Nellie Fitch Kingsley (1862-1924) came to Evanston in 1886 with her husband Homer, superintendent of Evanston School District 75. A founding member of the Woman’s Club of Evanston and later President, Nellie Kingsley was known for her philanthropic work on behalf of many Evanston charitable organizations. In addition to her club work, which included involvement with the University Guild, Kingsley was an author and an active promoter of the arts in Evanston schools, helping to found the Public School Art Society. She was also a founder of the Evanston Community Kitchen, formed in response to WWI food shortages and the influenza epidemic. The Community Kitchen under Kingsley’s leadership provided free meals to those in need and later became an experiment in “Collective Housekeeping” that brought it national recognition.
Nellie Appleton Fitch Kingsley was a philanthropist and savvy business woman who lived in Evanston during a time of great illness, war and civil upheaval. She was able to mobilize influential women in Evanston to successfully help people in need. She proved through her many associations with Evanston clubs and groups that social service was of utmost importance to her, and she led a full life supporting the community. Kingsley was a charter member the Woman’s Club of Evanston in 1889 and held the position of president from 1901 to 1902, served four terms as vice president and one term as recording secretary. The club worked to assist the community where its members thought the local government was falling short, and projects such as the emergency hospital, which served as the nucleus of the Evanston Hospital, were realized. She was also a charter member of the Fort Dearborn chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1894.
Kingsley used her contacts with like-minded Evanston women to effect social change in areas including assisting families struggling with illness and poverty. She was a founding member of the Public School Art Society and member of the Evanston Drama Club and worked tirelessly to strengthen Evanston as a cultural center in art, literature and music.
Nellie Kingsley is perhaps best remembered for her involvement in Evanston’s Community Kitchen. In 1918, she along with two other women (Helen Dawes and Elizabeth Odell) organized a community canning kitchen to use surplus food to help families and organizations in need who were suffering hardship brought on by World War I. The kitchen was located in the basement of the Woman’s Club of Evanston and food was distributed by local charities. Food conservation efforts further expanded to demonstrations at Schools of Domestic Science, teaching women how to can and preserve food and shop and consume economically. Later that same year when influenza broke out in Evanston, the kitchen was re-opened to help families affected by illness. In 1919, the Community Kitchen became a nationally known organization with a reputation of being one of Evanston’s most famous business projects. It was re-organized as a private venture operating two branches of service, one where food was sold and the other that delivered meals to customers (delivery lasted about a year). In the beginning, the project received significant criticism from Evanston businessmen saying the venture could not be done and from prestigious Evanston women who commented that the project should not be done. Despite the lack of enthusiasm from her peers, Kingsley and the Evanston Community Kitchen met their main objective which was to reduce food waste, provide food to families in need, and preserve the family tradition of having family meals around the dinner table even during times of great economic difficulties and illness. The latter version of the kitchen specifically addressed changing gender and labor norms, as WWI opened new employment positions for women who had formerly only been qualified to be domestic help.