Reform School

Harvard’s long-closed Social Museum promoted progressive values.

<i>Industrial Problems, Welfare Work: United States. Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh.H.J. Heinz Company: Bottling Department, </i> c. 1903. Gelatin silver print.
<i>Social Settlements: United States. Massachusetts. Boston. South End House: South End House, Boston, Mass.: Vacation School 1907: Boys’ Cooking Class, </i>1907. Gelatin silver print.
<i>Social Settlements: United States. Illinois. Chicago. "Francis E. Clark Settlement": Francis E. Clark Settlement, Chicago. Ill.: In the Neighborhood,</i> c. 1908
<i>Social Settlements: United States. Pennsylvania. Philadelphia. “Starr Centre Association”: The Starr Centre Association, Philadelphia, Pa.: Twins When They Began to Take Modified Milk,</i> c. 1907. Gelatin silver print.
<i>Crime, Children, Reform Schools: United States. New York. Freeville. George Junior Republic: George Junior Republic, Freeville, N.Y.: Cheapest Lodging for Boys, The Garret,</i> c. 1903. Gelatin silver print.
<i>Social Settlements: Great Britain, Scotland. Glasgow. “Queen Margaret College Settlement”: Queen Margaret College Settlement, Anderston, Glasgow, Scotland: Rear Tenements, Clyde St.,</i> c. 1908. Gelatin silver print.
Byron Company, <i>Industrial Problems, Welfare Work: United States. New York. Brooklyn: Rapid Transit Company: Provision of Recreational Facilities for Employees. Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co.: Band of Employees Benefit Association, </i>1906. Gelatin silver print.
Attributed to J. H. Adams, <i>Races, Immigration: United States. New York. New York City. Immigrant Station: Regulation of Immigration at the Port of Entry. United States Immigrant Station, New York City: Saved at the Last Moment (Through an Appeal, the Order to Deport Was Revoked), </i>c. 1903. Glossy collodion silver print.
Waldemar Frans Herman Titzenthaler, <i>Industrial Problems, Types of Working People: Germany. Blacksmith; Cooper; Boiler-Maker; Stone-Dresser; Toy-Maker; Washwomen; Marketwomen: Types of German Workmen: Copper, </i> 1900. Glossy collodion silver print
<i>Social Settlements: United States. Georgia. Atlanta. “Wesley House”: Wesley House, Atlanta, Ga.: In the Gymnasium,</i> c. 1908. Gelatin silver print
Lewis Wickes Hine, <i>Industrial Problems, Conditions: United States. Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh Survey: These Four Strippers Work in a Damp, Unventilated Cellar,</i> 1907–8. Gelatin silver print mounted to board, white gouache.


Scroll above to view a selection of images from the Social Museum collection. 

The decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century have been called the Gilded Age, the Age of Innocence, the Age of Excess, the Progressive Era, and the Age of Reform. “The unregulated rags-to-riches economy brought extraordinary fortune to a few shrewd men like Andrew Carnegie, J.D. Rockefeller, and J.P. Morgan, but to most others—too many others—it brought extraordinary hardship,” writes Anthony W. Lee, professor of art history at Mount Holyoke College, in Instituting Reform: The Social Museum of Harvard University 1903-1931, just published by Harvard Art Museums (distributed by Yale University Press). “The conspicuous losers were people of color, workers, immigrants, the growing ranks of the unemployed, the hard-up families of the tenements, and the unsuspecting victims and displaced populations of military adventures abroad.”

In 1900, Francis Greenwood Peabody wrote, “Behind all the extraordinary achievements of modern civilization, its transformation of business methods, its miracles of scientific discovery, its mighty combination of political forces, there lies at the heart of the present time a burdening sense of mal-adjustment which creates what we call the social question.” The Plummer professor of Christian morals, Peabody taught social ethics. He wanted his students to understand the gravity of the pervasive social problems and to strive to find solutions to them. As an aid, he opened in 1907 the Social Museum, in Emerson Hall, with an archive of thousands of photographs devoted to the lives of the other half. Among the 4,500 still extant are the three shown here: of tenements in Chicago, circa 1908; of the bottling department at the H.J. Heinz Company, Pittsburgh, circa 1903; and of a boys’ cooking class, 1907, in Boston’s South End House. The entire archive is searchable at

The Social Museum closed in 1931, but has been reopened in a sense in the richly illustrated Instituting Reform, edited by Deborah Martin Kao and Michelle Lamunière, with essays by them and Julie K. Brown, Elspeth H. Brown, and Lee. The crucial contributors are the photographers. “In their inquisitiveness and ubiquity,” writes Lee, “photographers became the great teachers in the age of global modernity, or what some might call the Age of Photography.”

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