Jane Addams: Peace, War, and World Order

Jane Addams and Chicago

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American Social Work Prior to the Establishment of Hull House: The Chicago Relief and Aid Society

Chicago at the time was a small city, as the population doubled between 1880 and 1890 due to waves of massive immigration escaping the economically and socially devastated South. Little state welfare was provided, with the brunt of the burden for helping the less fortunate being carried by 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 social system nearly collapsed with the advent of the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, destroying much of the infrastructre of the city. The Chicago Relief and Aid Society handled over $5 million during the relief effort to rebuild the city. Additionally 5,000 sewing machines were provided to women so they could make clothes for their families. Medical care was also a high priority and most notably, over 60,000 people were vaccinated against smallpox.

Howver, in the coming weeks and months, the Chicago Relief and Aid Society remained selective on recipients who they would aid: “Only the Sick, Aged, and Infirm, or widows with families will be regarded as proper subjects of relief, unless it shall appear there are old people or an unusual number of small children dependent upon them, or in cases of temporary disability not included in the above.”

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 Chicago 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

The Establishment and History of Hull House:

Jane Addams was deeply influenced by the example of Toynbee Hall, which was established in 1884 on Commercial Street, in the East End of London. Describing Toynbee Hall as an elistist 'community of university men', Addams strove to create an environment free of the elitist and gender limitations imposed on the running of Toynbee Hall. Using the majority of her inheritance, Jane Addams and her good friend Ellen Gates Starr established Hull House as a settlement house on September 18, 1889. 

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 in the neighborhood 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 include 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 residents and Jane Addams, with her privileged background making it difficult to understand (the Diet Kitchen incident, for an example, which was meant to provide cooking classes so that neighborhood women would learn to make inexpensive nutritious meals, but failed to account for native tastes; was swiftly converted into a cafe that provided coffee and hot lunches to residents instead). 

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Photograph of Hull House shortly after its establishment.

Charitable Work in Conjunction with Hull House:

In response to corruption and a lack of activism, Addams went with thirteen fellow committee members to personally petition the Chicago Relief and Aid Society at its board meeting, on January 2nd 1892, in order to change its policies and become more organized and efficient, calling for more action and cooperation and activism in its efforts.

Addams later attended a conference at the School of Applied Ethics in Plymouth, delivering a speech that would form the basis of her essay, “The Subjective Necessity of the Settlement”, which details her vision of the need for settlements and the philosophy behind the establishment of the settlement model. 

Increased economic depression and corruption in Chicago from 1893-1894, leading to the establishment of the Chicago Civic Federation, in which Jane Addams was a trustee; meant to promote the business idea in charity: efficiency,the rooting out of fraud, emphasis on work testing, which lead to the formation of the Central Relief Association.

Addams founded a charitable organization named the Chicago Bureau of Charities (CBU) in 1896, meant to replace the inaction of the Chicago Relief and Aid Society. Addams served the Chicago Bureau of Charities in a number of capacities over the following decade. She was on the board of directors from 1898 from 1899, from 1901 to 1903, and from 1906 to 1907. She served on the West Side District Executive Committee from 1898 to 1899.