Jane Addams (1860-1935)From the Collection: Women in American History
Jane Addams was born in Cedarville, Illinois in 1860. Addams came from a comfortable background and was educated at Rockford College. She was among the first American women to graduate from college. Frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to intelligent and ambitious young women, she traveled to Europe with a college friend, Ellen Gates Starr. In 1887, towards the end of their trip, they visited Toynbee Hall in London's Whitechapel district (where Jack the Ripper would commit his crimes just a year later).
Toynbee Hall was the first settlement house, a house in an impoverished area where college educated people would "settle" and work to improve the lives of their poor neighbors. Addams and Starr determined to open a settlement house in Chicago. They rented the former residence of Charles J. Hull on Halsted Street from his cousin, Helen Culver. It was in Chicago's toughest, poorest neighborhood.
Hull-House opened in 1889. Among its offerings were classes on Shakespeare, classical music concerts, and discussions of fine art. Addams, Starr and their friends tapped into their elite Chicago connections to find collaborators. Extension school courses from the University of Chicago were offered on the premises (the first outside of the University itself). A gallery of art donated by an Art Institute trustee had regular shows that often drew hundreds of visitors. The Chicago Public Library established a branch at Hull-House. Philosopher/educator John Dewey, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, attorney Clarence Darrow and architect Frank Lloyd Wright all appeared for lectures. All of these offerings were intended for the betterment of the immigrant classes and to help them adjust to American society.
When Culver found out what her tenants were doing, she stopped collecting the rent. Eventually she donated the land to the organization. Other prominent Chicagoans lent their talents, reputations and money to Hull-House to keep it operating.
Addams did not fool herself into believing their work was purely altruistic: "The dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal," she wrote. Not sparing herself, she admitted that Hull-House was "more for the benefit of the people who did it than for the other class." Nevertheless, she had created an outlet through which socially conscious young women could channel their energies.
Addams' approach began to change, however, and she became motivated to physically improve her neighborhood. Concerned about the putrid conditions that bred rats in the alleys and streets where her clients' children played, she installed a garbage incinerator at Hull-House. When the city ignored her reports on the garbage conditions in her ward, she tried to get a job as the garbage collector. The city did not give her that job, but in 1895, appointed her the inspector of garbage. As inspector, Addams would make sure that the garbage bins were fully emptied and that the trash was properly burned.
Hull-House eventually incorporated a day care center, a museum of labor, and a theater, and offered practical classes on sewing and mending, mathematics and electricity, as well as their curriculum in the humanities.
Addams became an internationally known advocate for the underclass and a leader at a time of growing progressive movement, advocating for the National Federation of Settlements, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National American Women Suffrage Association, and the American civil Liberties Union.
She was a pacifist, and an internationalist while America was largely isolationalist, and she helped to found the Woman's International League for Peace and Freedom in 1919 and served as its president for a decade. In 1931, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In addition to numerous articles, Addams published eleven books, including her autobiography, which is still read widely.
Addams died in 1935, and was buried in Cedarville. The Hull Mansion, now part of the University of Illinois at Chicago, has become a museum of Addams' life and work.