Cambridge YWCA

The multi-story YWCA building on a street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts
The YWCA building on a street corner in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Public Domain

Quick Facts

Location:
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Significance:
The Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association provided wage-earning women with low-cost housing, reading rooms, gymnasiums and classes
OPEN TO PUBLIC:
No

Beginning in 1891, the Cambridge Young Women’s Christian Association, whose villa-like U-shaped building is featured here, provided wage-earning women with low-cost housing, reading rooms, gymnasiums and classes. When young women "dependent upon their own exertions for support" left home for the cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they had few socially acceptable places to go to find lodging, guidance, instruction and companionship.

At the time when the facility was constructed, Cambridge was one of New England’s busiest industrial centers, producing goods such as candy, bread and soup. Built during a period of expansion for the Cambridge YWCA, this building was constructed to meet the needs of single, working women. The YWCA opened an employment office specializing in domestic help in 1899, and in 1926, it became the first in the nation to offer vocational guidance service.

Beginning in 1891, the Cambridge YWCA also provided classes in music, physical culture, dressmaking, cooking, water-coloring, German, Bible study and hygiene. People at the time believed such guidance and training in home economics protected a working woman’s virtue and "womanhood," which had to be maintained if a woman hoped to marry well and mother healthy children. Like the Lowell, MA, boardinghouses maintained for the "Mill Girls" earlier in the century, the Cambridge YWCA provided for and protected a woman’s social respectability.

Organizers chose the YWCA’s present Temple St. location because of the "genteel surroundings in Central Square." Once people recognized the need for recreation among poor women and children that continued to move into crowded urban neighborhoods around the turn of the century, the YWCA expanded its mission. In meeting this new role, the Cambridge YWCA acquired and opened the Margaret Fuller House in 1902 as a center for outreach activities. The YWCA added a wing to the Temple St. facility in 1953 and a swimming pool in 1961. Today, it still provides housing for women.