Hull House and Its Neighbors, May 7, 1904

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Hull House and its Neighbors.


The settlement which endeavors to reveal large foreign colonies to the rest of its city naturally pursues two methods:

The first is to secure speakers, teachers, club leaders from the more prosperous districts of the city, who shall form acquaintances and friendships as naturally as possible with the residents of the neighborhood.

The second is to provide for the various foreign colonists opportunities for self-expression, one of the most natural of these being through the drama. Plays have been given at Hull House in Bohemian, Yiddish, Italian and Greek, not only to the very great pleasure of the groups of colonists who heard them, but often to the surprise and always to the edification of their English-speaking auditors. These plays often serve a most valuable purpose, in so far as they help reveal the older people of the foreign colonies to the younger, and do something toward bridging the distance between fathers and sons.

The mass of the colonists, however, have no such means of expression. It was in the hope of giving them an opportunity that the Labor Museum at Hull House was started. It began with the methods of spinning and weaving, which we were able to collect from the neighborhood and to put into some historic sequence and order – the Assyrian, the Greek, the Italian, the Dutch, the Irish, the Colonial. Something of the same was done in weaving. The demonstration which takes place every Saturday evening attracts visitors from every part of the city, notably students from the normal schools and colleges. The children of the peasant women are much amazed at the attention their mothers receive and at the admiration which is given to the hand-made kerchiefs and petticoats. This, for the first time, breaks into their ideal of department store clothes. I recall a little Italian girl who came to the cooking class the same night and in the same building that the mother came to the Labor Museum demonstration. But she always took pains to deliver her mother at one door, while she entered another, not wishing to be too closely identified with the peasant who spoke no English and could not be induced to wear a hat. One evening she heard a number of teachers from the School of Education, of the University of Chicago, much admiring the quality of her mother's spinning, and she inquired whether her mother was really the best spindle-spinner in Chicago. On being assured that she probably was, because she had lived in a village on the edge of a precipice down which the women had dropped their spindles, and that therefore the village had developed a skill beyond its neighbors, she was much impressed, and regarded her mother with a new interest, being able, apparently for the first time, to give her a background and a setting beyond that of the sordid tenement in which she lived. At any rate, from that time forth, they entered at the same door.

During one of the Christmas seasons a number of Russian women who were working in a charitable sewing-room heard that there was to be a "party" at Hull House, and unexpectedly arrived, to the number [page 2] of thirty. There happened to be no festivity on at the moment, although the disappointment was so obvious that every effort was made to produce one on demand. Music, photographs, even coffee, made but little impression upon the overworked, hard-pressed women, but a visit to the Labor Museum produced an instantaneous effect. They at once began to try the spindles and the looms, to tell each other and their hostesses what was done in each particular family and in each special part of Russia, to exhibit specimens of the weaving and knitting of the clothing which they wore. In short, they began to be the entertainers rather than the entertained, to take the position which was theirs by right of much experience and long acquaintance with life. Their pleasure was most touching, and perhaps only their homely implements could have evoked it.

The old German potter takes great pleasure each week in demonstrating his skill, as do workers in silver and copper, and in wood mosaic. After all, the apprentice system, as a method of instruction, has much to commend it, and a well-trained workman can easily teach not only his own and his neighbors' children, but "swells" from other parts of the town, with a consciousness that his skill is but receiving its natural recognition. In a few years, we shall doubtless establish schools in America in which the children and grandchildren of these men may be trained in the crafts. In the meantime they lose the heritage which is theirs, the transmission of which would be of mutual benefit to both fathers and children, and do much toward restoring the respect which is often lost. Under existing conditions of factory work, it slips away without result or use to anyone. "I was a silver-smith in Bohemia, but I have carried pig-iron ever since I came to this country," or "I was a glass-blower in Vienna, but of course nobody wants such work in Chicago," are the significant remarks which one constantly hears. The shops at Hull House offer at least the space, tools, and material to the men who care to work in them, and are but a feeble beginning toward restoring some balance between the attainments of various sorts of people.

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