Albion Fellows Bacon – A voice for the poor and an advocate for public health reform

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Albion Fellows Bacon, photo courtesy of the Working Men’s Institute, New Harmony, Indiana

Albion Fellows Bacon was born the year the Civil War ended in 1865 and died in 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated. It was during this period that the US witnessed rapid industrialization and urbanization, radical gender changes, and campaigns for major urban reform. Albion Fellows Bacon would become a central figure in the reform efforts spreading throughout the nation. Her efforts would leave a lasting legacy in Evansville and the entire state of Indiana.

Bacon, born in Evansville and raised primarily in McCutchanville, did not become interested in reform until the 1890s. She described her early adult years as willfully ignorant of the conditions that surrounded her. What finally broke through her indifference was the condition of her daughters’ school, the lack of a playground, and the hygienic problems that led to both of her daughters contracting scarlet fever from classmates. She began to work with the local Evansville Civic Improvement Association and the Working Girls’ Association, an organization that concentrated on working conditions. Another big concern was the substandard housing that grew up along industries and the rapid industrialization of that led to problems, like sanitation and overcrowding and the spread of diseases like tuberculosis.  Bacon became interested when the Evansville city council considered a building ordinance; she believed that she could use the opportunity to push for tenement house regulation. Her regulations were adopted in modified form, but by then Bacon had moved on to statewide housing reform.

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Advertisement for Lahr-Bacon Company from the 1912 Evansville High School Yearbook (Central High School). Hilary Edwin Bacon was Albion Fellows Bacon’s husband.

In 1909, Bacon traveled to Indianapolis to speak to state legislatures on the need for a housing bill. With help from the famed Progressive William Jennings Bryan who addressed the legislature in support of the bill, the bill passed. But the bill came under attack in the state courts. Although the law was eventually upheld, local real estate developers and architects complained about the law’s negative financial implications. With the help of reformer Lawrence Veiller, she drafted another bill in 1911. But it failed to pass. Bacon did not quit, she turned her efforts into pushing for a more powerful housing bill. Bacon and her fellow reformers introduced a new bill in 1913. Bacon lobbied to preserve the bill and ensure it did not languish in committee. This time her efforts paid off and the bill passed with few amendments. In 1917 with the help of state organizations, Bacon successfully pushed for a bill that granted the state board of health power to condemn “death-traps.”

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Bacon’s Department Store at the southwest corner of Main and Sixth streets, 1936. The  picture is taken from the Victory Theater. The marquee is visible in the upper left portion of the picture. The building to the right is F. W. Woolworth. In 1936 Bacon’s was closing. This photo is from the Newman Collection of Willard Library.

Bacon’s decades of reform work led to substantive state-wide reforms in Indiana and Evansville specifically. Her efforts to meet the needs of the working poor and by extension assist in improving public health were central to the modernization of Indiana. Though Bacon became a nationally and internationally respected figure in housing reform, she left behind an important legacy in Evansville. She was a local voice for a generation dealing with major changes. The powerless working poor might have been forgotten had it not been for the advocacy and labor of Bacon and her fellow Progressive activists.

By Dr. Denise Lynn, Associate Professor of History, Director of Gender Studies, University of Southern Indiana