By the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago’s settlement houses had become prominent centers of reform activism as well as providers of social services in their neighborhoods. Settlers established group residences in the poorest and most congested areas of Chicago. The residents typically supported themselves with regular jobs and devoted their evenings and weekends to organizing social activities for their neighbors and pursuing the cause of reform. The wide array of social services provided by the settlements included kindergartens and nurseries, gymnasiums and activity rooms, public baths and kitchens, music and drama classes. In good weather, they added outdoor activities such as picnics, where adults and children could enjoy the benefits the fresh air, exercise, and healthy eating.
By 1900, Chicago Commons was one of more than 100 settlements that had been established across the United States, fifteen of which were in Chicago. Graham Taylor, a Congregationalist minister, founded the Commons in 1894. Taylor had previously engaged in mission work in Hartford, Connecticut, where he focused on eradicating vices such as prostitution and alcoholism. In 1882, the Chicago Theological Seminary recruited Taylor to join its faculty and organize a department of Christian Sociology. Shortly after his arrival, Taylor conceived of a new settlement house largely modeled on Jane Addams’ renowned Hull-House, which had opened in 1889. At Chicago Commons, male and female residents and social workers lived cooperatively, bringing their vision of civic reform, social democracy, and applied Christianity to their neighbors.
The first Chicago Commons building at the corner of Union Street and Milwaukee Avenue is pictured here as it appeared in an 1896 issue of the settlement’s newsletter, also titled Chicago Commons. When the number of residents swelled to nearly two dozen, the settlement built and moved into a five-story house on Grand Avenue. Like Hull-House, Chicago Commons expanded its activities as its number of residents increased. The Chicago Commons newsletter expanded as well, becoming the voice and publication of record for the national settlement house movement.
Taylor, Graham. Chicago Commons through Forty Years. Chicago: Chicago Commons Association, 1936.
Carson, Mina. Settlement Folk: Social Thought and the American Settlement Movement, 1885–1930. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.
Trolander, Judith Ann. Professionalism and Social Change: From the Settlement House Movement to Neighborhood Centers, 1886 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.
Wade, Louise Carroll. Graham Taylor, Pioneer for Social Justice, 1851–1938. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1964.
“Off for a Picnic,” in Chicago Commons: a Monthly Record of Social Settlement Life and Work (Chicago: Chicago Commons, 1896), p. 10. The Newberry Library, I318.159, vol. 1, no. 4