Happy birthday, Jane Addams!

September 6th, 2012

On September 6, 1860, Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois, the youngest of eight children. After travelling in Europe in late 1887-1888 to visit the Toybee Hall settlement house in London, Addams decided to start her own settlement house: Chicago’s Hull House. At Hull House, the first settlement house in the United States, Addams brought women of different classes together to share knowledge and help alleviate the suffering of the city’s impoverished families. The House included a night school for adults, clubs and classes for children, a public kitchen, a coffeehouse, drama group, and many discussion clubs, and the House itself eventually expanded to a thirteen-building settlement complex.

Writing in the Nonprofit Quarterly, Rick Cohen notes that “originally, the settlement house was not about the delivery of charitable services.”

Rather, like Addams’ Hull House, it was meant to be an inner-city residence for settlement workers who would deliver educational, art, music, and cultural programs to address the spiritual poverty of poor people. Typically, like Hull House on Chicago’s Halsted Street and the Henry Street Settlement in the Lower East Side, they viewed poverty as more than a financial condition. Largely directed, initially, by affluent but socially concerned people like Addams, the early settlement houses and settlement workers, many of them volunteer, saw themselves as bridging a socio-economic chasm, helping the poor immigrant communities surrounding them while also learning from their poor neighbors. But in learning from the poverty-stricken, often immigrant neighbors, the settlement houses became political institutions, beacons of advocacy for issues such as an increased minimum wage, labor rights, child labor laws, and decent (and nondiscriminatory) provision of public services.

 Jean Bethke Elshtain, writing in his biography Jane Addams and the Dreams of American Democracy, described Addams and her Hull House thusly:

A visitor to Hull-House between 1890 and 1910 might have found Jane Addams following a garbage collector through refuse in the morning; leading a discussion of George Eliot in the afternoon; meeting with backers or with those angered by something she had said or that Hull-House had done; introducing newcomers to Hull-House in moments snatched away from other activities; participating in a rousing discussion of the Working Man’s Social Science Club in the evening; working on correspondence and financial matters well into the night; and then rousted out of bed the next day by a crisis involving a child in trouble, a police roundup of suspected anarchists, or some other event. Her work was never done.

In 1910, Addams published Twenty Years at Hull-House, her autobiography that she wrote, in part, to counter other works about the House that, she writes, “made life in a Settlement all too smooth and charming.” In 1931, she received the Nobel Peace Price. Four years later, on May 21, 1935, she passed away.

Earlier this year, after 122 years of service, Hull House itself closed.

To learn more about Addams and her Hull House, read her autobiography here, and Rick Cohen’s article on the “Death of the Hull House” here. This past July, WSPWH editor Amy Kass led a discussion about Addams and Hull House at the Hudson Institute, which you can read about here.

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