North End Women's Club in Edgewater
By: By Grace Pekar
The North End Women’s Club was founded in Edgewater in 1897. The club began with 152 members and by the club’s first annual meeting six months after its inception, membership totaled 171 women.1 Founding members included such women as President Mary S. Lapham, and Second Vice President Anna Sears.2 Both women married wealthy men: Alden Barker Lapham ran a booming leather business,3 and Richard W. Sears founded Sears Roebuck & Company mailing catalog.4 The club lasted for over 100 years and didn’t just flourish in the arts – they made strides to help alleviate poverty in Chicago and educate others in their community. This article looks at the first two stages of female club building, where NEWC started out as an elite arts club for women but then soon became aware of issues outside their club doors.
The widespread club movement in the United States developed from 1870 to 1930 in four stages as a theory identified by historian Karen Blair. This theory is also known as the era of “female institution building,”5 The women’s clubs were created initially to discuss the arts and education. Next, they begin to have concerns with the outside world, and invite speakers into their clubs to discuss civic and health issues. In the third stage, women’s clubs became more concerned with communities and cities, addressing political and immigration concerns in the 20th century. Finally, women’s clubs go through a clubhouse building phase and become anchors in their communities. The North End Woman’s Club (NEWC) demonstrated the four stages of Blair’s club movement theory, balancing between community/public involvement and an individual arts club.
The NEWC instituted several departments and committees, including education, civics and philanthropy, but also the arts and music.6 While speakers and meeting topics focused primarily on social causes on a regional and national platform, there were also musical performances, art demonstrations and literature discussions to fulfill another self-educational need for women. The NEWC established the Bureau of Charities, first proposed by Rev. Wh. Stevens, in January 1898 with six representatives from the club.7 The NEWC philanthropy committee’s first area of interest was “social settlements,” which Mary McDonnell introduced and named the Northwestern University Settlement as a charity to support.
NEWC did so by donating money to and promoting the sale of the Settlement’s benefit publication, “The Woman’s Election,” for ten cents.8 NEWC donated money to the Chicago University Settlement9 and gave $12 to be part of the North Shore District’s Council of Charities.10 The club members’ efforts did contribute to good causes, such as settlement houses in the first decade of the twentieth century. This interest in settlement houses parallels national women’s club sentiment on the importance of fighting poverty and helping an increasingly urbanizing metropolis, despite the upper class status of these clubwomen. No settlement houses existed in Edgewater at this time, but Chicago overall comprised a large immigrant and lower-class population suffering from poverty.
Urban growth in the 1900s impacted the club’s civic activities. Speakers and activists from settlement homes appeared at NEWC meetings to discuss the urban crisis. As an example, leaders of settlement houses such as the Hull House Settlement in Chicago spoke about the then current civic concerns to club members at club meetings. Mrs. Carlson of Hull House spoke to NEWC on February 25, 1901 about the deplorable work conditions of a particular group of working-class people. She spoke “in an insightful, appealing manner” about how the upper-class women such as the NEWC members could help “the producers,”11 or female factory workers, by only purchasing from companies that had improved the working conditions of their employees.
Hull House was a Chicago settlement house, and Mrs. Carlson appealed to the club women to help these non-Edgewater impoverished workers. Another interaction of the club members with the 1900s civic world consisted of efforts to support the treatment of children in the juvenile courts. Club members appointed a representative to the juvenile court and, along with other city clubs, funded probation officers to ensure proper care for children.12
They also listened to lectures about child behavior, such as a presentation by the Anti-Cigarette League, in which the representative’s “appeal to women is that they help in the dissemination of knowledge regarding the dangers which influence the well-being of boys who use tobacco.”13 Although their philanthropic activities aimed for the greater good, they used events like club fundraising parties to socialize with only the upper class.
Edgewater started as an elite suburb of Chicago and over time became a community of multiple demographics. Developer J.L. Cochran envisioned Edgewater as an affluent suburb of Chicago with modern amenities for primarily white, wealthy families. At first, there was tendency for white, elitist exclusion in the early periods of the community, but ultimately it opened up to others as the community became more diverse.
Within the first decade of the twentieth century, the new Northwestern Elevated Railroad stations opened at Bryn Mawr and Granville bringing a new, diverse population to Edgewater. By the 1920s, before the Great Depression, Edgewater’s elite lived among middle-class families, Swedish and German immigrants, and transient workers commuting to the city. While a majority of Edgewater consisted of white, middle to upper class families at the time of the North End Woman’s club inception, Edgewater’s later “newcomer” population would create a need for more community involvement by NEWC.
The NEWC’s organizational and governance documents define the club’s initial organization as an exclusive club. These upper-class women gathered in J.L. Cochran’s elite suburb of Chicago to empower themselves in an exclusive setting. Not just anyone joined NEWC—women had to be recommended by acquaintances who were already part of the club who submitted written proposals to the club board.14 If approved, membership to the club still required a majority vote from all members. This gave NEWC the appearance of exclusivity, which prevented an open relationship with their surrounding community, as the neighborhood began to diversify. The early years of the club included mainly elite members and only began to have a presence of Swedish and Italian members decades after inception.15
A look at its activities over time gives the sense that NEWC eventually turned outward and became more inclusive of others, altering and expanding their sense of community.
Educational efforts on behalf of the NEWC demonstrate an early outward tendency towards the local community at the turn of the twentieth century. NEWC’s goals strove to implement desirable programs or lessons in area schools and donate resources and materials that club members felt crucial to children’s development. At one of the first meetings of the club in October 1897, Second Vice President Sears lectured on Sloyd Manual Training, a form of learning based on handicrafts and woodworking and the need for local schools to implement it. Her guest, Mrs. Alice B. Stockham, a prominent Chicago feminist, physician and publisher,16 spoke about the training already in place in a Norwegian school and the proven “progression” of the pupils.17
A year later, Sears moved that the board of directors donate $50 to fund a “Manual Training Department” in a local school, Goudy School.18 (This school was the only CPS school in the community with outposts at Andersonville (Foster and Clark) and Edgewater (Thorndale and Winthrop). This activism towards education in neighborhood schools points to the club’s educational objective and its goal to help the “greater good,” especially in the club’s own backyard.
Club members helped fund a scholarship to boys and girls in need, later known as the Vocational Supervisional League Scholarship. Board members elected First Vice President Mrs. Lewis as chair, and the club hosted an entertainment event for the new school which raised $67.25.19 Again, they enjoyed a social event while at the same time
raising funds for this education program. In addition, club members responded to numerous pleas from the Library Committee and the Parental School to donate books. In March 1902 the Chair of the Library committee reported that club members in total donated seventy-five books and twenty-five juvenile books to the Rosehill district school.20 (The Rosehill school was located on Ashland Avenue just north of Ridge Avenue.) Providing books for educational purposes showed the club members’ own high regard for education which they wished to pass on to the younger generation, including their own children in Edgewater.
These educational efforts of the North End Women’s Club demonstrate a transformation from a social arts orientated club to one with external community improvement goals.
This article represents a portion of the story of the North End Women’s Club as researched by Grace Pekar. It was edited for publication by David and Kathryn Gemperle. A second article will explore the later stages of the club development.
1-2 From minutes of NEWC
3 "Business Removals." Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), April 30, 1882,
4 "R. W. Sears Dead; Rose to Wealth." Chicago Daily Tribune (1872-1922), September 29, 1914
5 Estelle Freedman, “Separatism as Strategy: Female Institution Building and American Feminism, 1870-1930,” in Nancy F. Cott, ed. History of Women in the United States: Women Together Organizational Life, 16 (New Providence: K.B. Saur, 1994) 450.
7-15 From minutes of the NEWC
16 Beryl Satter, “New Thought,” Encyclopedia of Chicago
17-20 From minutes of NEWC