How Did Edith Abbott Come to Write about Crime Statistics in 1915? Part 1

Edith Abbott.  Public domain .

Edith Abbott. Public domain.

Edith Abbott was an economist, sociologist, social worker, and statistician in the early part of the twentieth century who contributed to so many areas it’s difficult to list them all. She was active in the women’s suffrage movement, advocated for child labor laws, worked with Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security on drafting what would become the Social Security Act of 1935, and pioneered the development of Social Work as a profession. She co-founded the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago and in 1924 became its dean — in fact, she was the first woman to be dean of a graduate school in the United States.

What is less well known is that Abbott was also a pioneer in applying statistical reasoning to social problems. In 1915 she wrote a groundbreaking report called Statistics Relating to Crime in Chicago that set a standard for future work in crime statistics — and indeed for statistical work in general — and outlined the main themes that would be studied in later decades.

Why did the Chicago City Council choose Abbott to investigate the statistics on amount of crime in the city and characteristics of the criminals? I researched the background of this choice for an interview that will be airing with the BBC, and found that the story involves sensationalist newspaper coverage, women’s suffrage, the progressive movement at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the foundations of the discipline of statistics.

A “Crime Wave” in Chicago

In the spring of 1914, there was a crime wave in Chicago. Or, I should say, there was a perception of a crime wave in Chicago. It was hard to tell whether there was a real increase in crime or not. Most impressions about crime came from the news stories of the day, and sensationalist stories about crime and crime waves sold papers in the fiercely competitive newspaper market. Although politicians and newspaper stories occasionally reported crime statistics, they almost never said where those statistics came from. There were glaring inconsistencies among the different figures, even for counting murders.

On May 18, 1914, Charles Merriam, an alderman on the Chicago City Council, introduced a resolution to have a committee investigate and report “upon the frequency of murder, assault, burglary, robbery, theft and like crimes in Chicago; upon the official disposition of such cases; upon the causes of the prevalence of such crimes; and upon the best practical methods of preventing these crimes." Merriam, who was also a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, chaired the committee. Merriam had little background in math and statistics himself, but he knew someone who did: his colleague Edith Abbott.

By 1914, Abbott had published more than 25 books and articles on women and children in the labor force, the juvenile court system, housing conditions in Chicago, and various other topics, and most of these publications contained statistical analyses. She was also teaching statistical methods in her classes on methods of social investigation at the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy and the University of Chicago.

Abbott’s Background in Statistics

I don’t think Merriam could have found anyone in the United States in 1914 who had a better background for assembling and interpreting crime statistics. Abbott’s father was a Civil War veteran and lawyer; her mother was a former high school principal who strongly believed in education for women. Both sides of her family had been abolitionists and supporters of women’s suffrage. Abbott later said that she had been born believing in women’s rights.

At age 16, after her family experienced financial setbacks following bank failures in the summer of 1893, Abbott began teaching school in her hometown of Grand Island, Nebraska at a salary of $15 per month. The subjects she taught included English, History, Latin, Algebra, and Geometry. While teaching she took correspondence classes from the University of Nebraska and, after using her savings to enroll full time, earned her undergraduate degree in 1901.

After earning a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago in 1905, Abbott spent a year as secretary for the Women’s Trade Union League in Boston and as a researcher on “wages and prices” and “women’s work” for a project on the industrial history of the United States undertaken by the American Economic Association and Carroll Wright. Wright had been the first U.S. Commissioner of Labor, whose role was “to acquire and diffuse among the people of the United States useful information on subjects connected with labor” — that is, to collect and disseminate labor statistics — and “lent the prestige of his rare personality and achievements as statistician to the office of president” of the American Statistical Association. Abbott thus became acquainted with some of the leading statisticians in the United States.

The Carnegie Institution was so impressed with Abbott’s research that they offered her a full-time research position at a salary of $100 per month — quite an increase from her earlier salary as a teacher in Grand Island (for context, Abbott, in her 1910 book Women in Industry, had documented the median wage for cigarmakers in 1900 as $11.50 per week for men and $5.50 per week for women; Abbott’s salary from Carnegie was in line with that for assistant professors at the time). With Carnegie funds and a Foreign Fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae, she embarked in 1906 on a year of post-doctoral study in London.

In 1906, London may have been the best place in the world to learn about the latest developments in the relatively new discipline of statistics. Karl Pearson, known today to Statistics 101 students everywhere through Pearson’s chi-squared test and Pearson’s correlation coefficient, was at University College London. The London School of Economics was home to Beatrice and Sidney Webb, whose course on “Methods of Social Investigation” — including methods of statistics — inspired Abbott’s later classes on the subject.

Abbott also learned about the statistical methods of London School of Economics faculty member Arthur Bowley, whose 1901 book Elements of Statistics is thought to be the first English-language textbook on statistics. In 1906 Bowley had just proposed in his address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science that random sampling methods should be used — a milestone in the history of survey sampling. Bowley also emphasized investigating the quality of the data, writing: “We must candidly accept the fact that our raw material is imperfect, and our business is to remove the imperfections as far as we can, and, above all, to measure those we cannot remove.” This became one of the themes of Abbott’s statistical work.

Residence in Hull House

In addition to having academic training in statistics, Abbott lived at Hull House, the settlement house that Jane Addams had co-established in 1889 to promote social welfare in Chicago. It was called a settlement house because people interested in social work lived, or “settled,” in the community they served. Hull House was in a working-class neighborhood heavily populated by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe; the residents of the house set up educational programs and day care centers, and worked with their neighbors to improve living and working conditions.

Hull House was the place to be in early twentieth-century Chicago if you were interested in progressive causes or in social research. Every evening the residents would dine together and discuss the issues of the day; visitors to Hull House included W. L. Mackenzie King, Clarence Darrow, Frank Lloyd Wright, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Theodore Roosevelt. Edith Abbott later wrote: “Jane Addams and Hull House were almost magic words at that time…. Hull House was known because Miss Addams had made it a beautiful place for people who lived in an area of the city where nothing else was beautiful and where she had brought together a group of men and women to live and work with her not as a charity but in a friendly way in one of the tenement neighborhoods of the great city.”

And Hull House had a long tradition of quantitative research, which included the landmark 1895 contribution to statistical mapping, Hull House Maps and Papers. In their ongoing research, residents of Hull House would look at a specific problem in the neighborhood, gather data about it, and then propose policies for action based on those data.

The combination of academic training, previous research on using statistics to explore the condition of women in industry and children in the juvenile court system, and practical experience of collecting data as a resident of Hull House gave Edith Abbott a background in statistics that was likely unmatched in the United States in 1914.

Next: How were Abbott’s contributions to statistics so far ahead of her time?

References are at the end of Part 3.

Copyright (c) 2019 Sharon L. Lohr