. More than distinct cultures and darker skin contributed to the dirty image of poor immigrants and African Americans. They often were physically grimy because they lacked access to water with which to wash their bodies and clothes. The public bath movement was an attempt to provide immigrants with soap and water in the belief that clean citizens were better citizens (Hoy 1995; Williams 1991).

    The thousands of women adrift who came to the city were so highly visible that they spawned a new enterprise called "travelers' aid." Volunteers greeted young women at docks and railroad stations before they could be intercepted by "wharf sharks" preying on their innocence. Although women adrift escaped being labeled dirty in the same way immigrants and black migrants were, they were often accused of moral impurity.

    Women volunteers also became more noticeable. So many women were involved in so many different voluntary activities that University of Chicago professor Sophonisba Breckinridge refused even to try to count them in her report on women's activities. Her estimate of one million members of the General Federation of Women's Clubs captured only part of the voluntary army of the day (Breckinridge 1933, 11). Women volunteers, while physically clean enough, were almost as suspect as women adrift simply because they chose to spend time away from home. At its best all this diversity created lively democratic practices and rich public events. At its worst it produced urban civic wars (Ryan 1997).

    New arrivals often sought relief from the routine grind by visiting "cheap amusements" (Peiss 1986). This was the era of dance halls, ballparks, theaters, World's Fair midways, and moving-picture palaces. The newly developing cinema was governed by the same public desire for spectacle as the department store, the international exposition, and the amusement park (Nasaw 1993; Rabinovitz 1998). Had cities been more pleasant, of course, attempts to escape them might have been less tempting. The greatest collective escape of all took shape in the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. It was an ideal "White City" that transcended the gritty realities of industrialization.

    The World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the World's Fair, was a watershed event that subjected the entire concept of the city to national scrutiny. The fair was nicknamed the White City because it was constructed almost entirely of buildings made of staff (a combination of plaster, hemp, and cement) and painted white. It also demonstrated how clean a city could be when powered by electricity instead of coal, and how brightly it could glow at night. The White City was theoretically free of political corruption, and it was distinctly free of African Americans.

    The fair was the defining architectural and planning event of the late nineteenth century. It showcased the work of the most prominent architects and landscape architects of the day. Architect Daniel Burnham of Chicago supervised construction, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the creator of Central Park, designed the grounds around a sweeping Court of Honor. Among the prominent architectural firms participating were McKim, Mead and White of New York City and Peabody and Stearns of Boston. Their emphasis on Roman Revival motifs became the template for the City Beautiful movement that flourished between 1900 and 1910.

    One of the ironies of the World's Fair is that it opened its gates at almost the same moment that banks and factories were dosing their doors in the worst financial panic of the nation's history. The fair also ended just before the Pullman Strike of 1894 dimmed Americans' hopes of peaceful relations between capital and labor. George Pullman built the town that bore his name outside Chicago in 1880 as an antidote to labor strife. A plaster replica of the model town was displayed at the fair in Louis Sullivan's Transportation Building, and a pamphlet prepared by the Pullman Company for visitors to the fair explained that Pullman was "a town where all that is ugly, and discordant, and demoralizing is eliminated." By May 1894 striking American Railway Union workers led by Eugene V. Debs had shut down the town. Everyone suffered: George Pullman's reputation as a benign paternalist, railroad workers when Clarence Darrow lost his Supreme Court case defending Debs, and the town that eventually was absorbed by Chicago. The Pullman Strike, like the World's Columbian Exposition, symbolized America's transition into the stormy twentieth century (Buder 1967; Smith 1995; Trachtenberg 1982).

    Cities from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to Kansas City, Missouri, emulated the fair's grand boulevards lined with neoclassical buildings. Imposing libraries, museums, banks, and railroad stations became signatures of the City Beautiful movement, whose disciples believed that elegant design could combat the poverty, squalor, and political corruption of the times. Urban social problems persisted despite the best efforts of male architects and planners, however, leaving plenty of work for women volunteers.

Table of Contents

ONE Voluntary Vernacular1
TWO Why Cities Needed Saving30
PART I Paths to Salvation
THREE Sacred and Secular Organizational Ideologies63
FOUR Voluntary Associations with an Urban Presence87
PART II Redemptive Places
FIVE New York City Headquarters, Smaller City Branches125
SIX Boston, the Cradle of Redemptive Places174
SEVEN Men Build Chicago's Skyline, Women Redeem the City205
EIGHT How Women Saved the City236
Appendix A: Literature Review249
Appendix B: Organizational Charters255
Appendix C: Addresses of Redemptive Places for Boston, New
York City, and Chicago261

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