Jane Addams: Chicago's Pacifist

Jane Addams and Chicago

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Hull House, circa 2010

Chicago - A City of Poor Immigrants

In the late 1800's, Chicago was a small city, but as the city grew - the population doubled between 1880 and 1890 - many citizens who had arrived in the city looking for work lived in squalor. The burden for helping the less fortunate was fell to private religious organizations such as churches or relief societies, with limited coordination by the state and county boards of charity. The state could not help and private individuals would not help.

The development of the charity organization between 1877 and 1900 was a new approach to the problem of poverty, as the majority of relief societies held philosophical ties to business and the Protestant work ethic, grounded in the idea of the self-made man, and remained stingy with help. In 1886, over 20 percent of ‘resident’ applications to the Charity Organization Society were rejected because the applicants were deemed ‘not needy’, ‘unworthy’, or ‘ineligible’.

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Ellen Gates Starr, classmate of Jane Addams at Rockford Seminary and co-founder of Hull-House, ca. 1880. Courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

The Establishment of Hull House

In her late twenties, Jane Addams was deeply affected by the poverty in Chicago and the city's lack of social services for the poor.  Influenced by the example of Toynbee Hall, which was established in 1884 by Oxford men in the East End of London, in September of 1889 Addams and her life-long friend Ellen Gates Starr established Hull House as Chicago's first settlement house. Hull House was modelled on Toynbee Hall, which encouraged educated men to interact with and serve as role models for uneducated, poor men and boys.  Unlike Toynbee Hall, however, Addams strove to create at Hull House an environment free of elitist and gender limitations. 

On the corner of West 18th Street and South Halstead Street, Hull House was located in the midst of a dense poverty-stricken urban neighborhood populated by Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, and Russian and Polish Jewish immigrants. During the 1920s, African Americans and Mexicans began to put down roots there and joined the clubs and activities at Hull House.

Hull House provided social and educational opportunities for working-class people and immigrants in the surrounding neighborhoods, including holding classes in English, literature, history, art, domestic activities (including instructional classes aimed towards poor immigrant girls to develop working skills), and college extention classes for adults in the evenings, all run by volunteers.

The settlement house also provided meals and daycare for poor children and working class families, as well as people of color, being sure to distinguish itself among other settlement houses in reaching out to those who were falling through the cracks of the current system.

The Hull House complex eventually expanded to thirteen buildings, including libraries, museums, the Jane Club boarding house for single working girls, meeting places for trade union groups, and a wide array of cultural events.

Starting in 1892, the residents also kept a ‘ward book’, in which matters of sociological interest were found, including sanitation problems, sweatshops and child labor issues, wage scales and population density. In 1895, the book helped provide for the Hull House Maps and Papers.

Some difficulties in the early establishment of Hull House included included a lack of dialogue between Addams, with her privileged background, and her poor neighbors. One example is the Diet Kitchen incident, cooking classes meant to assist women in the preparation of inexpensive nutritious meals. The recipes did not account for native tastes, and local women quickly lost interest in the progam.  Addams learned from this mistake, and with the women's help converted the kitchen into a cafe that provided inexpensive coffee and hot lunches to locals.

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Photograph of Hull House shortly after its establishment. Courtesy of the Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

Charitable Work in Conjunction with Hull House

In 1892, Addams went with thirteen fellow committee members to petition the Chicago Relief and Aid Society to change its policies and become directly engaged in efforts to empower the poor.

Addams later attended a conference at the School of Applied Ethics and delivered a speech that would form the basis of her essay, “The Subjective Necessity of the Settlement," which details the philosophy behind the establishment of the settlement model. 

Increased economic depression and corruption in Chicago from 1893-1894 led to the establishment of the Chicago Civic Federation.  Jane Addams served as a trustee. The Federation applied business ideas to charity, and encouraged efficiency, the rooting out of fraud, and work testing as ways to deliver social services to the poor.

Addams also founded a charitable organization named the Chicago Bureau of Charities (CBU) in 1896 and served in a number of capacities over the following decade.