Abstract

This article focuses on settlement house work and social reform as efforts to reconcile concerns about the survival of the unfit with the desire for reform and charity. Self-described progressives regarded themselves as shaping the evolution of the race and their work as an expression of civilization. While the social history of reform is rich, historians know less about its intellectual underpinnings. This article shifts the focus from the methods of reformers to their fears of failure and their desire for racial progress. Settlement house workers worried about the perils of degeneration. To understand degeneration, they turned to a language of civilization that historians generally associate only with imperialism to divide populations into savage and civilized. When settlement house workers advocated organized play and boys clubs and began milk stations and better baby contests, they believed that they were civilizing the immigrant urban savage. They believed that the acquired characteristics of civilization could be passed on to a new generation. Yet reformers still worried that their efforts were also preserving the unfit who, in a more savage society, would have perished. Their concern about saving the fit while helping the extinction of the degenerate opened the door to eugenics.

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 5-29
Launched on MUSE
2008-09-17
Open Access
No
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