Lillian Wald and Giving All Year Round
December 17, 2013

December is a good time think of others and to open our hearts, pantries, and wallets in order to make the world a little bit brighter. If the stories we tell inspire you, we hope you’ll consider a gift to the Tenement Museum this holiday season!

For our part, Tenement staffers are currently rummaging through their closets to gather warm clothes to be distributed through Meatloaf Kitchen, a local community service organization.

The Tenement Museum staff winter clothing drive basket - this photo was taken on the first day and it was already almost full!

Of course, we’re not the first to do this. There’s a long history of philanthropy on the Lower East Side; charitable organizations that provide medical, employment, educational and nutritional aid have existed in the neighborhood for over a century!

A colored photo of Mulberry St circa 1900. Disease and malnutrition ran rampant in the Lower East Side, from overcrowding, poor food availability and quality, and other factors.

Two great examples of local social service organizations are the Henry Street Settlement House and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, both founded in 1893 by a then 25-year old Jewish German-American nurse named Lillian Wald.

Lillian Wald in her nurses uniform.

Wald, who was raised in Ohio and New York City, was teaching a class on home health care at a school in the Lower East Side when a little girl came to her with a desperate plea for help on behalf of her sick mother. Wald followed the girl to her tenement apartment, where her mother had just given birth and was in dire need of care – Wald biographer Beatrice Siegel says that a doctor had seen the woman, but had refused to help and left because she could not afford to pay him. This event was a catalyst for Wald, who ultimately dedicated her life to providing education and medical care to the immigrants of the Lower East Side.

The library of the Henry Street Settlement House. The Settlement House provided educational programs for adults and children.

In the same year, Wald began making regular house calls to poor immigrants; this would lead to the founding of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY). Visiting nurses often climbed across rooftops to get into tenement buildings, both to avoid climbing dozens of flights of stairs a day and the clogged streets, and also because the top floors of tenements were often the cheapest, and therefore, the poorest families, who were often most in need of aid, would live there.

A visiting nurse could visit many tenements in one day bypassing the streets and taking the roofs.

Visiting nurses cared for adults and children who were already sick, and also offered education and preventative care. In 1909, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company joined with Wald and the Henry Street Settlement to begin using visiting nurses as well. It was a resounding success for both.

A visiting nurse from Met Life Insurance.

Wald was also active in civil rights causes, and the VNSNY began treating African American patients in 1906. Wald was one of the founding members of the NAACP in 1909.

In 1933, the year that Wald retired from a long and distinguished career that saved countless lives, 265 visiting nurses treated over 100,000 New Yorkers.

Wald's portrait, by William Valentine Schevill, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. She is also in the National Women's Hall of Fame.

Both the Henry Street Settlement and the VNSNY are still in operation today. The Henry Street Settlement, who created the first off-street playground in 1902, has 17 program sites today, serving more than 50,000 New Yorkers through youth programs, day care, senior programs,  homeless shelters, job training and placement, and fine arts performances.

The Visiting Nurse Service, an early provider of AIDS and HIV care, now has over 12,000 employees who administer medications, and provide physical therapy and end-of-life care. The organization makes over 2 million visits in New York City every year.

Lillian Wald changed the way New Yorkers care for one another.

Wald’s legacy is humbling: through her work, life has been improved for millions of New Yorkers.  So in this charitable holiday season, we tip our hats to Lillian Wald; nurse, humanitarian, and Lower East Sider.

Today, the Tenement Museum continues the legacy of helping others in our neighborhood by offering free tours to Lower East Side locals with our Good Neighbor program, including education programs for schoolchildren at local public schools and special tours for English language learners.  We’re grateful to visitors and donors for helping us continue to tell stories of American immigration that mean so much to our city and our country.

If you have enjoyed a tour, a Tenement Talk, or our blog posts this year, please consider making a contribution to support the Museum’s work.  Click here to make a donation or here to become a Friend to Museum.

Happy Holidays!

– Posted by Lib Tietjen