The Settlement House of the Seven Gables
When I began this blog project, I knew that I would learn new things about Hawthorne, The House, and early America. I had, and still have, a general idea of what some of these things would be. But not others.
I did not, for example, know that I would learn that The House of the Seven Gables has been used since its founding as a settlement house1. I even blush to confess, reader, that I did not even know of the settlement house movement of the late 19th century. But my new understanding of the House of the Seven Gables as the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association has altered my understanding of Nathaniel Hawthorne and the legacy of his 1851 novel.
The House of the Seven Gables we know in Salem emerged from the progressive social reform trend known as the settlement movement. This transatlantic movement began in England in 1880, migrated to the United States, and reached its zenith in both countries around 1920.
Reformers of the movement believed that the strongest society could be forged in interdependent communities composed of upper, middle, and lower classes. According to this vision, the rich could establish settlement houses to “lift up” the poor by providing social services and education. The settlement houses could in turn be staffed by middle class volunteers. According to this near “trick up” philosophy, all sectors of society would work together to improve society as a whole.
New York birthed the first settlement house in the United States, the University Settlement Society of New York, in lower Manhattan. University Settlement Society still operates today. Chicago laid claim to the most famous settlement house, Hull House, in 1896. Hull House offered education and recreation primarily for women and children. Many of the poorest members of urban society during this period were immigrants from central, southern, and eastern Europe, as well as Ireland. My own Polish, German, and Irish ancestors probably passed through Ellis Island during the settlement reform era. (The period was not, it should be remembered, friendly to immigrants from all parts of the globe in all parts of the United States; for example, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, passed to appease Californians, banned all immigration from China).
These immigrants did not speak English, and had their own cultures that were “foreign” to most Americans. They were discriminated against, exploited as cheap labor in mines and factories, and taken advantage of by unscrupulous con-men.
But among their other uses, settlement houses could help such immigrants learn English and provide social services to integrate them into society. Settlement houses, it was hoped, would “Americanize” these immigrants to improve their economic and social standing. The poorest of the poor could become, with the continued philanthropy of the very rich, the next generation of middle class settlement house volunteers.
Through this system of social mobility, the United States could avoid the entrenched socio-economic systems of Europe from which these immigrants fled. By 1920, there were 500 settlement houses operating in the United States. These houses even inspired settlement schools in Appalachia, which offered educational services to the rural poor.
Historians cite several interlocking factors as reasons for the decline of the settlement house movement. The most common among these is that the post-WWI recession stifled enthusiasm for philanthropy among the rich and forced the middle-class volunteers into poverty. Another, and the most disturbing, factor I have come across is that when increasing numbers of African-Americans fled the Jim Crow south in the 1920s, most settlement houses decided they would rather close their doors than serve this particular community.2
With this brief introduction to the settlement house movement, let us return to the House of the Seven Gables. When Caroline Emmerton purchased the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, also known as the House of Seven Gables, in 1910, she did so with the interconnected goals of preservation and using it as a settlement house. Emmerton had been running the local YMCA settlement house since 1908, but she had expanded services so much that she exceeded her building’s capacity. She also saw the opportunity to derive funding for her settlement house from the proceeds of a historical museum. “If . . . the settlements do the best Americanization work,” said Emmerton, “should not this settlement excel whose home is the ancient House of Seven Gables, the foundations of which were laid by the first immigrants who came here long ago?” Thus, Emmerton envisioned the twin objectives of preserving American culture and serving immigrant populations as interdependent from the beginning.
Today, the House of the Seven Gables operates as a museum within the House of the Seven Gables Historic District. The district is comprised of multiple homes which Emmerton and her successors relocated and restored. The current 501(c)3 non-profit organization retains as part of its mission statement Emmertons’ dual purpose “to preserve our National Historic Landmark District and leverage its power as an icon of American culture to engage diverse audiences and provide educational opportunities for our local immigrant community.”
The House of the Seven Gables provides a number of services with the aim of fulfilling Emmerton’s vision for a museum geared toward settlement services. For example, the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association staff offers Caribbean Connections, a no-cost summer enrichment program K-6 students at the earliest stages of literacy in English. The Settlement Association is also offering Adult ESL/Citizenship readiness classes. In addition, the Settlement Association coordinates the forum series “Community Conversations on the Topic of Immigration and Immigration Reform.” In this conversational forum, speakers from across the country have moderated talks that explore topics ranging from the history of immigration laws, to the impact of the landscaping industry on local workers. The House of the Seven Gables thus retains one of its central values of “being at the center of” the “ local, at-risk immigrant community.” The House of the Seven Gables has even served as a venue for naturalization ceremonies for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Consistent with Emmerton’s original plan, the settlement association accumulates the majority of its funding (<$1 million) from museum programs. Although the museum now relies heavily on professional labor, it continues the settlement tradition of volunteer labor - admissions, the museum store, docents, and costume repair are staffed largely through volunteers. The House of Seven Gables Settlement Association, however, fulfills its mission through the efforts of settlement service professionals. The House of the Seven Gables operates as one of less than 100 active settlement houses in the United States, with the majority located in New York City.
Settlement houses inspire me as a counter to the hate, xenophobia, and white supremacy yjsy appear to be undergoing a renaissance in the 21st century. Perhaps upon deeper inspection, I would become more skeptical of the objectives and operations of a settlement house. Depending on the kind of “Americanization” that settlement houses sought to achieve, they may have sought to relieve American xenophobia by simply eliminating immigrant cultures altogether. But on the other hand, the settlement house movement seems consistent with American traditions as articulated by Emma Lazarus in her poem “New Colossus” inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty: “"Give me your tired, your poor,/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” I mean, we are, after all, a nation of immigrants, right?3 We might also think of the House of the Seven Gables Settlement Association as a part, albeit a tangential one, of Hawthorne’s legacy. This prompts me to slightly reconsider the author’s contribution to American culture.
The literary experts of my generation have been as calumnious of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s political and social positions as those of the previous generation were uncritically laudatory of his genius. Hawthorne has been called racist, misogynist, pro-slavery, anti-Indian, anti-catholic, and most significantly for purposes of this blogpost, an anti-immigrant xenophobe.4 I do not entirely disagree with all of these accusations. But even though the Gables Settlement House is an unintended consequence of Hawthorne’s actions, The House of the Seven Gables Association may at least slightly mitigate such acerbic accusations.
In my initial post on this blog, I conceptualized the House of the Seven Gables as a personification of America’s original sins, much as Hawthorne did in his novel of the same name. Those sins include acts of genocide, slavery, and discrimination against indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, and especially, in the case of the Salem Witch Trials, women. I speculated that as long as we deny these aspects of our past, as well our tacit participation in perpetuating these errors, we live in the shadow of the House of the Seven Gables.
Perhaps its current function as a settlement house shortens the shadow of the House of Seven Gables, if ever so slightly. By offering aid to the economically disadvantaged and those most affected by discrimination and dispossession – such as the novel’s character Matthew Maul (and his heirs) who suffers at the hands of Colonel Pyncheon, or the women whom Hawthorne’s ancestor Judge John Hathorne sentenced to death at the Salem Witch Trials – the House is part of the effort to atone for America’s sins.
1. I want to thank Julie Arrison and Ana Nuncio of the House of the Seven Gables for their contributions in helping me understand The House of Seven Gables as settlement association. All quotations regarding the House of Seven Gables founding and mission are from the museum’s website: 7gables.org. ↩
3. Kind of, but not really. We are only a nation of immigrants when we conveniently forget that indigenous peoples are citizens of our nation and members of our society. And while some people refer to African slaves as immigrants, to consider their position in American society as somehow similar to that of European immigrants creates a suspiciously and demonstrably false equivalence. ↩