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#SouthofUnionSquare — The Social Reform Club at 45 University Place

Anyplace else on Earth, the Social Reform Club, which included a who’s who of labor, political, and social reform leaders of the turn of the last century, would be a legendary presence and marquee historic landmark. In the area south of Union Square, where an unprecedented confluence of labor, political, leftist, and progressive social history took place, it’s an almost entirely forgotten but fascinating footnote in this neighborhood’s viral and tumultuous history — a history we are seeking to honor and preserve, and which faces daily and growing threats.

In 1900, the Social Reform Club hosted a lecture by labor leader Edward King, called “A Broad View of the Labor Movement.” According to a report by The Typographical Journal published that year, King declared in this speech that the labor movement was growing in importance, bringing more and more people into strikes, disputes, and debates. Over the course of subsequent meetings, he stated that various speakers of the Social Reform Club would continue to address the movement: they would discuss Columbia University’s research on trades-unionism, the Knights of Labor, and the Federation of Labor. King’s talk and the ones that followed are just a small sampling of the many conversations held at the Social Reform Club on political and economic reform. From its rooms at 45 University Place, the Club boasted a membership featuring the city’s most renowned reform leaders, and attempted to confront the most pressing issues for working people locally and internationally.

45 University Place, 2014.

The Social Reform Club was formally organized in 1894 to cultivate consciousness about, and organize around the improvement of, industrial and social conditions. As a critical part of this, it sought to unite working people with their allies. Poet and reformer Ernest Howard Crosby helped found the club after a meeting with political economist and journalist Henry George in late 1894. Its first president was Charles Spahr, who worked as the author and editor of Outlook magazine. In her website on Progressive leader Lillian Wald, Dr. Anne M. Filiaci writes that the Social Reform Club leadership also included lawyer Edmund Kelly, former New York State Assemblymember Ernest Crosby, and Ethical Culture Society-founder Felix Adler. Labor union leader Samuel Gompers, Progressive leader Josephine Shaw Lowell, and author William Dean Howells were also part of the club’s advisory board.

Samuel Gompers, 1902. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

According to Samuel Gompers’ published papers, the group required that half of the members be wage earners, and the Club’s 1898 annual report — cited by the editors of Gompers’ papers — revealed that over one third of the club’s 310 members were in fact wage earners. As reported in a 1902 issue of Club Men of New York, the club’s dues cost $3. In addition to hosting classes, lectures, and conferences — documented widely in newspapers of the time — the Club coordinated non-partisan support of legislation.

Social Reform Club Meeting Notes. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Harvard University.

Originally, the group met regularly at rooms on Bond Street, before moving to a now-demolished building at 28 East 4th Street. Around the turn of the century, the Social Reform Club moved to 45 University Place, in the neighborhood South of Union Square. The five-story 1845-47 rowhouse was originally constructed for James Brown and Edward Boonen Graves.

1899 Map. Photo courtesy of NYPL.

The Social Reform Club is mentioned in a number of biographies of New York City’s most prominent reformers, especially women, illuminating how much of an influence it had on shaping the politics and networks of these individuals. Dr. Filiaci writes that Lillian Wald was an early member of the Club when she was in her twenties and working as a nurse. Wald was initially “a shy and much impressed member,” but admired the Club for being “practical,” and for focusing on projects that would manifest in the “improvement of the condition for wage-earners.” Wald went on to deeply influence public social services in New York City, as the founder of the Henry Street Settlement and The Visiting Nurse Services of New York, and as the namesake for the Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D in the East Village. 

After cofounding the Working Women’s Society in 1886, labor leader Leonora O’Reilly was introduced to the Social Reform Club by philanthropist and activist Louise Perkins. Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, who would go on to establish the Greenwich House settlement (opened at 26 Jones Street in 1902 and relocated to the newer 27 Barrow Street in 1917), was yet another member of the Club. Dr. Filiaci quotes Simkhovitch’s fond memories of the organization: “To the members of that club…no other group will ever be so dear.”

21-25 University Place (R-L) with the University Presbyterian Church to the left of No. 25, 1895. By 1899, these buildings were re-numbered 41-47 University Place. The building at 45 University Place, which housed the Social Reform Club, is second from the right.

Civil Rights activist Mary White Ovington joined the club too, where she met prominent socialists Lowell, Howells, and O’Reilly. As reported by Tanya Hart in the book Health in the City, Ovington “underwent a change [while part of the Club] that motivated her leap from thinking about social injustices to activism.” In 1901, the Club sponsored a talk by Booker T. Washington that left a strong impression on Ovington, raising her awareness of the widespread impacts of racism in her city. Washington’s talk impacted the trajectories of other reformers as well. Socialist, suffragist, and settlement worker Florence Ledyard Cross Kitchelt wrote about Washington’s appearance at the Social Reform Club in her journal on April 3, 1901.

Writer and women’s movement leader Charlotte Perkins Gilman also writes about speaking at the Social Reform Club “on social reform in England,” in her autobiography. The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Papers at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study actually holds some of the Social Reform Club’s materials. One document holds the Club’s meeting notes describing its transition from East 4th Street to University Place.

Lillian Wald, 1905-1945. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Club’s membership furthermore included labor activist and educator Edward King, attorney and activist Edward Warren Ordway, journalist Jacob Riis, economist E.R.A. Seligman, journalist and editor Albert Shaw, and public parks and settlement activist Charles Stover.

Reading through various mentions of the Social Reform Club in newspapers and other publications reveals the great variety of theoretical and everyday subjects the Club took up, many of which still resonate today. One April 1899 article in The Evening Post advertises a talk called “The Operation of Street Railways,” and continues to say: “W.F. Doll, who wants to ride his bicycle on the Speedway and can’t, has been proposed for membership in the club.” The following December, the Club “attacked the question of bridges verses tunnels.” In May 1900, the New York Times reported about a letter from the Club “protesting against the detention of witnesses who have no direct connection with crime.” The Druggists’ League for Shorter Hours held a meeting at the Club in 1898, according to The Pharmaceutical Era. Other talks hosted bore titles such as “King Demos — the Failure of Democracy”, “The Social Artistic Movement in England”, and “The Fire Department.”

Dr. Filiaci emphasizes the Club’s attempt to strike a balance between exploring political ideologies and developing practical solutions, referring to a mass meeting the Club sponsored at Cooper Union on January 30, 1895. The event, attended by a large audience and addressed by Samuel Gompers, Henry George, and others, centered a conversation on the 1894 Tenement House Commission of New York City’s report. While those present expressed approval the proposed reforms, the Club’s representation made sure to articulate that these recommendations were only one step in a much larger process.

Virtual Village — South of Union Square Leftist and Labor Tour, 2021.

Without a doubt, the Social Reform Club played a profoundly significant role in the lives of the city’s most renowned and influential reformers, and in shaping the movements in which they were involved. It is, furthermore, one of many sites in the labor, civil rights, social justice, and women’s history rooted in the area south of Union Square. Click to view our Leftist and Labor Tour, our Civil Rights and Social Justice Tour, and our Women’s History Tour. Here you will learn more about the extraordinary people and places we have documented in this historic neighborhood, such as the trailblazing labor organization at 80 Fifth Avenue, the New York City Woman Suffrage League at 10 East 14th Street, the headquarters of the NAACP at 70 Fifth Avenue, and more:

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