This summer’s Filson Friday talks by staff members of The Filson included a two part series entitled ‘Her’Story: Encountering Women in The Filson’s Special Collections. The blog will occasionally be featuring some of the women and women’s organizations discussed during these sessions.
As evidenced by participation in equal rights associations and women’s clubs, women of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century often experienced a shift in their activities and work, moving away from the home and into a more public sphere. One woman documented at The Filson as actively working the public sphere in the early twentieth century was Frances MacGregor Ingram.
Born in 1874 in Nebraska, Ingram’s family settled in Louisville when she was in her teens. In her handwritten biography from 1926, Ingram remembers that after her graduation from the Louisville Girls’ High School in 1894, “I had planned to go to Vassar… as my father met with serious financial reverses about that time, I went to the Normal School instead. At the Normal, I was thrilled by the opportunities it afforded for helping to mold the lives of young people.” Ingram finished her education as a teacher in 1896, and then taught at public schools in Louisville for several years, attaining “…much pleasure out of the experience.” According to sources outside of her autobiography, Ingram had also taken summer classes at the New York School of Social Work, as well as other institutions, and was trained in kindergarten education. Around 1905, Ingram’s friend Mary Eleanor Tarrant was leaving her work to be married, and asked if Ingram would consider being the head resident of Neighborhood House. Though apparently having not considered social work before, Ingram agreed, applied, and was accepted – thus beginning several decades of dedicated work towards improving conditions for Louisville’s youth.
Neighborhood House was founded in 1895 as an outgrowth of a boys’ club, in order to “better the conditions of the neighborhood by studying the real needs…and to influence personal character by furnishing, through its clubs, classes, and other activities, a social and intellectual center for the neighborhood.” Originally operating on First Street, the settlement house worked with “local, state and national agencies for reform and protective measures,” managed playgrounds and other facilities, and served “as a non-sectarian meeting place for [the] neighborhood.” The nature of the community surrounding Neighborhood House, as well as Ingram’s intimate contact with its residents, encouraged her to focus on two major issues during her career. The first was Americanization, and she worked to acclimate immigrants (mainly Syrian, Italian, and German) to Louisville society through citizenship classes. Ingram’s primary concern, though, was child welfare. In her continuous efforts to better conditions for the city’s children, she worked to establish a series of parks and playgrounds, which would provide places for youths to spend their recreation time rather than in dance halls or the vice district; Neighborhood House hoped to shelter the city’s children from the “demoralizing influences” of drinking, drug abuse, and prostitution.
Ingram explained in her autobiography that through Neighborhood House, she had “taken part in many pieces of civic work. I have served on various committees dealing with problems in child labor, compulsory education, housing, and hours for working women.” She sat on the boards of the Louisville-Jefferson County Children’s Home and the Louisville Industrial School of Reform and was a member of numerous national, state, and local social work organizations. As a result, she corresponded with such notable reformers as Jane Addams and John Dewey. Frances Ingram retired from Neighborhood House in 1939 due to ill health and died in early 1954; Neighborhood House, now located in Portland, continues its mission today.
With correspondence from other social workers and social organizations, as well as reports, lectures, essays, and other materials, Ingram’s papers, held by The Filson’s Special Collections Department, provide a window into the early social reform movement in Louisville and illuminate similar efforts across the United States. They document education and personal connections leading to a career in social work which then expanded beyond the bounds of Neighborhood House into the city and nation for Frances MacGregor Ingram, providing us with her story.
[See the Frances MacGregor Ingram Papers, Mss. A/I54a in The Filson’s Special Collections Department, and Jacob Lee’s article on the collection in The Filson Newsmagazine Vol. 5 No. 3 .]