Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What We Choose: An Adult Program on Ethics for Unitarian Universalists

Jane Addams

Part of What We Choose

In January 1889, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr searched for a location for a settlement house in Chicago that would serve as a place for young women of means to live cooperatively with recent immigrants and migrants whose living and working conditions were horrible. Addams' idea was that although recent immigrants needed a lot of help to ameliorate deplorable living and working conditions, there was also much that they could teach others about social relations and caring community. She wrote: "Hull-House was soberly opened on the theory that the dependence of classes on each other is reciprocal; and that as social relation is essentially a reciprocal relation, it gives a form of expression that has particular value." She believed firmly that the health of American democracy required that each member of the society be allowed to fully develop themselves, and Hull House was to be a center for the development of all who lived, visited, and engaged in its communal life.

Laura Jane Addams was born in 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois, and grew up in a family with both status and material comfort. Her mother died while she was an infant and her inquisitive, caring, and responsible nature was nurtured by her father, a miller, businessman, and local political office holder. She later wrote of her childhood:

I recall an incident which must have occurred before I was seven years old, for the mill in which my father transacted his business that day was closed in 1867. The mill stood in the neighboring town adjacent to its poorest quarter. Before then I had always seen the little city of ten thousand people with the admiring eyes of a country child, and it had never occurred to me that all its streets were not as bewilderingly attractive as the one which contained the glittering toy shop and the confectioner. On that day I had my first sight of the poverty that implies squalor, and felt the curious distinction between the ruddy poverty of the country and that which even a small city presents in its shabbiest streets. I remember launching at my father the pertinent inquiry why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together, and that after receiving his explanation I declared with much firmness when I grew up I should, of course, have a large house, but it would not be built among other large houses, but right in the midst of horrid little houses like those.

As a young woman, Addams attended Rockford Female Seminary, where the expectation was that young women who wished to serve others would do so by becoming missionaries. Unresponsive to the appeal of evangelism, she and her small circle of friends read the ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Bronson Alcott, and frequently discussed moral philosophy. When she was selected as the orator who would represent her school in the intercollegiate oratorical contest of Illinois, she found herself representing not just her school, but also the wishes and hopes of college women in general. She later recalled a portion of her speech which she called "the schoolgirl recipe that has been tested in many later experiences." She said:

Those who believe that Justice is but a poetical longing within us, the enthusiast who thinks it will come in the form of a millennium, those who see it established by the strong arm of a hero, are not those who have comprehended the vast truths of life. The actual Justice must come by trained intelligence, by broadened sympathies toward the individual man or woman who crosses our path; one item added to another is the only method by which to build up a conception lofty enough to be of use in the world.

After her father's death, Addams began to study medicine, but left her studies because of poor health. Following a major surgery, Addams traveled to Europe to consider her life's direction. While in Europe she and Ellen Starr toured Toynbee Hall, a settlement house, and formed a plan to establish a settlement house in the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. Returning to Chicago, Addams and Starr found the perfect house for their purposes—a large home built by Charles Hull at the corner of Halsted and Polk Streets. They leased the house and raised money "to provide a center for higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago." The settlement house was located in a densely populated area where immigrants lived—at first, Italian, Irish, German, Greek, Bohemian, Russian, and Polish, and later Mexican immigrants and African Americans who had migrated from the American South. Hull House served as a location for people to join clubs, discussions, and activities, as well as take English and citizenship classes, and theater, music, and art classes. Hull House provided a kindergarten and day care for the children of working mothers, an employment bureau, an art gallery, a museum, and libraries. And it provided a safe place for ideas of all kinds—through lectures, discussions, organizations, and conversations. Generally, 25 people, including Addams and Starr, lived at the house. During hard economic times the community served more than 2,000 people a week with their services, assistance, and outreach. Addams paid attention to the expressed dreams and needs of the people of the neighborhood before introducing services or programs to Hull House, and was able to effectively use the stories of those who lived in the neighborhood to help with the fund-raising necessary to support the project.

As time went on, Hull House expanded to thirteen buildings, including a museum, clubs, and meeting places for trade union groups and cultural events. Addams said once, "We have learned to say that the good must be extended to all of society before it can be held secure by any one person or class; but we have not yet learned . . . that unless all men [sic] and all classes contribute to a good, we cannot even be sure that it is worth having."

Jane Addams not only created a location for people in the Hull House neighborhood to receive help and support but soon realized that the broader society needed to change in order to improve living conditions for the poor. She worked tirelessly to change the social and legal, economic and political systems that contributed to abysmal conditions for those in the Hull House neighborhood. She advocated for child labor laws, effective garbage pick-up, and better conditions for factory workers, among other causes. Although she was a regular attendee and lecturer at both the Unitarian church and the Ethical Culture society in Chicago, she retained her membership in the Presbyterian church she had joined as a young adult. In her later years, Addams wrote books and lectured all over the country, spotlighting the necessity of work like hers to ensure that all people could be part of a healthy democracy. In 1931, she received a Nobel Peace Prize for her groundbreaking work, which was a forerunner to modern social work. Following her death in 1935, a funeral service was held in the courtyard of Hull House, where she had lived and worked for 46 years.