Jane Addams

(Text adapted by Julie Johnson from Twenty Years At Hull-House by Jane Addams and the foreword written by Henry Steele Commager)


Founder of Hull-House in Chicago, first president of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 1931, Jane Addams was a crusader for social justice, a dedicated American who devoted her life to caring for the underprivileged and the oppressed and to fighting for the rights of workers, women, and children. She was born on September 6, 1860 at Cedarville, Illinois. After receiving her A.B. degree from Rockford College in 1882, she entered the Woman's Medical College of Philadelphia. Illness compelled her to give up her studies. In 1887, on one of her many trips to Europe, she observed the social experimentations at Toynbee Hall in London; this led to her decision to establish a similar center in Chicago, where she could put her social principles into action. Her tireless work with reform groups resulted in improved housing, education, and working conditions—in a better way of life for her Chicago neighbors and for people all across the land. A delegate to the first national convention of the Progressive Party in 1912, Jane Addams gave campaign speeches on the social justice planks of the platform, and seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt as presidential candidate. In 1915 she founded The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Jane Addams's concern for humanity is reflected in her writings: Democracy and Social Ethics (1912), Newer Ideals of Peace (1907), Twenty Years at Hull-House (1910), The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House (1930), The Excellent Becomes the Permanent (1932). In 1931 Miss Addams was co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and characteristically enough she donated the prize money to the Women's Peace Party. She died in Chicago on May 21, 1935.

The Beginnings

Even as a little girl in the pastoral community of Cedarville, in northern Illinois, Jane Addams was—as she herself tells us—"busy with the old question eternally suggested by the inequalities of the human lot." There were not many inequalities in Cedarville, but even there were poverty and frustration: the war widows, the forlorn old couple who had lost all five of their sons, the farmers who were victims of the postwar depression, and the newcomers who could never really get started. And when she visited the neighboring town, she was shocked by the "horrid little houses" and, characteristically, wondered what could be done to make them less horrid. She could sympathize with the misfits and the victims of society for she was herself a misfit—so she felt anyway—"an ugly, pigeon-toed little girl whose crooked back obliged her to walk with her head held very much upon one side," who was constantly afraid that she might embarrass the handsome father she adored. (Her father, an Illinois state senator from 1854-1870, was a profound influence on her, and "pointed out what was essential and what was of little avail" in life. A friend and admirer of Abraham Lincoln, John Addams impressed upon his daughter at an early age that it was "very important not to pretend to understand what you didn't understand and that you must always be honest with yourself inside, whatever happened.")

At nearby Rockford Seminary, too—it was not yet a college—the air was heavy with a sense of responsibility—moral, cultural, and even social. Here the girls, most of them deeply religious, encountered a strong missionary tradition, and here too a compelling sense of the obligation of women to prove themselves in what was still a man's world. It was all very Victorian: the passion for Culture, the passion for Good Works.

There was a brief effort to study medicine—still a bit daring in the eighties—and after that a long visit to Europe. She was sent abroad to drink up the culture of the Old World, like any Daisy Miller (Henry James was a fellow passenger), but she would have none of it. She wrote later, and bitterly, of "the sweet dessert in the morning, and the assumption that the sheltered, educated girl has nothing to do with the bitter poverty and the social maladjustment which is all about her, and which, after all, cannot be concealed, for it breaks through poetry and literature in a burning tide which overwhelms her; it peers at her in the form of the heavy-laden market women and underpaid street laborers, gibing her with a sense of her own uselessness."

This assumption was valid enough for most of the girls who made the Grand Tour in the comfortable eighties, but not for Jane Addams nor her friend from college, Ellen Starr. Miss Addams's travels on the Continent and in Britain merely strengthened and deepened her already lively concern for the welfare of those whom Jacob Riis was to call "the other half." What she visited was not cathedrals and galleries, but factories and slums. She and visited London's East End and Toynbee Hall, which applied Christian Socialism to the needs of the London poor, and she saw that if she would be true to herself she would have to cast her own lot in with the poor and the neglected. She decided to open a settlement house—not another Toynbee Hall, for it could not be religious or even give the appearance of a gesture of noblesse oblige. With Ellen Starr she returned to Chicago, and on Halsted Street found a decayed mansion that had been built by a merchant, Charles Hull, and now belonged to the ever-generous Helen Culver. On September 18, 1889, Hull-House opened its doors to those who cared to enter. Jane Addams liked to remember that her father had never locked his doors; the doors of Hull-House were always open to the world.

Hull House

As Miss Addams saw it, there was nothing dramatic about the opening of Hull-House; yet it was an historic event. For here was the beginning of what was to be one of the great social movements in modern America—the Settlement House movement: here, in a way, was the beginning of social work. As yet there was no organized social work in the United States, and as yet there was not even any formal study of sociology. It was no accident that the new University of Chicago, which was founded just a few years after Hull-House, came to be the center of sociological study in America, and that so many of its professors were intimately associated with Hull-House—Albion Small, John Dewey, Miss Breckenridge and the two Abbott sisters, Edith and Grace, and thereafter two generations of academic reformers.

The time was ripe and the place logical. By 1890, just a hundred years after the founding of the Republic, the "Promise of American Life" was becoming an illusion. The extremes of wealth and poverty were as great as those in the Old World. Millions of immigrants crowded into the slums of American cities, constituting a proletariat not only impoverished but alien: these newcomers were the first immigrants who had not been absorbed. The Negro had achieved his freedom, but as yet not acceptance or recognition. Unemployment plagued the land, organized labor was in retreat, farmers were becoming peasants. The welfare state was as yet unknown and almost unimagined; even social legislation was a thing of the future. Men worked twelve or fourteen hours a day, and thought themselves lucky to have work. Women toiled long hours at night as well as day; even little children of five or six were unprotected by enforceable legislation. Slums grew apace, and with them disease and crime and vice. Business and government combined to smash strikes, break unions, silence critics, and jail agitators who disturbed their peace.

As for Chicago, all the evils and vices of American life seemed to be exaggerated there. It was, wrote Lincoln Steffens at this time, "first in violence, deepest in dirt; loud, lawless, unloving, ill-smelling, new; an overgrown gawk of a village, the teeming tough among cities. Criminally it was wide open; commercially it was brazen; and socially it was thoughtless and raw." Happily, it had other qualities, too—the qualities that built the University of Chicago, established the Art Museum and maintained the great symphony orchestra, laid out a network of parks and boulevards and responded to the challenge that young Jane Addams flung before it.

If there was one part of Chicago that dramatized all its problems more than any other, it was the five miles of Halsted Street from the Chicago River to the stockyards—the great street teeming with Irish and Germans and Russians and Italians and Poles, lined with dingy saloons, pawnshops, and—on the side streets—houses of prostitution. It was Halsted Street that Jane Addams came, and Ellen Starr, and soon Julia Lathrop, Florence Kelley and Dr. Alice Hamilton, and a score of other women and men to inaugurate what was to be a great experiment in social service.

A great experiment. They thought of it as a simple matter of neighborliness. "It is natural to feed the hungry and care for the sick," wrote Jane Addams. "It is certainly natural to give pleasure to the young, comfort the aged, and to minister to the deep-seated craving for social intercourse that all men feel." That is what they proposed to do and that is what they did.

Men and women and children of all ages thronged through the hospitable doors of the old mansion now reborn to new life; before long 2,000 people crossed its portals every day. Hull-House caught the imagination of Chicago—as it was to catch the imagination of the whole nation. There were gifts of buildings and of land from Miss Culver and eventually of money from many others. Hull-House grew and spread until in time it came to be a kind of community center for the whole of Chicago: a boys' club, an art museum, a theater, a music school, a gymnasium, and a dozen other buildings, all in use from morning until late into the night. Children came to play; the young to act or to draw or to dance; girls in trouble who had been turned out of their homes; men out of work, or on the run; the sick and the tired and the frightened and the lonely, and along with them scholars from universities like John R. Commons and E. A. Ross, down from nearby Madison, or John Dewey or young Robert Morss Lovett. And along with them came the leaders of Chicago society, for Hull-House had become fashionable.

Calm and serene and authoritative, Jane Addams presided over it all. She took care of babies, even acting as midwife. She supervised all the varied activities of the sprawling community, kept the accounts, dealt with the scores of visitors, found work for the eager assistants and even trained them; she lectured, she wrote articles and books; she carried on a tremendous correspondence with social workers throughout the country, she served on committees and pleaded with legislatures and won over governors. Nothing was too difficult for her, and nothing too simple.

Over the years Jane Addams built a bridge between the immigrants and the old-stock Americans, between the working classes and the immigrants, between the amateur reformers and the professional politicians, even between private philanthropy and government. She made Hull-House a clearinghouse for every kind of social service, an experimental laboratory in social reform, in art and music and drama and education as well; she made it a school of citzenship and a university of social service.

Jane Addams had many talents, but none more remarkable than her ability to work from the immediate to the general, from practical problems to philosophy and even from the local to the national and the international. She always began with the job at hand, no matter how elementary or undignified; she took on the job of inspector of garbage removal for her ward to show how it should be done; she went to the Illinois legislature with case histories of working women to push through labor legislation. What she saw of youth on the city streets ended up as a program of school playgrounds; what she learned of children in trouble with the law ended as the first juvenile courts in the nation.

Political Arena

Very early Miss Addams and her Hull-House associates found that they had to move into the political arena. They worked for adequate enforcement of housing and sanitation laws, improved the school system, agitated for broader participation in politics—including woman suffrage—called for legal protection for immigrants, served as an embryonic Civil Liberties Union to preserve due process. They turned first to the municipal government, then at the very apex of corruption; then to Springfield, which was not much better. Eventually they looked to Congress and the President for national action. By the end of the first twenty years, Jane Addams was ready for a national crusade for social justice—a crusade to be waged in politics. Another five or six years and the World War launched her on an international crusade: the last years of her life were dedicated to the cause of peace, and the little girl from Cedarville who had always walked a few steps behind her father ended up by organizing the women of Austria and Italy, Japan and India, for world peace. She became the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, of course, Hull-House remained the center of her interest, and indeed of her world. There it was, growing, flourishing, spreading its influence throughout the city, the state, the nation, the entire world. It was, in all these years, a Settlement House, a cultural center, a social service training school, a university, and almost a church. An institution, it has been said, is the lengthened shadow of one man. Hull-House is more than the shadow of Jane Addams; it is the very substance.

Select Bibliography

Breckinridge, Sophonisba Preston. Women in the Twentieth Century: A Study of Their Political, Social and Economic Activities. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1933.

Davis, Allen F. American Heroine: The Life and Legend of Jane Addams., New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973.

Farrell, John C. Beloved Lady: A History of Jane Addams' Ideas on Reform and Peace. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins Press, 1967.

Levine, Daniel. Jane Addams and the Liberal Tradition. Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1971.

Linn, James Weber. Jane Addams: A Biography. New York: D. Appleton-Century Co., 1935.

Times, Margaret. Jane Addams of Hull-House, 1860-1935; A centenary Study. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Wise, Winifred E. Jane Addams of Hull-House. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1935.