Who Was Cornelia F. Bradford?

BRADFORD, Cornelia Foster (Dec. 4, 1847- Jan.15, 1935), social worker, was born in northern New York, probably in Granby, the birthplace of her older brother. She was the first daughter and second of three children of Mary Amory (Howe) and Benjamin Franklin Bradford. Her father, eighth in direct descent from Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony, was a Methodist minister who later joined the Congressional Church; during her girlhood he had a succession of pastorates in the Finger Lakes region of western New York. A staunch abolitionist, he sheltered in his parsonage escaped slaves en route to Canada. From her father, who also espoused such causes as women’s rights and prohibition, Cornelia F. Bradford no doubt inherited her belief that “we are our brothers’ keepers.”

Miss Bradford graduated from Houghton Seminary in Clinton, N.Y., in 1869 and probably spent some time at Olivet College in Michigan. She became interested in settlement work after visiting Toynbee Hall in England and lived for a while in Mansfield House, an Easter London settlement. She received additional training for her chosen work at JANE ADAMS’ Hull House in Chicago. For the state of her own undertaking she picked New Jersey, where her father and brother then lived. In December 1893 Miss Bradford took a room in the People’s Palace, a working class cultural center in Jersey City, and for the next four months she mingled with the poor of the city, listening to their “stories of sorrow and suffering.” With the assistance of her brother, Amory Howe Bradford of Montclair, a prominent Congregational minister, she formally established Whittier House, the state’s first social establishment, at Jersey City in May 1894. It was named for the Quaker poet, whim she greatly revered; as the motto of the house she adopted his lines:

“He serves Thee best who loveth most his brother and Thy own.”

The new settlement was situated in gloomy, squalid neighborhood, with none of the picturesqueness and vitality that brightened New York’s Lower Easter Side. The trolleys of Grand Street rattled past the building, which was located near Newark Bay and the sheds of the New Jersey Central Railway. Within a few years the Germas, Irish, and native Americans who had predominated in 1893 were displaced by an influx of Russians, Poles and Italians. These inhabitants of the First Ward lived in tenements and converted one-family dwellings which were often overcrowded and lacking the most primitive sanitary facilities. Most of the wage earners toiled as factory hands, longshoremen, and railway employees.

Believing that the workers and their children had aspirations which transcended the “hoe and pickaxe,” Miss Bradford fought to improve their material circumstances and nurture their cultural ways. The settlement organized a full program of educational, recreational and social activities for residents of the immediate neighborhood. These it supplemented with local and state reform efforts, particularly in health, housing, and child welfare. By 1900 Miss Bradford helped organize the New Jersey Consumers League, which soon sponsored a Children’s Protective League. After visiting the glass bottle factories in southern New Jersey, she became a leader in the struggle for child labor legislation. In 1912 she welcomed an appointment to the Jersey City Board of Education.

Whittier House helped arouse interest in Jersey City’s housing after Mary B. Sayles, one of its workers, completed an investigation in 1901. The settlement played a prominent role in the appointment of a state tenement-house commission, whose report led to the enactment of a statewide tenement code. Seeking to supplement its housing work with efforts to control tuberculosis, widely prevalent in the congested, dank, and sunless tenements, the settlement sponsored a meeting in 1906, which resulted in the establishment of the Hudson County Tuberculosis Association.

Cornelia Bradford remained the first and only head worker of Whittier House until her retirement in the mid-1920’s. She then moved to Montclair, N.J. , where she resided until her death of heart failure. She was buried in Rosedale Cemetery, Montclair. Rutgers University had acknowledged her many services to the people of New Jersey by awarding her an honorary degree in 1923.

Cornelia Bradford described her Jersey City settlement as Christian but nondenominational, and endeavored to unite college girl and factory girl, university man and workingman, in the “perfect sympathy of Christ.” Indeed, she described regarded the simple neighborliness of the settlement as a kind of reversion to a more primitive Christianity and social order. Like other settlement workers and social reformers of the early twentieth century, she abhorred the class divisions and social atomization of the new industrial age. One-half of the social organism, she argued, could not be bad “without suggesting contamination of the other half. Not only the poor but all of society needed protection against the corrupting influence of the slum, the factory and economic deprivation. Her program was any measure of social legislation designed to relieve poverty and reduce class differences. Her significance lay not in her originality but in her successful implementation in New Jersey’s first social settlement of principles common to many reformers.

[Biographical details concerning Cornelia F. Bradford are scarce, often contradictory and inaccurate; the author is greatly indebted to the Rev. Arthur H. Bradford, a nephew, for information. More useful than any of the existing obituaries is the account of Miss Bradford’s work in John J. Scanell, New Jersey’s First Citizens (1917-18), I, 56-58. For Miss Bradord’s interpretations of her work, the Annual Reports of Whittier House, beginning in 1984, are helpful, as are her two articles: “For Jersey City’s Social Uplift: Life at Whittier House,” the Commons, Feb. 1905, and “The Settlement Movement in N.J.,” N.J. Rev. of Charities and Corrections, Apr. 1912. Her date of birth comes from Daniel W. Howe, Howe Genealogies (1929). The Dict. Am. Biog. has a brief article on Miss Bradford’s brother.]


Resource: Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary, Volume 1, edited by Edward T. James, p. 218-219.

Cornelia F. Bradford Presentation for the school Centennial Celebration

VIDEO Presentation by Natasha Ioffe at the Centennial Celebration

Cornelia Foster Bradford – PLAQUE TEXT

NJ.com/ Jersey Journal Article – “Jersey City’s PS16 Stays True to Cornelia Bradford’s Legacy”