- 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
Hull-House was not the only American settlement house—indeed, Jane Addanis liked to emphasize the validity of the idea by pointing out that it had developed simultaneously in several different places. But Hull-House set the pace, and in an astonishingly short time its founder began to acquire a national reputation. As early as 1893 Jane Addams wrote to a friend: “I find I am considered the grandmother of social settlements.” She was being asked to speak to gatherings of learned gentlemen, sociologists and philosophers, on such subjects as “The Subjective Necessity for Social Settlements.” When the Columbian Exposition attractcd thousands of visitors to Chicago in 1893 ( see “The Great White City,” in the October, 1960, AMERICAN HERETAGE ), Hull-House became—along with the lake front and the stockyards—one of the things a guest was advised not to miss. By the mid-nineties, distinguished Europeans were turning up regularly to visit the House and examine its workings. W. T. Stead, editor of the English Review of Reviews , spent much time there while he gathered material for his sensational book, If Christ Came to Chicago . By that time two thousand people a week were coming to HullHouse to participate in some of its multifarious activities, which ranged from philosophy classes to the Nineteenth Ward Improvement Association.
Neither her growing reputation nor the increasing demand for speeches and articles, however, distracted Jane Addams from what was to be for forty years the main focus of a many-sided life: Hull-House and the nineteenth ward. Much of her early writing was an attempt to portray the real inner lives ol America’s proliferating immigrants, and much of her early activity, an effort to give them a voice to speak out against injustice.
The Hull-House residents were becoming pioneers in many ways, not least in the techniques of social research. In the Hull-House Maps and Papers , published in 1895, they prepared some of the first careful studies of life in an urban slum, examining the details of the “homework” system of garment making and describing tumble-down houses, overtaxed schools, rising crime rates, and other sociological problems. The book remains today an indispensable source for the social historian of Chicago in the nineties.
Jane Addams’ own interest in these matters was far from academic. Her concern for the uncollectecl garbage led her to apply lor—and receive—an appointment as garbage inspector. She rose at six every morning and in a horse-drawn buggy followed the infuriated garbage contractor on his appointed rounds, making sure that every receptacle was emptied. Such badgering incensed Alderman Powers, in whose hierarchy of values cleanliness, though next to godliness, was a good bit below patronage—and he looked upon garbage inspection as a job for one of his henchmen. By now John Powers was becoming aware of his new neighbors; they were increasingly inquisitive about things close to Johnny Powers’ source of power. By implication they were raising a troublesome question: Was Johnny Powers really “taking care of the poor”?
For a while, as one resident noted, the inhabitants of the House were “passive though interested observers of their representative, declining his otters of help and co-operation, refusing politely to distribute his Christmas turkeys, but feeling too keenly the smallness of their numbers to work against him.” They were learning, though, and the time for passivity would end.
In company with many other American cities, Chicago after 1895 was taking a critical look at its political life and at the close connections that had grown up between politics and big business during the explosive era of industrial expansion following the Civil War. “The sovereign people may govern Chicago in theory,” Stead wrote; “as a matter of fact King Boodle is monarch of all he surveys. His domination is practically undisputed.”
The Municipal Voters League, a reform organization that included many of Jane Addams’ close friends, was founded in 1896 in an effort to clean up the Common Council, of whose sixty-eight aldermen fifty-eight were estimated to be corrupt. The League aimed to replace as many of the fifty-eight as possible with honest men. But it was not easy: in 1896, as part of this campaign, a member of the Hull-House Men’s Club ran for the second aldermanic position in the ward and against all expectations was elected. Too late, his idealistic backers found that their hero had his price: Johnny Powers promptly bought him out.
Jane Addams was chagrined but undiscouraged. By the time Powers came up for re-election in 1898, she had had time to observe him more closely and plan her attack. Her opening gun was a speech—delivered, improbably enough, to the Society for Ethical Culture —with the ponderous and apparently harmless title, “Some Ethical Survivals in Municipal Corruption.” But appearances were deceptive: once under way, she took the hide off Powers and was scarcely easier on his opponents among the so-called “better elements.”