Generous. Energetic. Hard-working. Progressive. The adjectives used to describe Harriet Elizabeth Vittum could fill volumes. Few people have dedicated their lives so selflessly and so humbly to public service-and with so little fanfare. While others justifiably praise Jane Addams for her pioneering work at Hull House, few people remember a woman who in her lifetime was hailed as "a second Jane Addams" and who worked every bit as hard on behalf of the poor and displaced for justice and social reform.
The paragraph above, taken from The Worn Doorstep : Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991, could not be a more fitting description of Harriet Vittum. It is because of all her accomplishments that she is deservedly placed in this grouping of Early Illinois Women.
Harriet E. Vittum was born in Canton, Illinois, on February 14, 1872. She received her education in local public schools and had an early interest in medicine. She began in her family's home what would become the first hospital in Canton. It was known as the Altruistic Hospital, originated by the Altruistic Club, with Miss Vittum in charge. According to a newspaper account from the Cantonian of October 12, 1899, several complicated surgeries were performed in this hospital at the Vittum home by local area doctors with Miss Vittum in attendance. The account described the first two surgeries at the hospital : a skull fracture with abscesses and the removal of a tumor on a child's neck. It was from this Altruistic Hospital that the germination for a larger institution to serve the county began to emerge and finally culminate with the dedication of Graham Hospital in October of 1909.
Earlier Miss Vittum had journeyed to Chicago in 1893 to work in the Illinois Building of the Columbian Exposition. She joined the staff of the Illinois Children's Aid Society, where she worked for three years. In 1904 Miss Vittum went to work at the Northwestern University Settlement, where she served as a volunteer and shortly thereafter became Head Resident, a position she held for 40 years. She continued to be deeply involved in infant care and health education at the Settlement. Many people of the time were not knowledgeable about children's health care and were also intimidated by doctors and hospitals. Many were European immigrants without fluency in English. These programs provided a means to educating parents and provided emotional support as well. Mothers' Clubs and Fathers' Clubs were formed. In The Worn Doorstep : Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991 there is an account of the Settlement providing needy families with Thanksgiving Day dinners. An excerpt from a letter of one of the recipients is as follows:
I always said and will always say that Miss Vittum is just a mother to me and to many other poor families. Miss Vittum has done more for me than a mother could. Now I have three children. My home conditions are very improved today. It is all through the Settlement. The Northwestern University Settlement is the one that put me on my feet. I certainly do appreciate it from the bottom of my feet to the top of my heart.
Postcard View of Public Square, Canton, Illinois about the time Harriet Vittum lived there.
Letter from Harold L. Ickes to Miss Vittum
Many settlement houses of the time were allied with the Progressive Party. It is not surprising with her interest in social conditions that Miss Vittum became active in politics. She had been at the Settlement at the same time as Raymond Robins, who along with his wife, Margaret Dreier, had a great influence on the social welfare and politics of the time. Miss Vittum had been an advocate for women's rights and suffrage. Miss Vittum worked for the Progressive Party and in 1914-six years before women won the right to vote at the federal level-she ran, unsuccessfully, for alderman of the 17th Ward (formerly the 16th) as an independent candidate. Later that year she and Mary McDowell of the University of Chicago Settlement ran unsuccessfully for the Cook County Board of Commissioners. In 1916 Miss Vittum was named chief of the women's bureau for Republican presidential candidate Charles Evan Hughes. In 1920 she was a leader in the national women's division of General Leonard Wood's campaign for the Republican nomination for presidency.
She served on many boards of Chicago welfare and social service organizations. She held positions as president of the Chicago Kindergarten Institute; head of the Federal Housing Authority, Women's Division, Chicago Association of Better Housing Commission; and president of the Roll Call of American Women. In 1937 she was honored with the Civic Trophy of the Citizens Award Committee for the "most unselfish meritorious service to Chicago in 1936." As recent as January 1992 she was named to the Hall of Fame of Historic Illinoisians by the Lincoln Academy of Illinois
Miss Vittum continued her work with the settlement through another war time-World War II-and in 1947 announced she would be leaving Northwestern University Settlement. Although she was 75 years old, she did not use the word, "retirement," as she felt there was always a job to do. Harold L. Ickes, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior and early Progressive Party supporter, wrote Harriet a letter upon her retirement. In it, Harold L. Ickes referred to her as "one who has labored so long and so effectively to give people understanding and help and sustain them during the hard times of which our generation seems to have had more than its share." In an interview that appeared in the Canton Daily Ledger in May of 1949 Harriet referred to her years following her position at the Settlement as " the richest life I could have possibly had, a full rich life, with so many friends and such interesting work."
Miss Vittum remained active until her death on December 16, 1953 in Passavant Hospital as the result of a stroke. She is buried in Greenwood Cemetary, Canton, Illinois.
Wukas, Mark. The Worn Doorstep: Informal History of Northwestern University Settlement Association, 1891-1991. Chicago : Northwestern University Settlement Association, Inc., 1991.
Lewis, Edward R. Jr. Reflections of Canton in a Pharmacist's Show Globe : a comprehensive History of Canton, Illinois and the Important Events in Fulton County. [S.l. : s.n.], 1967.
Doris Overboe, Historian, Northwestern University Settlement Association
Ronald R. Manderschied, Executive Director, Northwestern University Settlement Association
Mark Wukas, Author
Edward R. Lewis, Jr., Author
Special thanks and note to researchers: The Northwestern University Archives is
the official depository for records on the Northwestern University Settlement
Association and the papers of Harriet E. Vittum. For more information, contact:
Patrick M. Quinn, University Archivist
Northwestern University Archives
110 Deering Library
1935 Sheridan Road
Evanston, Illinois 60208-2300
Parlin-Ingersoll Library, Canton, Illinois