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Daphne Spain Interview


Daphne Spain is the Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia. 

She is the author of How Women Saved the City; and Gendered Spaces. She is co-author of Balancing Act: Motherhood, Marriage, and Employment Among American Women; and Introduction to Sociology.

Daphne Spain

NEW RIVER MEDIA INTERVIEW WITH: Daphne Spain Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning, University of Virginia 
Author, How Women Saved the City 

QUESTION: What would it have been like to be a mother living in a turn-of-the-century American city? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: I think it's hard for us to imagine now what it would be like because infant mortality was so high, and more than one out of every ten children died in the first year of life. Women had a lot of children, but many of them were taken away, and they were carried away by typhoid, by cholera, by smallpox, and sometimes even starvation. And one of the things it meant to be a mother in a tenement house in a city at the turn of the century was to have this never-ending cycle of work, of trying to keep children clean, food clean, themselves clean, and sometimes [getting] paid work, if the father could not bring in enough money, or if there were no father. 

So I think of that era as a constant cycle of births and deaths and the women being prematurely aged. The life expectancy at that time was only forty-seven [years]. And compared with today's life expectancy of about seventy-six [years], we're talking about a tremendous difference. The reason it happened is that conditions were very, very difficult. Women and children both worked in factories, so industrial conditions were a concern for reformers at the time. There were no child labor laws, so the kids who were not in school, and perhaps they couldn't afford to go to school, didn't have the clothes to go to school, would wind up working in factories and bringing the money home for the rest of the family. 

QUESTION: What different circumstances would have influenced infant mortality? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: We're talking about income differences, certainly, and different access to prenatal care, health care for infants. Even educational level, even the knowledge of what a child should be fed was affected by income, social class, and ethnic origin. Apparently some residents of tenements in Chicago thought that the Irish ate only potatoes and drank beer because that's all they saw going into and out of pubs, is potato lunches going in and beer coming out. And they - some immigrants would feed their children that. 

Income or social class differences, or even ethnic differences in infant mortality would spring from several sources. One would be the level of education for the parents, whether they would know about proper nutrition, whether they would be able to buy clean milk, even if they knew that contaminated milk might make the babies ill. That was the second issue, that one had to know what the nutritional requirements were, and one also had to be able to afford to buy it, and be able to find it somewhere. So there were clean milk stations and pure milk stations and food stations that volunteers had set up as a way to ensure immigrant mothers and poor mothers of safe food supply for their children. 

Access to health care differed dramatically. Many poor women had no prenatal care, and settlement houses and visiting nurses that worked at settlement houses would often provide that prenatal care, or they would go to the home and visit after the baby's birth for about five days and provide services for new mothers. There were also infant - what we would call 'well baby tents.' There were tents set up on the sidewalks in Chicago that were the combined effort of the university settlement - Northwestern University settlement and the Visiting Nurses Association. And these were temporary spaces set up in the summer where mothers could bring their kids, their babies, and learn how to feed them, how to clothe them, how to keep them healthy. 

QUESTION: Can you list some of the demographic characteristics of the urban household? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: The average household in cities at the turn of the century in poor areas, in tenement districts anyway, would consist of many families under the same roof, and tenement houses were basically apartment houses. They were buildings with more than three or four families in it, and often there were ten, twenty, thirty families, and sometimes families shared the same room. So overcrowding was a big issue because immigrants and [the] poor could not afford housing that would give them a space in sunlight that they needed to raise healthy families. 

They would probably be bringing their water up from the street because there was no indoor plumbing, and the children might do that. That might be a kid's job, it might be a woman's job to bring water for bathing and for cleaning clothes and for cleaning the house. There was a particularly big emphasis on cleanliness, not only for health reasons but for middle class, assimilation reasons as well. There was a gospel of cleanliness that was preached that advocated a clean environment being the path toward becoming a clean American. To be a clean American was to be a true American, and that was when we saw the proliferation of public baths that were sponsored by women's municipal organizations. There was a public bath movement in the United States. They tried to build baths with showers, tubs and laundry facilities for men and women and children in the major, most densely populated areas in the cities. So New York had them, Chicago had them, Philadelphia, Boston. 

The reason for the public baths had to do with the very epidemics that would sweep through cities and close quarters. Those epidemics were bad for people obviously. It reduced life expectancy. The death rate was twice what it is today. 

QUESTION: What might public space in the city look like? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: The image that we have of streets and cities at the turn of the century are of the retail districts, and they have intense, vital street life. There are pushcarts and stores and people are out dealing with vendors and kids are playing on the street and such. What we are less likely to see is that the carts are being pulled by hundreds of thousands of horses throughout cities across the country, that the streetcars were being pulled by horses, that pigs were often scavenging for dirt and garbage in the streets. And therefore there was a tremendous amount of animal waste, and actually dead animals at any one time that had to be hauled off the city streets. 

If you read statistical accounts from the 1890s, around 1900, there are complaints from citizens about how long the dead horses lie in the streets, how long it takes the municipality to get rid of ashes and dirt. And there was recycling, even in the 19th century, because people had to put their swill in one container on the street, the garbage, the organic matter, and they had to put their ashes in another container. And if they got them separated correctly and the trash pickers could pick them up, the ashes could be used to create tar for the streets, the covering for the streets, because at the time the streets were mud, and that was another thing that added to the general grimy appearance. In the summer they were dusty and muddy, and in the winter they were slushy and snowy. But if the ashes could be properly processed, they would be put on top of the street and that would cut down on the dust before streets were paved. 

One of the stories I liked about reading a census report from the 1890s was that New York City even then was exporting its trash to New Jersey, that they would put the carcasses from hogs and horses and cows and so forth on a barge and send them out to New Jersey three times a week. So the complaints about the way cities disposed of their trash are enduring complaints, they are problems that municipalities have had to deal with for a hundred years at least. And even though we think of pollution now as resulting from toxic chemicals and smoke and such, there were comparable pollutants then and they contributed to this lower life expectancy. There were epidemics of typhoid, of smallpox, of cholera. 

QUESTION: What happened to older women in the poorer sections of the city? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: There were few elderly people by today's standards of what constitutes the elderly. So an elderly person in 1900s might be in their fifties or sixties, before the time that we think of as retirement age now. And those women, if they were alone, which they might have been because men died slightly sooner than women at that time, they might have found themselves dependent on younger family members. If they had no family members, they would be dependent on perhaps a voluntary association like the YWCA that sometimes provided housing for the elderly. And those homes for aged women, they were called, required similar commitments to the types of complete care homes that we see today. They were probably [only for] the wealthier women. For the poor older woman, who probably would have worked until she dropped, she probably had a life span and level of comfort not much better than those draft horses that we see pictures of, pulling carts and wagons until their last breath. 

QUESTION: What were some of the difficulties faced by immigrants? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: One of the issues that immigrants had to deal with would be the language barrier, and one of the problems and opportunities in families of the time would be that children could speak English but the parents and grandparents perhaps could not. And grandparents who were very isolated from the rest of society had to depend on their children to translate not just civic languages but customs and practices as well. There's one story from Jane Addams' memoirs about Hull House, about how an Italian immigrant showed up at the door completely destitute. She was an older woman in her late fifties at the time. The landlord had evicted her from her tenement basically, so she had come to Hull House as a last resort, and the woman could not even communicate with Jane Addams until she sent for one of her grandchildren to come talk with her to let her know what had happened. So part of what was happening, the power relations were threatened within families as well because in some instances children had more power than their parents or grandparents did. 

QUESTION: What are some of the major demographic trends we see? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: If you look at the major demographic indicators from about 1900 forward, the major ones that you look at, the infant mortality rate, maternal mortality rate, life expectancy, death rate, birth rates, all those indicators were improving over time. And it had to do with improvements in water supply, in hygiene. It had to do with medical improvements, obviously, a greater understanding about what caused disease and what could prevent accidents like industrial accidents. So the types of events that affected life expectancy were not all related to medicine necessarily, or even technological advances, but sometimes to political solutions like labor legislation that protected children from working in factories, that protected all workers from working more than eight hours a day. 

I think the initial interest that progressive reformers had in the labor situation had to do with protecting women and children, and they were trying to keep children out of factories and in schools, and they were trying to recognize that women should not be working more than eight hours a day, and should not work night shifts. Not because they didn't think women could handle it like men could, but because they knew that women had to perform all their domestic duties during the day if they worked at night, whereas men typically could sleep during the day if they worked at night. 

QUESTION: What was happening with life expectancy and mortality in this period? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: The mortality is the death rate. Life expectancy is the result of some combination of that with the birth rate, the death rate, and the morbidity rate. I think for the elderly life was very difficult because if they were elderly it meant they had already survived a number of accidents or diseases or bouts with the flu or bouts with pneumonia and their systems were probably pretty weak. So they might be suffering from any one of a number of just debilitating problems. Medical practices [were important] in the sense that maternal mortality was reduced when doctors recognized that women in hospitals were getting a fever after childbirth that was being transmitted by doctors and nurses. Once that source was identified, they were able to institute hygienic measures that reduced the transmission of that disease. So once the maternal mortality declined, life expectancy also increased. 

One of the reasons we saw an improvement in demographic indicators from the turn of the century was that many voluntary associations were performing services and delivering services that we now expect the government to perform like nursing, well baby clinics with an education about nutrition, clothing, appropriate ventilation in the house. 

QUESTION: What were some of the voluntary groups and what did they try to do? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: Some examples of the types of volunteer associations were the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and the YWCA, a group called the National Association of Colored Women, and settlement houses did this as well. The things they provided were kindergartens, playgrounds, public baths, types of facilities that would improve the quality of life for children and therefore for women as well. Hull House had a variety of clubs, boys clubs and girls clubs, and they had mothers clubs. And in these clubs people would read passages out loud, perhaps they would learn English. Some of the clubs were aimed at promoting domestic skills like sewing, even teaching children how to make up a bed properly, how to dust a room. 

So that was a very tangible attempt to improve the quality of life in the home. Others were the visiting nurses who would visit the home and attend to those who were ill. They were also, many of the settlement houses tried to acknowledge the cultural background, the cultural diversity of the immigrant communities, and would display handicrafts, embroidery, types of woodworking that came from the community itself. And they would try to instill in children a respect for skills that their parents and grandparents had. So the educational process was often two-way. It wasn't just volunteers teaching immigrants how to learn English and become assimilated Americans, but they often learned themselves the types of talents that people brought from other countries. 

The distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor was the point at which the delivery of charity services changed directions at the turn of the century. The charity organizations of the early nineteenth century very definitely described some as worthy of receiving help and others as not. The social gospel, though, and advocates of the social gospel disregarded that distinction. They thought that poverty was not a result of sin, but rather a result of social conditions, and that it was society's responsibility to address poverty, both the living conditions and health and welfare. So the social gospel was very much an activist, Protestant theology that advocated intervention and social responsibility for the ills of the poor [and was] instrumental in many of the progressive reforms that occurred in that era. 

QUESTION: What were some of the prevailing social attitudes about the poor and about immigrants? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: There was a great deal of public criticism and negative public opinion about immigrants at the time. And there were attempts to reduce or eliminate immigration from international sources. There were efforts to require literacy tests. Labor unions were not in favor of immigrant workers and tried to block their entry for a number of years. And what settlement workers tried to do was to introduce both working class poor and upper class individuals to each other. Their purpose was to bridge the class divide in the United States at the time. They would sponsor talks by labor leaders like Eugene Debs and members of the community, neighbors, their neighbors would attend the talks. 

Race relations became an issue because in about 1890, 90 percent of blacks lived in the South. They began the great migration out of the South around 1917, and they joined the ethnic mix that existed in cities at the time. Many of the settlement house workers like Jane Addams recognized that race relations would become the new form of urban issue. She herself was attentive to these issues. She invited a representative of the National Association of Colored Women to Hull House for lunch, and the press covered at the time, said it was one of the first times that a light-skinned woman had entertained a colored woman. 

Jane Addams and people with Hull House, like Louise DeCoven Bowen, who wrote a book titled The Colored Population of Chicago in 1913 were extremely concerned about extending the same types of rights to African Americans as they had to immigrants. It didn't always translate into reality. In fact, Hull House had a separate center for blacks. It was the Wendell Phillips Home, and they also had a Frederick Douglass Center. There were parallel services for black migrants in Chicago at the same time that Hull House existed. 

QUESTION: What kinds of data are there to consult from this period? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: One of the sources that demographers have for turn-of-the-century statistics are surveys conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One in 1893 specifically was a survey of tenement conditions and slums in the largest cities. For Chicago, the special agent in charge of that survey was Florence Kelly, who was a resident of Hull House and who was very much a labor activist. She used those data and other residents of Hull House, like Julia Lathrop and Jane Addams, used those data to plot the wage distribution of families in tenements and in neighborhoods surrounding Hull House. They also used those data to plot the nationality. 

Hull House Maps and Papers shows a map of wage rates for families living in tenements in the blocks surrounding the Hull House settlement. And the range of those wages is from five dollars or less per week to twenty dollars or more per week, indicating that five dollars or less was the poorest of the poor, and twenty dollars or more would be at the high end of the income range for this poor neighborhood. Most of that map indicates that there are more, many more families making five dollars or less per week than there are making in any other category, twenty dollars a week or more. So what the map shows with the concentration of extremely poor households is that for families earning less than five dollars a week, who would also be paying rent for the tenement, perhaps living in a stable even, and paying for food, that their living conditions were extremely mean. They were extremely fragile in the sense that even one day without work could make a difference between whether food could be bought that day or not, whether the rent could be made for the next week or the next month. 

QUESTION: How did the Hull House women try to help immigrants? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: Some of the programs that Hull House sponsored were intended to help tide families over if they were in extreme poverty. And they were quite innovative for the time, and perceived as something of socialist and therefore somewhat radical for the time too. But one was a coal cooperative. People in the neighborhood could buy their coal at a lower price if they belonged to this cooperative. It was an alternative to children going out on the street and picking up pieces of coal that had fallen out of bins that were being hauled, or falling off the railroad car, for example. That entitled a family to earn certain points of the purchase and the reduced price of their next coal allotment or their next coal purchase. 

The lunch room that Jane Addams sponsored initially was patterned after the New England kitchen that Ellen Sloane Richards developed in Boston, Massachusetts, and Richards was one of the first professional nutritionists who advocated the creation of collective kitchens in communities, that would cook food nutritionally and show women how to cook for their families. But also it would distribute food to workers at lunch time and it would be a place that working women and men could come and buy a very inexpensive lunch on their lunch hour. 

So they tried for a year or two at Hull House to convince the immigrants that certain types of Yankee food were nutritional and their benefit to eat, but it didn't really work because the immigrants weren't interested in American food. Finally Hull House abandoned the public kitchen and turned it into a coffee house instead. And one of the reasons they wanted a large facility at Hull House, is that the only place to socialize was the saloon, and they were worried that people, families wanted to be able to celebrate events and have parties and such in places that did not serve alcohol. So they made Hull House available as a type of community or neighborhood living room for those who didn't have the room in their own homes. 

Some of the programs were aimed at taking care of children while their mothers worked, which enabled more income to come into the family. The children were kept at a nursery and the mothers paid five cents a week for that service. And that was done because sometimes older children wound up taking care of their younger brothers and sisters, or if worse came to worst, a mother might just lock her child in the house the entire time she was at the factory. 

QUESTION: Were women working at this time? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: About 20 percent of women were in the paid labor force around 1900, and those jobs that they had then were some factory work, teaching, nursing. Domestic service was another type of occupation for women at the time. But our definition of work now has expanded to include non-paid work and indeed volunteer work. That's what a lot of middle class and elite women did, is they worked on behalf of the community and on behalf of the poor to provide the services that the city had not yet organized itself to do. 

The voluntary efforts were sometimes linked with religious motivations. Sometimes they were linked with an ideology called municipal housekeeping. Municipal housekeeping was a way that women were encouraged to identify the city as their larger home, and it was a path into civic improvement and civic activity for women because if they treated the city as a place they were responsible for, they had to keep clean, they had to keep healthy for the benefit of their family members and the community as a family, that gave them opportunities for public actions that they didn't ordinarily have. So that a combination of volunteerism fueled by the social gospel, Protestant, evangelical theology or activist theology, Protestant activist theology, and municipal housekeeping, which was the more secular ideology, were really some of the moving forces behind women's voluntary associations at the turn of the century. 

QUESTION: What were urban conditions like by the 1920's? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: The conditions in cities were improving significantly by the 1920s partly because of progressive reform and partly because of the efforts that voluntary associations had made on behalf of the poor. And the voluntary associations were bringing into public view the types of private troubles that made life so hard at the time. High infant mortality, disease, inability to heat a home, inability to pay the rent. Those had been considered family issues before, if you want to think of them. And yet women's voluntary associations brought them to the forefront and turned private troubles into public issues. 

[Women volunteers] convinced politicians and they convinced legislators that it was a public responsibility to address issues of poverty, and when you address issues of poverty, you are by default addressing issues of life expectancy and public health as well. And so they had a very serious agenda. They were taking very certain determined steps toward improving life for everyone in the city. So I think that these women's voluntary associations are due a great deal of credit for filling in and identifying problems before the government could, or was willing to take on responsibility for those problems. 

But the voluntary associations that women were particularly active in were not necessarily identified with the progressive movement. So the General Federation of Women's Clubs promoted suffrage, they promoted municipal housekeeping as an agenda. But they had so many thousands of members across the country that they were more visible almost, ironically. Their large numbers of rank and file members, and the very few number of women who actually made a big splash in the headlines the way Jane Addams did repeatedly, that accounted for their strength but it also accounted for their anonymity. I think it's one of the reasons that we have not really recognized the impact that those women's voluntary associations had independently of the political systems.

QUESTION: Did the women volunteers have any critics? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: There is a great antagonism, really, between the sociologists of the Chicago school at the University of Chicago, and settlement workers like Jane Addams and others. The settlement workers were interested in activism. They wanted to chart what was happening in neighborhoods, they wanted to collect the statistics to create change. They wanted to know whether garbage was being collected or not, they wanted to know how many babies were dying in the neighborhood so that they could make the city pay attention and deliver municipal services. 

Sociologists like Robert Park and Ernest Burgess at the University of Chicago at the time were more theoretically inclined and they actually dismissed the work of the settlement house workers, even though some of those women, like Edith Abbott, had published in sociological journals. So there was a real split between the theoretical branch of sociology and the practitioners branch. What probably evolved more clearly out of settlement house work than sociology or the collection of statistics was urban planning and social work of a type. What those women were doing at the time was creating a new profession for themselves. 

QUESTION: Why were these voluntary groups so effective? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: I think one of the reasons the voluntary associations were so successful is that they relied on their own strengths and their own talents and they relied on determination. An intense amount of either religious zeal or personal motivation created changes, and they created changes in large and small ways, but mostly they were interested in these small scale changes at the neighborhood level. One of the efforts made by black women in Chicago at the same time that Hull House existed for immigrant groups was a boarding house for women called the Phyllis Wheatley Association. The motto for that club was if you can't push, pull, and if you can't pull, please get out of the way. That indicates a commitment to action, a commitment to going forward with the goals of the association - in this case to provide vocational training and housing for African American women, in spite of all odds. Inviting others to join in that goal and that fight, but not taking no for an answer either. 

QUESTION: What was the significance of the publication of Hull House Maps and Papers? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: One of the reasons Hull House maps and papers was an important publication is that it represented characteristics of the neighborhood spatially, and this was a technique that sociologists at the University of Chicago were using at the time to plot different areas of income, different areas of home ownership, different areas of mental illness, different areas of juvenile delinquency and gang activity. 

It was a neighborhood base from the ground up attempt to illustrate that these were problems that the city had and that the city had responsibility for. And by spatially locating them, by giving them a geographic site in the city, I think they were among the first to promote the importance of the spatial concentration of poverty, or the consequences, certainly, of the spatial concentration of poverty. And when we read contemporary works about poverty like William Julius Wilson's work, we see a return to that issue of the geographic aspect of it and what happens when we have a great concentration of poverty. 

Hull House Maps and Papers was particularly important because it was a voluntary effort to document the amount of poverty in a certain area of the city. So it gave poverty a geographic component, it gave it a place, it gave it a face and a sense that one could look at these wage rate concentrations in tenements and think what it must be like to live on less than five dollars a week for a family of six or eight. And it demonstrated the commitment that women volunteers had to addressing the seriousness of the issue. 

If you think about Hull House in contemporary terms, it was almost like a reading club. It was - they described it as a dorm in a way, an intellectual enterprise as well as a residential enterprise. I think it was a salon, that these were places where important issues of the day were discussed. And I think Jane Addams took it as her personal mission to educate the wealthy, with whom she had many connections, about the living conditions of the poor. And if she could do that with maps, she did it with maps. 

QUESTION: Does anything about this period bear examination in the light of society's problems today? 

DAPHNE SPAIN: One of the reasons that we want to pay attention to the period of history of about a hundred years ago is that it presented problems that were similar to the problems we're experiencing today, and it also presented possible solutions to those problems, models for those solutions. And by that I mean a combination of government responsibility, voluntary participation, and faith-based contributions, in addition to private enterprise, because indeed private enterprise has always played a very big role in the welfare of cities and the poor. 

I think to the extent that we're still worried about pollution, we're still worried about labor relations, immigration, race relations, women's status, that the more resources brought to bear from the largest number of centers on those problems, the greater the potential for successful solutions.


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