Jane Addams, a pioneering social worker, helped bring attention to the possibility of revolutionizing America’s attitude toward the poor. Not only does she remain a rich source of provocative social theory to this day, her accomplishments affected the philosophical, sociological, and political thought. Addams was an activist of courage and a thinker of originality. Jane Addams embodied the purest moral standards of society which were best demonstrated by her founding of the Hull-House and her societal contributions, culminating with the winning of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize.
Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, the eighth child of a prominent family in the small town of Cedarville, Illinois. Of the nine children born to her parents, John and Sarah Addams, only four would reach maturity. Pregnant with her ninth child at the age of forty-nine, Sarah Addams died in 1863, leaving two-year-old Jane, ten-year-old James Weber and three older daughtersMary, Martha, and Alice.
Five years after Sarah’s death, John Addams married Anna Haldeman, a widow from nearby Freeport who had two sons, eighteen-year-old Henry and seven-year-old George. Jane welcomed the arrival of George, who was almost the same age as she, but she resented her new stepmother at first. The little girl was used to being pampered by her older siblings and the family servants, and she was taken aback by Anna Addams’s unfamiliar habits. The new Mrs. Addams was determined to enforce order in the somewhat unruly household, and she had a quick temper. When she arrived in her new home, she began at once to reorganize it, insisting on formal mealtime behavior, scrupulously orderly rooms, and strict discipline among the children.
Anna Addams was, however, intelligent, cultivated, and basically kind. An avid reader and a talented musician, she often entertained the youngsters by reading plays and novels aloud to them, playing the guitar, and singing folk songs. The children soon became accustomed to her ways, and after a few months she won the hearts of both Jane and her siblings. Although Jane grew found of “Ma,” as she began to call her stepmother, she continued to look to her father and sister Martha for advice and approval. When Martha suddenly died of typhoid fever at the age of sixteen, five-year-old Jane became more dependent than ever on her adored father.
At the age of sixteen, Addams was an attractive young woman. College was an exception rather than a rule for women in the 1870s, but John Addams approved of higher education for women, and Jane wanted to go. In 1877, seventeen years old, Jane boarded a train at Cedarville station, and set off for Rockford Seminary, a “female college” in Rockford, Illinois. Like the twenty-two other women in her freshman class, Addams felt singled out for special opportunity, and she was determined to make the most of it. A few years later, after organizing a chess club, a debating society, an amateur theatrical group and editing/writing for the Rockford Seminary Magazine, Jane graduated and returned home to Cedarville. Jane Addams intended to carry out her plan of attending the Women’s Medical College in the fall of 1881 largely because she had to her father she would. Jane soon realized that medical school was not for her as she found she was incapable of concentrating on her classes, an “utter failure” and “unable to work at the best of myself.” In February of 1882, she dropped out and entered a hospital, suffering from severe back pain as well as depression. That April, Jane underwent an operation to straighten her spine caused by an earlier childhood diagnosis, tuberculosis of the spine.
As part of young Jane’s rejuvenation, her stepmother and a few other women took her on a trek through Europe, proving to be excellent therapy. Addams’s European tour improved her health and expanded her cultural horizons. Even more important, however, was what it showed her about a side of life she had never known. A few months after the American women had crossed the Atlantic, she and her companions found themselves in London. There, Jane recalls she “received an ineradicable impression” of the “wretchedness” of the poor. Escorted by a tour guide to the slums of east London, the group saw crowds of poor residents bidding on spoiled vegetables discarded by the city grocers. Addam’s strongest impression, she said, was of hands, “myriads of hands, empty, pathetic, nerveless and workworn, showing white in uncertain light of the street, and clutching forward for food which was already unfit to eat.”
After her visit to the East End, Addams “went about London furtively, afraid to look down narrow streets and alleys lest they disclose again this hideous human need, bewildered that the world should be going on as usual.” Her world, she realized, did not expect her to even remember these people’s misery, much less do anything about it. Well-off and free to do as she chose, Addams nevertheless felt trapped. She knew she wanted to help people, but how? The more she saw Europe’s cultural riches and the squalor of its slums, factories, and mines, the less she was able to see a clear path toward serving humanity. After almost two years of travel, she returned spiritually more confused than when she had left it.
Still perplexed about her role in life, Jane Addams returned to the United States in 1885, spending her next two years in Baltimore. She wrote a few essays about her trip for the Rockford Seminary Magazine, studied the art books from Europe, went to concerts, lectures, and parties, and reread journals she had kept during her trip. None of these lifted her spirits, so in the winter of 1887, Jane and a few friends including Ellen Starr returned to England. She was in awe of the city’s vast cathedrals with carvings and statues illustrating the history of humanity’s quest for spiritual enlightenment. Gazing around the magnificent house of worship in Germany, she envisioned a “cathedral of humanity” that would be “capacious enough to house a fellowship of common purpose and beautiful enough to persuade men to hold fast the vision of human solidarity.” Jane and company returned to the United States in 1888 where she would begin to turn her ideas into a reality.
In 1889, Addams and Starr moved into a boardinghouse in Chicago where their first task was to round up support for their scheme. Addams intended to use her inheritance to pay most of the expenses, but she hoped to get both moral and financial support from Chicago’s religious establishment. She became a member of the Fourth Presbyterian Church, attending Bible lectures and teaching a Sunday-school class. Fourth Presbyterian’s congregation included some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most influential people, some of them interested in philanthropy. Whenever Addams met these people, she told them about her plans for a settlement house. She tirelessly repeated her principle argument:
“A house, easily accessible, ample in space, hospitable and tolerant in spirit, situated in the midst of the large foreign colonies which so easily isolate themselves in American cities, would be in itself a serviceable thing for Chicago.”
Addams also emphasized her theory that “the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal”, meaning that well-to-do people who helped the poor would benefit themselves. Her proposals generally received courteous attention, and the discussion, while often skeptical, was always friendly. With much of the city’s religious establishment behind them, the women set about learning how they could run the project that they had in mind. They visited Chicago’s leading charitable organizations including the Armour Mission, the Chicago Women’s Club, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Association of College Alumnae. These groups responded with enthusiasmsometimes, felt Addams with too much enthusiasm; she was determined to keep the project independent of all official organizations.
Addams knew she needed to learn more about Chicago and its inhabitants before opening the settlement house. When she was not visiting charitable institutions, reading about social movements in Europe, or writing letters and giving speeches about her plan, she was busily investigating the city. She trudged through the worst slums, observing and talking to immigrant residents. On September 18, 1889, after several months of repairing and decorating, Addams and Starr moved into their new home. They named it Hull House after its original owner.
The area’s residents, most of them poor Italian immigrants, were suspicious of the newcomers at first. Eager to win their neighbors’ confidence, Addams and Starr decided to demonstrate their respect for the Italian culture. After decorating the walls of Hull House with photographs they had taken in Italy the year before, they invited the whole neighborhood to a “reading party” of Romola a George Eliot novel about humanitarianism that Addams read aloud in the native tongue, Italian. Suddenly, crowds of local residents, many of them women with babies and young children, began to visit. Realizing that one of the community’s most urgent needs was a nursery school, Addams called on Jenny Dow, a young and wealthy woman who had volunteered her services. Dow started a kindergarten class, enrolling twenty-four children and paying all the expenses herself.
Some socially prominent women began to come to the settlement only because they were curious or because working with the poor was fashionable. Many of them, however, sincerely wanted to help and became loyal and indispensable aides. The unpaid volunteers who lived at Hull House did their own laundry, cooking, cleaning, and house maintenance. They all worked long, hard hours; in Hull House’s first year, 50,000 people came through its doors. The idealistic young women were inspired both by the needs of the people they served and by Jane Addams herself. Every morning, the settlement house offered kindergarten for the neighbor’s youngest children and English-language and craft classes for their mothers. In the afternoon, older children arrived for club meetings, vocational training, and classes in art and music. Evening featured cultural programs and more classes for adults. Everywhere she went, Addams was received as a pioneer, honored for her work in awakening the social conscience of America. Hull House had become a famous symbol of the new wave of altruism that was sweeping through the current generation of young, middle-class Americans. The Chicago settlement house, always crowded with neighborhood residents, became a magnet for visitors from all walks of life.
Hull House remained the center of Addams’s life in the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century, but she did not limit her activities to the Chicago area. With seemingly inexhaustible energy, she made speeches all over the United States. In February 1899, for example, she delivered four lectures in New York, ten in Massachusetts, two in Pennsylvania, and one each in Vermont, Virginia, and South Carolina. During the rare moments when she was not supervising the programs at Hull House, taking part in labor-management meetings, or making speeches, Addams wrote her first book. Published in 1902, Democracy and Social Ethics was a resounding success, concerning the study of the relationships of human beings, dealing sympathetically with America’s immigrants. One of the best-known women in America by 1910, Addams’s outstanding work had not gone unnoticed by others. She turned her attention increasingly to larger, worldwide causes, and received the honor of being named the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections. In 1906, she attended her first meeting of the National American Women Suffrage Association, an organization promoting the right to vote for women. By 1911, NAWSA had elected Addams its vice president, and the following year, she spoke at its convention in Philadelphia.
When Theodore Roosevelt ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1912, he endorsed some of the social and factory reforms that Addams and her Hull House coworkers supported. Since Addams and Roosevelt had become good friends, she willingly backed his partywith one exceptionher disagreement with Roosevelt’s racial position. Nearly two years after Roosevelt’s campaign and subsequent defeat, Addams became involved in another strugglethe struggle for peace. As news continued to reach the United States about young men fighting and being killed in Europe during the Great War in 1914, Addams became more and more concerned. Then, on January 15, 1915, a conference of various women’s groups was held in Washington, D.C. A new, unified group known as the Woman’s Peace Party came out of the conference and elected Jane Addams as its head. People often misunderstood Addams’s efforts to promote peace, and for a time, she became unpopular. Addams wanted the United States to stay out of the war, and groups like Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion disagreed with her since she appeared unpatrioticeven pro-Germanto many Americans.
Throughout the 1920s, Addams continued to work fro world peace through an organization called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Although still involved with Hull House, the world had become her forum. In 1931, Addams received her greatest honor, the Nobel Peace Prize, but because of a bronchitis attack and surgery for a tumor, she was unable to travel to Norway to accept it. The Nobel Committee had granted her this award because of her earlier efforts to promote peace. Despite the years of criticism she had faced because of her views on world peace, Addams was vindicated after all.
Addams lived the next few years of her life trying to help her neighbors and to make the world a safer, better place. In February 1935, Addams received the American Education Award and attended Washington, D.C., celebrations in her honor, where she addressed the world by radio. On May 21, 1935, Jane Addams died from recently discovered intestinal cancer; she was seventy-four years old. Jane’s funeral took place at Hull House as thousands of people gathered in the courtyard to pay their last respects. The marker on her gravestone reads simply: “Jane Addams of Hull House and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.” The epitaph is a brief one for a person who accomplished so much throughout her lifetime, and for one who responded to each new challenge with courage, fine-tuned from years of practice.
Some have wondered what a difference Hull House and the ideas it represents have made. What influence have the classes held there, the clubs, the musical programs, and all other activities had? Perhaps only a few hundred, overall, actually attended functions at Hull House. The others Addams influenced, either read her writings or heard her speak. Addams’s vision and ideas live on, however, not only in the people reached by the Hull House center in Chicago, but in numerous other cities across the United States who attempted to duplicate Jane Addams’s cause. From the modest beginnings at Hull House, Addams helped begin a whole movementa movement that spread throughout society. Middle-class and wealthy people learned about the problems of the poor and immigrant people. They also learned that they could remedy some of society’s ills. Largely through Addams’s efforts, people became aware not only of poor people’s needs, but of what they could do to improve living conditions. Still standing on Halsted Street, the original mansion that contained Hull House looks as gracious and dignified as everas if Jane Addams herself stands within its courtyard reminding us to bring help and hope to those less fortunate.
Addams, Jane. Democracy and Social Ethics. 1902. Reprint. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Addams, Jane. The Second Twenty Years at Hull-House. New York: Macmillan Co., 1930.
Addams, Jane. Twenty Years at Hull-House. 1910. Reprint. Prairie State Books. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.
Berson, Robin. Jane Addams: A Biography. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Elshtain, Jean Bethke. Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Lasch, Christopher, ed. The Social Thought of Jane Addams. American Heritage Series. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1965.
The Official Web Site of the Nobel Foundation. Nobelprize.org. 2005.