Partners Against Misery

A loyal funder and a visionary took on tenement squalor, and won.

century ago, when philanthropy was a private affair, and gentlemen did not join forces with women, an extraordinary collaboration between one of America’s most successful financiers and an unknown woman just out of nursing school changed the course of thousands of American lives. The financier was the great Jewish philanthropist Jacob Schiff. His visionary partner was Lillian Wald. She had been introduced to Schiff by his mother-in-law with portentous words: “Either she is a genius, or a madwoman.” Together, this duo nursed, educated, Americanized, and defended a great tide of poor immigrants as they flooded into New York City.

Trouble in the tenements

Between 1892 and 1924, a surge of over 12 million immigrants passed through the port of New York. Millions of them settled within blocks of the gangplanks they descended. They were aliens in a country whose language they could not speak and whose culture they did not understand.

A typical family with multiple children would occupy one poorly ventilated and ill-lit room measuring about 12 by 10 feet—which often served as a workshop as well as a home. Two dark closets would serve as sleeping areas. Running water was neither clean nor reliable, and the only toilets were in the courtyard, making modesty impossible and sanitation abysmal. The immigrants who crammed into Manhattan’s lower east side totaled twice as many people as resided on the whole rest of the island.

It was social reformers and sympathetic philanthropists who took charge of ameliorating the illness, poverty, crime, and injustice that floated in with the new arrivals. Women working in squalid tenements did much of the work on the ground—acculturating displaced peasants to an urban life radically different from anything they had known. Lillian Wald was among these dedicated public servants.

A debutante from Rochester, New York, Wald was an idealist with big dreams and an instinct for organization. Defying her parents’ more genteel expectations, she insisted on studying nursing amid the human bedlam of 1890 New York City. At age 22 she was too young to meet the enrollment requirements of the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses, so she lied about her age, then battled her way through the dehumanizing two-year course, often working alone in wards where most of the patients came to die.

Then as now, New York was a city of vast contrasts. The downtown poor carved out a living working in factories or hawking wares from pushcarts on mucky streets. Uptown, there were barons of industry and finance gliding in carriages to and from lavish family mansions.

Jacob Schiff was also an immigrant, but of the uptown variety. He had been born in Germany as the son of a financier. Well educated, and eager to succeed in America’s burgeoning economy, he quickly realized that the growth of railroads would overtake other forms of transportation. Immersing himself in all aspects of the industry, from engineering breakthroughs and the costs of constructing rail cars and laying tracks, to the scheduling and frequency of stops in cities that would yield the greatest profits, Schiff used his European banking connections to advantage, amassing capital to invest in the railroads and other American industries integral to this nascent national economy. Locking horns with his powerful competitor, J. P. Morgan and Company, he wasn’t averse to manipulating market prices in his favor, sometimes to his own detriment, Morgan’s, and the industry at large.  Nonetheless, during the 1880s, Schiff made tens of millions of dollars for Kuhn, Loeb & Company, in effect pushing aside his change-resistant father-in-law, Solomon Loeb, and ascending to the company’s helm at age 38.

Schiff’s mother-in-law, Betty Loeb, an admirer of the brilliant and philanthropic husband of her daughter, Therese, arranged the meeting between Schiff and Wald. As serendipitous as it was fortuitous, Mrs. Loeb had funded a hygiene class for female Jewish immigrants that Lillian Wald was chosen to teach. When the two women met in the drawing room of Loeb’s Fifth Avenue mansion, Wald described a visit to the tenement flat of one of her students, the filth and poverty of which shocked Wald into her resolve to establish a home nursing service—the first in New York City. Instinctively, Betty Loeb suggested that Wald meet with Jacob Schiff.

So in the spring of 1893, Wald donned her best satin blouse, fixed a beribboned bonnet on her upswept hair, and took a trolley to the Kuhn, Loeb & Company headquarters. As she was escorted into Schiff’s mahogany-paneled chamber, Wald would later remember, “I was nervous, feeling like an inexperienced young girl.” The steel-eyed, white-bearded, and impeccably dressed Schiff cut a striking figure at age 46. Yet, when Wald, 20 years his junior, began to speak of her plan for helping families who had risked everything to come to America, her nerves settled and her passion flowed.

Born into a family of German-Jewish entrepreneurs, Wald understood the landscape of Schiff’s mind. She knew he was an investor with his eye on the bottom line, and that this attitude permeated his philanthropic endeavors as well as his business life.

As a strictly observant Jew, Schiff believed it was his duty to give away at least 10 percent of his income to meet his obligations to Jewish charities and institutions, and to express his gratitude to America for his economic success. Using his financial skills and personal connections to serve the public good, he had earned the sobriquet, “King of the Jews.” (For more on his Jewish philanthropy, see the following article.) Priding himself on his hands-on approach toward institutions he valued, Schiff visited patients most Sundays during the many years he was president of Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx.

Schiff’s interest in aiding the poor and indigent Jews from Eastern Europe grew partly out of a desire to protect the reputation of the Jewish community at large. Fearing that new arrivals might taint the hard-won social status of his more educated co-religionists, Schiff hoped that many of the arrivals then crowding into Manhattan could be spread more broadly across new communities. Schiff and other German Jews had started a movement to resettle Russian Jews in the Pacific Northwest, Minnesota, and even Argentina. But these endeavors had failed by the time Schiff met Wald, and thousands of new refugees were arriving each day.

Wald’s vision of home nursing—an intimate local effort to aid the sick, and instruct families on hygiene and nutrition—seemed to get to the heart of the problem of acculturating new immigrants. Impressed with her intelligence and drive, Schiff immediately agreed to follow her into a world about which he had only read: the dark underbelly of tenement life.

One can imagine the dapper Schiff arriving in his elegant carriage for a first visit on Hester Street, stepping out onto the muddy street jammed with peddlers loudly selling their wares, awash with the aroma of garbage and unwashed pedestrians. He followed Wald up the broken treads of a wooden stairway, into unlit halls filled with the cries of hungry children. In a two-room flat occupied by a family of seven, a woman whom Wald had visited two days earlier lay on the plank that served as her bed. Her children needed to be washed and fed, and since her husband was out pushing his cart full of fish, the duty fell to Wald.

Moved by what he saw, Schiff offered her and her nursing colleague $60 per month each (the equivalent of $1,525 today) to start their home-nursing effort. In addition, Wald was permitted to request extra funding for emergencies. In return, Schiff asked for monthly reports of their work, along with an accounting of expenditures, and a balanced budget. He recommended that the nursing service tend to people of all races and creeds, and further agreed to supply names and addresses of his colleagues who might offer their own financial aid. However, in accord with his policy of not being the sole supporter of any philanthropic cause, and his intention to remain anonymous, Wald was expected to secure their support on her own. (Because of Schiff’s anonymity, inspired by the teachings of Maimonides, their partnership was unknown until decades after their deaths, when Wald’s papers were donated to the New York Public Library.)

A broad attack on poverty

The Visiting Nurses Service could not have begun at a worse time in the economic life of the city or the nation. The depression of 1893 was then the worst in U.S. history. Thousands of banks, businesses, and farms went bust. The unemployment rate in New York was 35 percent. Facing starvation, men chopped wood or broke rocks, and women turned to prostitution. Despite the immense demands this economic disaster made on Schiff’s attention, however, he never missed a meeting with Wald or her staff.

Wald and her colleagues were involved in every aspect of immigrant life: nursing children and parents back to health, finding children places in schools, teaching the blind and paralyzed to care for themselves, and raising funds for those too ill to work. But after two years of providing services, they, in accord with Schiff, came to believe that their efforts would be futile unless they could prepare immigrants to care for themselves instead of relying on others. This required training in practical skills, beginning with the women in the family. The Mother’s Club they began grew into the core of a larger enterprise that included courses in English literacy and citizenship.

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In addition to her hands-on work, Wald encouraged parents, businessmen, and elected officials to get poor children off the street and out of factories, and into schools and healthier environments—with help from Schiff's friends in business and public life. (Jacob Riis)

The nurses had quickly learned that isolating one factor of poverty—physical health—was impossible. Their operation was fast becoming full-service care. The settlement house movement offered a model. Settlement houses were Christian community organizations intent on simultaneously aiding the poor and giving concerned members of the middle class opportunities to serve, and understand, the indigent. Settlement houses became involved in all facets of communal life, from language training, to housekeeping and child-care instruction, to budgeting, to job assistance, to moral instruction.

In 1895, Schiff authorized the nurses to look for a building to house their growing staff and burgeoning school. Their eventual new headquarters on Henry Street became a center for learning in the immigrant community. By then Lillian Wald was 29 years old and well into spinsterhood. Her personal life since entering nursing school had been brushed aside—her work was everything. She never married or had children. But she brought maternal warmth as well as competence to her mission. Always delighting in the laughter and song of children, Wald encouraged tenement street urchins to hang around, play and sing, and put on skits, many of whom, such as Eddie Cantor, went on to careers in show business.

By 1906, the Henry Street Settlement House was a hub for nurses, teachers, and social workers. Schiff funded the purchase of an adjoining building, and eventually two others. He simultaneously financed the acquisition of a farm in upstate New York to enable impoverished children and ill adults to leave the heat and pollution of the city during the summer months. Schiff, Wald, and her staff constantly reevaluated their methods, and the effectiveness of their efforts.

While funding her expanding operation, Schiff was mentoring Wald. He tutored her on how to buy real estate, on limiting the use of coal to heat buildings, on using and storing foodstuffs to reduce waste and budget pressure, and managing what was, in effect, a large nonprofit corporation. Schiff and his other philanthropist friends saw to it that Wald’s nurses had access to the staffs of Bellevue, Mt. Sinai, and Montefiore hospitals for training, consulting, and referral of patients.

Schiff marshaled his connections in business, law, and government to take an interest in the activities at Henry Street, and encouraged them to join the Henry Street board. This turned the facility into a high-powered salon for new thinking on public policies, in addition to its role as a school and nursing facility. Wald readily used Schiff’s access to city, state, and national leaders to encourage awareness and action on crucial social problems, including child labor. At that time, one out of every six children under the age of 14 in New York City worked in a factory or peddled on the streets, preventing them from attending school. She called for various reforms in public schools, including the hiring of nurses capable of handling contagious disease and instituting ungraded classes for the learning disabled. Wald also worked with city landlords and officials to allocate land for playgrounds and parks, believing that play spaces for children were essential to good health. Furthermore, she initiated a lecture program at Columbia University Teachers College, which led to the establishment of a nursing school.

By 1915, Henry Street offered rich programming at three branches. In addition, Wald oversaw seven summer camps in the countryside, three storefront milk stations and health clinics, and a roving battalion of 100 nurses who made more than 227,000 home visits a year. Her centers served tens of thousands of members, students, and patients. And 18 years later when Wald retired, the nurses out of Henry Street were attending to more than 100,000 patients and making 550,000 home visits annually.

A deep partnership

Much of Schiff’s support was, by design, anonymous and behind the scenes, but the work he made possible was admired across the country. And, with him, Wald was held in broad esteem. Jacob Riis, the muckraking photojournalist who helped expose the dire poverty and filth of the tenements, wrote of Wald that “the poor trust her absolutely, trust her head, her judgment, and her friendship. She arbitrates…and the men listen…. She will tell the mayor the truth, for she knows.”

Sixteen years after the inception of their partnership, in acknowledgment of Schiff’s growing trust and admiration for Wald’s wisdom and vision, he wrote a letter to absolve her of the burden of writing monthly reports. “You and the ladies associated with you,” he explained, “are constant living accounts of your great value, not only to the community, but to mankind in general.” Schiff saw himself as a committed friend of the Henry Street “family,” assuming the role of monitoring operations when Wald was out of town. Schiff promised that he and his wife would “watch the shop.” During her trip to Japan, Schiff wrote: “We were down there to supper Sunday a week ago, and while we greatly missed the ‘soul’ of the family, we were much pleased with the hospitality.”

The arc of correspondence between Schiff and Wald reveals a fertile partnership in which they gradually became equals. Schiff came to use Wald as a sounding board for his philanthropic and social investments, beyond their partnership in the immigrant community.

The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 mobilized Wald’s tireless attention. She recruited nurses and volunteers and rallied support for treatment centers throughout the city. Worldwide, up to 50 million people would succumb to this virulent flu, more people than had died in the World War. Afraid that his protégée was sacrificing her health, Schiff encouraged her to reduce the intensity of her work, and offered a lifetime pension to make it possible for her to delegate some of her daily responsibilities while expanding her vision to a wider set of issues. This was the first substantial personal gift Wald accepted from him or from anyone else.

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Together, Wald and Schiff battled to make the crowded quarters of immigrants more sanitary and conducive to health. (Jacob Riis)

When Jacob Schiff passed away in 1920, 1,500 friends and representatives of organizations attended the funeral, and thousands more flowed from the Lower East Side to his home to pay their respects. Asked to comment on his contribution to her institution and its work, Wald wrote that Schiff represented “the best, I think, of the men who take their eleemosynary and communal interest with the same seriousness that they give to their family relationships. I had over 25 years of good fellowship with Mr. Schiff and though great financial crises occurred during that time and there were political disturbances—local, national, and international, he was always the public-spirited citizen. I had many occasions to request his interest and his action, and in all that time he never once said or implied, ‘I am too busy.’ …The commissions and services for which I from time to time asked his attention had a wide range, meeting people from many lands with different points of view and different experiences from his own, participating in labor disputes, accompanying me to the White House to insure a quick hearing on urgent matters, getting a newsstand for some special case, discussing the best means for getting help for a crippled child.”

Neither Wald nor Schiff alone could have accomplished all they had done together. Their 25-year partnership was a union of complementary personalities—he the hard-nosed, analytical investor, she the empathetic, visionary humanitarian. Both had organizational skills and indomitable energy and drive. Their mutual esteem and unflagging commitment to rescue the immigrant poor of New York City from destitution, illness, and abuse, undergirded by Schiff’s money, experience, and connections to other donors and officials, fueled their achievements.

Dedication plus clarity of purpose, constancy of oversight, innovative measurement, and continual self-correction lay at the heart of the model Lillian Wald and Jacob Schiff created. These principles are still central to philanthropic efficacy. Effective philanthropy requires money, but also an investment of time and energy and insight. In addition to setting standards and monitoring progress, a donor must commit his skills, knowledge, and experience. The collaboration between the visionary Lillian Wald and the seasoned Jacob Schiff is timeless in its simplicity. Cutting through the complex social and political diversity of twenty-first-century endeavors, their partnership remains an enduring paradigm for effective private philanthropy. 

Susan Hertog is the author of Anne Morrow Lindbergh: Her Life and Dangerous Ambition: Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson.

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