At the end of the nineteenth century, Chicago, like many American cities, was experiencing a crisis in the streets. During the nineteenth century, Chicago grew more rapidly than any other city. Chicago in the 1840s was a village of about 5000 people; by 1900 it was a booming metropolis of 1,500,000. Foreign immigrants fueled this wave of growth, accounting for seventy percent of Chicago's population by 1890. An ever-increasing social divide formed between a small group of wealthy, native-born citizens who controlled the political and business establishment in the city and the vast majority of poor, immigrant families. Due to the labor demands of the industrial economy, overcrowding, and changes in household composition, youth were increasingly displaced from the domestic sphere. No longer confined to the home, urban youth took to the streets for employment, recreation, and social interaction.

Chicago in the nineteenth century experienced what historian John Kasson has termed a "semiotic breakdown," with poor children epitomizing the failure of the industrial city to sustain traditional, idealized forms, such as the pastoral family. As a contemporary child-saver declared, "[c]hildren should deal with elemental things of the world-earth, stones, trees, animals, running water, fire, open spaces - instead of pavements, signboards, subdivided lots, apartment houses, and electric percolators." According to Jane Addams, the 882,000 children in Chicago at the turn of the century constituted "a huge city in themselves." Addams observed that these youth were no longer governed by the traditional authority of the family or other social institutions: "[T]he present disordered situation demonstrates that adequate protection is not secured through the solicitude of parent, the sectional activity of educators, the self-interest of employers nor the profit-seeking of pleasure purveyors." Nor did existing legal institutions, grounded in English common law and ripe for modernization, adequately serve this city of children in the industrial era."