Wielding a Mighty Force for Civic Righteousness

“‘Wielding a Mighty Force for Civic Righteousness’: A Case Study of a Community Center in the Progressive Era” by Heather S. Cole, presented at the New England Historical Association Spring Conference, April 2006.

Most of us are at least generally familiar with the historiography of the Progressive Era in America. The late 19th century saw a rise in industrialization, urbanization and immigration—which coincided with the rise in the power of big business, party politics and labor organization. Early in the 20th century, muckraking journalists began exposing the downside of the nation’s urban and industrial growth and its negative impact on the residents of America’s cities and towns.

In response, women and men from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of agendas spent the next two decades experimenting with strategies to assist the populations impacted by the effects of modernization. This period, roughly 1900-1920, has come to be known as the Progressive Era.

One of the ongoing debates in Progressive Era historiography is around the issue of the role of big business and big businessmen in the reform of the period. On one hand, industrialization and business incorporation caused many of the problems that progressive reformers hoped to mitigate. But, on the other hand, many individual businessmen were involved in financing, (and sometimes) planning and implementing, the reforms of the period. So, one of the great ironies of the Progressive Era is that businessmen were often both the cause of and the perceived solution to the problems of this period.

Historians have studied the role of businessmen in the reforms of large cities and on the national level. But, the federal census tells us that prior to 1920, most Americans lived not in cities but in small towns or rural areas. Many of these small towns, in particular, experienced their own reform in this period. My research examines Progressive Era reform in one of these small towns

The town I am studying—Norwood, Massachusetts—is located about 15 miles southwest of Boston (and about 20 miles northwest of where we are today). Between 1908 and about 1918, Norwood was transformed from a struggling industrial town to what the Providence Journal described as “the most progressive [town] of its kind in New England.” This transformation involved reforming the town’s municipal government; reforming the town’s tax structure; introducing town planning; building parks and playgrounds; building the town’s first public hospital and building the town’s first community center. All this reform was conceptualized, led and financed largely by one man—a local industrialist named George Willett.

We don’t have time today to look at George Willett’s entire plan for civic reform in Norwood—which is the focus of my recently completed Masters’ thesis. Instead, I would like to focus on one piece of his reform plan—the creation of Norwood’s first community center. I think it is the most interesting and most exemplary piece of the reform in Norwood, and it brings together strands of Progressive Era historiography that are often talked about separately, including social, business and political history. It also gives us some insight into the motivation of one particular Progressive Era businessman-reformer, and the impact that his reform had on one particular New England town.


Norwood, Massachusetts was part of the town of Dedham for the first 200 years of its existence, only becoming incorporated as an independent town in 1872. Shortly after incorporation, Norwood began active recruitment of industry to the town, believing that was the fastest route to generating income for the young municipality. This effort was generally successful, and by 1900 Norwood had a population of about 5,500 and was home to several large factories producing books, leather goods and other industrial products.

Concurrent with Norwood’s industrial growth, the town also experienced a population and development boom. Much of the increase in population was due to chain migration of new immigrants who came to Norwood to work as laborers in the local factories. By 1913, Norwood’s foreign-born population had reached a height of 40 percent, including growing numbers of immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe, with languages and cultures that were very different from earlier immigrants.

It didn’t take long for the town to begin to feel some of the negative effects of its rapid industrial and residential growth. Having been dependent on, and somewhat neglected by, the mother town of Dedham for so many years, Norwood had few public buildings, limited public services and a tax rate that was the highest in the state as the town struggled to build an independent infrastructure. There was concern among the middle class residents about the cost of “Americanizing” Norwood’s newest residents and the demands they were believed to be placing on the town’s charitable organizations. Moreover, public recreational facilities for all ages and classes were non-existent, a fact that was pointed out by a series of articles in the local newspaper. The newspaper reporter wrote: “There is still a chance for some public-spirited citizen to donate land for park or playground purposes… [a place where] the exuberant physical nature of boys and young men may find vent.”

Elsewhere in the country, early 20th century reformers and philanthropists responded to similar calls by building networks of public parks and playgrounds, YMCAs for middle class youth and settlement houses for the immigrants. In Norwood, local businessman George Willett answered the call to civic responsibility with the creation of the town’s first community center. He named the community center the Norwood Civic Association—or, the Civic, for short.

The Civic was designed to serve all of the town’s residents—rich and poor, immigrant and American-born. It was to be what one Civic publication described as “a real community center where all of the people may gather, and which as an institution may wield a mighty force for civic righteousness in the community.”

The Civic’s founder, George Willett, was a multi-millionaire businessman and nationally recognized for his skill in industrial reorganization and management. He made his first million dollars by introducing scientific techniques and streamlining the business processes in Norwood’s tannery industry, one of the oldest and largest in the country. George Willett then went on to found Willett & Sears, a Boston-based industrial management consulting and holding company that controlled more than a dozen large industrial concerns throughout New England. Not just a local figure, George Willett’s expertise in industrial management was later recognized by the federal government when he was asked to consult on the reorganization of the War Department in preparation for America’s entry into World War I.

Like other wealthy industrialists of the time, George Willett envisioned taking the same business methods that he instituted in his factories and applying them to the broader arena of public affairs. Willett’s goal was to mitigate the problems of industrialization and urban growth in Norwood by transforming the small, industrial, working-class town into what he said would be the “biggest, busiest and best suburban municipality in New England.” He intended to do this in two ways: first, by creating a stable, efficient workforce and, second, by attracting upper- and middle-class homeowners and taxpayers to the town. The Civic was one of the mechanisms by which he hoped to carry out these plans, and he invested at least half-a-million dollars of his own money in the Civic.

In February 1911, George Willett opened the doors to the Civic. The Civic was located in the center of town, adjacent to the business and government center. It began with just a gymnasium and meeting rooms, but soon expanded into a 30,000-square-foot complex with an auditorium that sat 700, a clubhouse, gymnasium, swimming pool, tennis courts, bowling alleys, billiard room, social hall, meeting rooms and classrooms. On the five acres of land surrounding the Civic buildings were athletic fields, tennis courts and a grandstand.

In hopes of attracting upper- and middle-class residents, the Civic hosted lectures, concerts and socials, including performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and a series of lectures called “The Forum” which brought in world-renowned experts to speak about current events and politics. Tennis courts and bowling alleys could be rented by the hour, and there was a library and reading room with current business and news publications.

Several social, charitable and government organizations, including the Norwood Business Association, Women’s Club and Planning Board, had their offices in the Civic buildings. And the Civic auditorium—the largest public hall in town—hosted Norwood’s annual Town Meeting and elections.

Concurrently with these activities, the Civic ran very different programs targeted at Norwood’s working class residents, particularly the new immigrants. In contrast with the middle class-oriented programs, these programs were not for the leisure or entertainment of the immigrant residents, but instead were designed to help “Americanize” the immigrants by teaching them middle class values and lifestyles. According to George Willett, these programs were designed “to improve the morality, industry, thrift, health, cleanliness, education and good citizenship” of the immigrants.

Towards these ends, the Civic advocated for the construction of new playgrounds in town, and provided “highly trained and specialized” staff to organize and supervise the children’s activities. The Civic operated a Vocation Bureau, where young men and boys could attend lectures on various trades and meet with a counselor about which vocation would best meet their “mental, physical, oral and social characteristics.”

Adult men were encouraged to attend English language and citizenship classes, in preparation for becoming American citizens. And the Civic especially targeted immigrant women with classes in sewing, millinery and cooking intended to teach them to how to increase their purchasing power through following “American standards” of cooking, cleaning and housekeeping. The women’s classes were held in the Civic Association’s Model House, a building that was described in Civic publications as “modestly furnished as an example and illustration of an attractive home.”

Some of the Civic activities reached across class and cultural lines and, as other historians have observed, these were often athletic activities. Mirroring national trends, the Civic sponsored a baseball team and hosted gymnastics competitions and military drilling exhibitions that were popular with a range of residents.

Throughout the 1910s, the Civic was bustling with activity most afternoons and evenings of the week. And the most popular activities at the Civic were free Saturday night movies, attended by up to 1000 residents during warm summer evenings.

In June 1913, The Boston Globe devoted a full page spread to a profile of the Civic. The article credited the Civic with “doing much to wipe out class distinction,” called George Willett a “mighty practical visionary” and compared the work he was carrying out in Norwood to “the sort of Utopian dream one reads about in a book like [Edward] Bellamy’s ‘Looking Backward.’”

But contrary to its portrayal in the Boston Globe, the Civic was not a place where class distinction had been eliminated and it was not quite Bellamy’s vision of social equality. And it was never intended to be.

Although George Willett insisted that the Civic be open to all residents of Norwood, he didn’t actually expect the various cultural and class groups to interact socially. In what became his most famous speech, George Willett said, “the Civic Association is an organization for the purpose of centralizing in some one place the various community activities, rather than a social organization for the purpose of bringing all of the townspeople together in a common social basis. That would be clearly impossible.”

Ever the businessman, George Willett was less interested in equality than in efficiency. And although its activities were social, the Civic’s mission was not social reform but structural reform. Just as he streamlined the production of boot leather in Norwood’s tanneries by standardizing processes and centralizing management, George Willett intended for his Civic to streamline civic and recreational activities in town—activities that were integral to his vision of a modern suburban town—through standardization and centralization.

In the end, George Willett appears to have been quite successful in centralizing civic and recreational activities in town. By 1913 at least one out of ten of Norwood’s residents was a member and many more attended programs.

Most of the residents who attended Civic programs appear to have been from Norwood’s middle class, rather than from either the upper class or immigrant populations. The Civic’s monthly newsletter and other publications make special note of immigrant group participation in particular events, suggesting that it was not a common occurrence. And, according to a survey in December 1913, only 46 of Norwood’s 170 most successful businessmen and industrialists were members of the Civic.

It was this lack of support from Norwood’s upper class residents that eventually led to the dissolution of the Civic. In early 1918, George Willett’s companies ran into financing problems and by the end of the year, George Willett was on the brink of bankruptcy and no longer had the funds to support his reform efforts in Norwood. The Civic embarked on a series of fundraising campaigns, but received just lukewarm results. Evidently Norwood residents were happy to participate in Civic programs, but couldn’t or didn’t want to pay for them.

Without George Willett’s financial support, the Civic began a slow decline through the 1920s, offering fewer programs and frequently in debt. A fire in April 1930 destroyed the main Civic building beyond repair and, without the funds to rebuild, it closed for good.


So what can we learn about the businessmen in the Progressive Era from the case study of George Willett and Norwood’s Civic Association?

While it is important not to generalize from one example, I think we can get a sense of the power that wealthy businessmen in small towns could continue to wield, even as these small towns were becoming part of national communication, transportation and economic networks. It also demonstrates how quickly reforms could come to an end, if the funding for reform activities dried up

I think the case of the Civic also demonstrates that, in some cases, the businessman and the reformer were the same person. And it shows that there were often contradictions between the intents of reformers, how those reforms were promoted, and effects the reforms had on the targeted populations. This reminds us that, as historians, we need to pay careful attention to the sources we consult when telling the story about Progressive Era reform.

Finally, I think that although the results may not always have been what they wished, it is truly remarkable the complexity of the plans that Progressive Era reformers developed to transform the cities and towns around them and the visions many reformers—both businessmen and others—had for remaking American society.   Their optimism that business methods could apply everywhere—might remind us that looking for a universal solution to all problems is not likely to be entirely fruitful.


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