- Historic Sites
Saint Jane And The Ward Boss
When Jane Addams opened Hull House for Chicago’s immigrants, she began asking questions a local politician preferred not to answer
December 1960 | Volume 12, Issue 1
The two young ladies on Halstcd Street, Jane Addams and Ellen Starr, were prototypes too, but of a very dilfcrcnt kind of figure: they were the pioneers of the social settlement, the original “social workers.” They opjjosed everything Johnny Powers stood for.
Jane Addams’ own background could hardly have been mure different from that ol John Powers. The treasured daughter of a well-to-do small-town businessman from Illinois, she had been raised in an atmosphere of sturdy Christian principles.
From an early age she had been an introspective child concerned with justifying lier existence. Once in a childhood nightmare she had dreamed of being the only remaining person in a world desolated by some disaster, facing the responsibility for rediscovering the principle of the wheel! At Rockford she shared with some ol her classmates a determination to live to “high purpose,” and decided that she would become a doctor in order to “help the poor.”
After graduation she went to the Woman’s Medical College of Philadelphia, but her health failed and she embarked on the grand tour of Europe customary among the wealthy. During a subsequent trip to Europe in 1888, in the unlikely setting of a Spanish bull ring, an idea that had long been glowing in her mind suddenly crystallixed: she would rent a house “in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs arc found, in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study, might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn something of life from life itself …” So the American settlement-house idea was born. She and Ellen Starr, a former classmate at the Rockford seminary who had been with her in Europe, went back to Chicago to find a house among the victims of lhe nineteenth century’s fast-growing industrial society.
The young women—Jane was twenty-nine and Ellen thirty in 1889—had no blueprint to guide them when they deeided to take up residence in Mr. Hull’s decayed mansion and begin helping “the neighbors” to help themselves. No school of social work had trained them for this enterprise: Latin and Greek, art, music, and “moral philosophy” at the seminary constituted their academic preparation. Toynbee Hall in England —the world’s first settlement house, founded in 1884 by Samuel A. Barnett—had inspired them. Having found the Hull house at the corner of Polk and Halsted—in what was by common consent one of Chicago’s worst wards—they leased it, moved in, and began doing what came naturally.
Miss Starr, who had taught in an exclusive girls’ preparatory school, inaugurated a reading party for young Italian women with George Eliot’s Romola as the first book. Miss Addams, becoming aware of the desperate problem ol working mothers, began at once to organize a kindergarten. They tried Russian parties for the Russian neighbors, organized boys’ clubs for the gangs on the street, and offered to bathe all babies. The neighbors were baffled, but impressed. Very soon children and grownups of all sorts and conditions were finding their way to Hull-House—to read Shakespeare or to ask for a volunteer midwife; to learn sewing or discuss socialism; to study art or to fill an empty stomach. There were few formalities and no red tape, and the young ladies found themselves every day called upon to deal with some of the multitude of personal tragedies against which the conditions of life in the nineteenth ward offered so thin a cushion.
Before long, other young people feeling twinges of social conscience and seeking a tangible way to make their convictions count in the world of the iSgo’s came to live at Hull-House. These “residents,” as they were called, became increasingly interested in the personal histories ol the endless stream of neighbors who came to the House each week. They began to find out about the little children sewing all day long in the “sweated” garment trade, and about others who worked long hours in a candy factory. They began to ask why there were three thousand more children in the ward than there were seats in its schoolrooms, and why the deatl) rate was higher there than in almost any other part ol Chicago. They worried about youngsters whose only playground was a garbage-spattered alley that threatened the whole population with disease. (Once they traced a typhoid epidemic to its source and found the sewer line merging with the water line.) In the early days Hull-House offered bathtubs and showers, which proved so popular a form of hospitality that the residents became relentless lobbyists for municipal baths.