Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: Problems of Poverty, July 1910

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THAT neglected and forlorn old age is daily brought to the attention of a Settlement which undertakes to bear its share of the neighborhood burden imposed by poverty was pathetically clear to us during our first months of residence at Hull-House. One day a little boy of ten came to Hull-House leading a feeble and tottering old woman and asked if he might leave her with us. He explained that she had come to his house after the death of her son, who was her only support, and as she had nowhere to go, and as the son "had once worked in the same shop with Pa, she thought Ma might like to take her in." There was, of course, no room for her in their little home, but she was nevertheless made welcome and a bed prepared for her next to the kitchen stove, where she had slept for six weeks. The little fellow concluded by saying, "Pa has lost his place now and, anyway, your house is so much bigger than ours, you must have more room for beds." The old woman herself said absolutely nothing, but looked on with that gripping fear of the poorhouse in her eyes. This look was almost more than I could bear, for only a few days before some frightened women had bidden me come quickly to the house of old Frau S---, whom two men from the County Agent's Office were attempting to remove to the County Infirmary. The poor old creature had thrown herself bodily upon a small and battered chest of drawers and clung there, clutching it so firmly that it would have been impossible to remove her without [page 2] also taking the piece of furniture. She did not weep nor moan nor, indeed, make any human sound, but between her broken gasps for breath she squealed shrilly like a frightened animal caught in a trap. The little group of women and children gathered at her door stood aghast at this realization of the Black Dread which always clouds the lives of the very poor when work is slack, but which constantly grows more imminent and threatening as age approaches. The neighborhood women and I hastened to make all sorts of promises as to the support of the old woman, and the County Officials, only too glad to be rid of their unhappy duty, left her to our ministrations. This dread of the poorhouse, the result of centuries of deterrent Poor Law administration, is so heartbreaking that the occupants of the County Infirmary themselves seem scarcely less wretched than those who are making their last stand against this fate.

Neglected Old Age

One summer, when I had served as a member of a public commission to report upon the conditions of the County Institutions, I found myself perpetually distressed by the unnecessary idleness and forlornness of the old women there, many of whom I had known in the years when activity was still a necessity, and when they yet felt bustlingly important. To take away from an old woman whose life has been spent in household cares all the foolish little belongings to which her affections cling, and to which her very fingers have become accustomed, is to take away her last incentive to activity -- almost to life itself. To give an old woman only a chair and a bed, to leave her no cupboard in which her treasures may be stowed, not only that she may take them out when she desires occupation, but that her mind may dwell upon them in moments of revery, is to reduce living almost beyond the limit of human endurance. Frau S--, who clung so desperately to her chest of drawers, was really clinging to the last remnant of normal living -- a symbol of all she was asked to renounce.

For several years after this investigation, each summer I invited five or six old women to take a two weeks' vacation from the poorhouse, to which they most eagerly and even gaily responded. Almost all the old men in the County Infirmary wander away each summer, taking their chances for finding food or shelter, and return much refreshed by the tramp; but the old women cannot do this unless they have some help from the outside, and yet the expenditure of a very little money secures for them the coveted vacation. I found that a few [image AN ITALIAN WOMAN WAITING IN THE RECEPTION ROOM IN HULL-HOUSE] [page 3] pennies paid their carfare into town, a dollar a week procured a lodging with an old acquaintance, and assured of two good meals a day in the Hull-House Coffee House, they could count upon numerous cups of tea among old friends, to whom they would airily state that they hadn't yet made up their minds about going "in" again.


Walt Whitman says somewhere that the mother of a large family is one of the surest sources of wisdom, and certainly the reminiscences of these old women, their shrewd comment upon life, their sense of having reached a point where they may at last speak freely with nothing to lose because of their frankness, makes them often the most delightful of companions. I recall one of my guests, the mother of many scattered children, whose one bright spot through all the dreary years had been the wedding feast of her son Mike, a feast which had become transformed through long meditation into the nectar and ambrosia of the very gods. As a farewell fling before she went "in" again, we dined together upon chicken pie, but it did not taste like that of Mike's wedding, and she was disappointed, after all.

Even death itself sometimes fails to bring the dignity and serenity which one would fain associate with old age. I recall the dying hour of one old Scotch woman whose long struggle to "keep respectable" had so embittered her that her last words were gibes and taunts for those who were trying to minister to her. "So you came in yourself this morning, did you? You only sent things yesterday. I guess you knew when the doctor was coming. Don't try to warm my feet with anything but that old jacket that I've got there; it belonged to my boy who was drowned at sea nigh thirty years ago, but it's warmer yet with human feelings than any of your confounded charity hot-water bottles." Suddenly the harsh gasping voice was stilled in death, and I awaited the doctor's coming, shaken and horrified.

Loneliness in the City

Harsh traits are often developed by the solitary life which many of the old people have led for years before their feebleness compels them to seek aid, which in itself bring human intercourse.

We are beginning to realize that there is a certain danger to the individual who ventures to live in a city if he fails to establish some sort of genuine relationship with the people who so closely surround him. We are all more or less familiar with the results of isolation in rural districts. The Bronte sisters have portrayed the hideous immortality and savagery of the remote dwellers on the bleak moorlands of northern England, Miss Wilkins has written of the over-developed will of the solitary New Englander, but the tales still wait to be written concerning the isolated city dweller. In addition to the lonely young man recently come to town, and the country family who have not yet made their connection, are many other people who, because of temperament, or from an estimate of themselves which will not permit them to make friends with the "people around here," or who because they are victims of a combination of circumstances, live a life as lonely and untouched by the city about them as if they [page 4] [image MISS JANE ADDAMS DURING THE FIRST YEAR OF HULL-HOUSE] were in the remote country districts. The very fact that it requires an effort to preserve an isolation from the tenement house life which flows all about them makes the character stiffer and harsher than mere country isolation could do. As I write, many instances come to my mind. Perhaps the most striking illustration of the first is the little faded, ladylike hair dresser who came and went to her work for twenty years, carefully concealing her dwelling place from "other people in the shop," moving whenever they seemed too curious about it and priding herself that no neighbor had ever "stepped inside her door." Unremitting asthma brought her low at last, and she craved friendly offices, but to the end boasted of the isolation she had maintained.

Another is a woman who made a long effort to conceal the poverty resulting from her husband's inveterate gambling and to secure for her children the educational advantages to which her family had always been accustomed. Her five children are now all university graduates, and even they do not realize how hard and solitary was her early married life. She, however, has come to regret the isolation in which her children were reared, and believes that more companionship in childhood would have made it easier for them later to make friends among their fellow students.

The Miracle of Affection

As neglected old age and the loneliness born of pride fills one with strange reflections, so [page 5] [image COMING HOME FROM THE HULL-HOUSE NURSERY] there are other experiences which also give one food for thought. Hull-House from its earliest years sustained a day nursery, first in a little cottage on a side street and then in one of our own buildings called the Children's House. This day nursery brought us into natural relations with the poorest women of the neighborhood, many of whom were bearing the burden of dissolute and incompetent husbands in addition to the support of their children. Some of them presented an impressive manifestation of that affection which outlives abuse, neglect and crime; affection which cannot be plucked from the heart where it has lived, although remaining only to torture and torment.

I recall a woman who had supported her three children for five years, during which time her dissolute husband constantly demanded money for drink and kept her perpetually worried and intimidated. One Saturday, before the "blessed Easter," he came back from a long debauch, ragged and filthy, but in a state of lachrymose repentance. The poor wife received him as a returned prodigal, believed that his remorse would prove lasting, and felt sure that if she and the children went to church with him on Easter Sunday, and he could be induced to take the pledge before the priest, all their troubles would be ended. After hours of vigorous effort and the expenditure of all her [page 6] [image A CABBAGE GLEANER IN HULL-HOUSE ALLEY] savings, he finally sat on the front doorstep the morning of Easter Sunday, bathed, shaved and arrayed in a fine new suit of clothes. She left him sitting there in the reluctant spring sunshine while she finished washing and dressing the children. When she finally opened the front door with the three shining children that they might all set forth together, the returned prodigal had disappeared and was not seen again until midnight, when he came back in a glorious state of intoxication from the proceeds of his pawned clothes and clad once more in the dingiest attire. She took him in without comment, only to begin again the wretched cycle. There were of course instances of the criminal husband as well as of the one who was merely vicious. I recall one woman who, during seven years, never missed a visiting day at the Penitentiary when she might see her husband. Her little children in the nursery proudly reported the messages from father with no notion that he was in disgrace, so absolutely did they reflect the gallant spirit of their mother.

When the Mothers Support the Family

While one was filled with admiration for these heroic women, something was also to be said for some of the husbands, for the sorry men who, for one reason or another, had failed in [page 7] the struggle of life. Sometimes this failure was purely economic, and the men were able to give to the children, whom they could not support, the care and guidance and even education which were of the highest value. Only a few months ago I met upon the street one of the early nursery mothers, who for six years had been living in another part of the town, and, in response to my query as to the welfare of her five children, she bitterly replied, "All of them except Mary have been arrested at one time or another, thank you." In response to my surprise that her husband had lost control over them, she burst out: "That has been the whole [image A TYPICAL TENEMENT IN THE VICINITY OF HULL-HOUSE] trouble. I got tired taking care of him and didn't believe that his laziness was all due to his health, so I left him when I moved away from here; I said that I would support the children, but not him. From that minute the trouble with the four boys began. I never knew what they were doing and after every sort of scrape I finally put Jack and the twins into institutions where I pay for them. Joe has gone to work at last, but with a disgraceful record behind him. I tell you, I am not so sure that because a woman can make big money, as I've done, that she can be both father and mother to the children."

As I walked on, I could but wonder in which particular we are most stupid, to judge a man's worth so solely by his wage-earning capacity, or in holding fast to that wretched delusion that a woman can both support and nurture her children.

One of the most piteous revelations of the futility of the latter attempt came to me through the mother of "Goosie," as the children for years called a little boy who, because he was brought to the nursery wrapped up in his mother's shawl, always had his hair filled with the down and small feathers from the feather brush factory where she worked. One March morning, Goosie's mother was hanging out the washing on a shed roof at six o'clock, doing it thus early before she left for the factory. Five-year-old Goosie was trotting at her heels, handing her clothespins, when he was suddenly blown off the roof by the high wind into the alley below. His neck was broken by the fall and, as he lay piteous and limp on a pile of frozen refuse, his mother cheerily called to him to "climb up again," so confident do overworked mothers become that their children cannot get hurt. After the funeral, as the poor mother sat in the nursery postponing the moment when she must go back to her empty rooms, I asked her, in a futile effort to be of comfort, if there was anything more we could [page 8] do for her. The overworked, sorrow-stricken woman looked up and, with unwonted energy in her voice, replied, "If you could give me my wages for tomorrow, I would not go to work in the factory at all. I would like to stay at home all day and hold the baby. Goosie was always asking me to take him and I never had any time." This statement revealed the condition of many nursery mothers who are obliged to forego the joys and solaces which are supposed to belong to even the most poverty-stricken. The long hours of factory labor necessary for earning the support of a child leave little time for caressing.

With all of the efforts made by modern society to nurture and educate the young, how stupid it is to permit the mothers of young children to spend themselves in the coarser work of the world! It is curiously inconsistent with the emphasis which this generation has placed upon the prolongation of infancy that we constantly allow the waste of this most precious material. I cannot recall without indignation a recent experience. I was detained late one evening in an office building by a prolonged committee meeting of the Board of Education. As I came out at eleven o'clock I met in the corridor of the fourteenth floor a woman whom I knew, on her knees scrubbing the marble tiling. As she straightened up to greet me, she seemed so wet from her feet to her chin that I hastily inquired the cause. Her reply was that she left home at five o'clock every night and had no opportunity for six hours to nurse her baby. Her mother's milk mingled with the very water with which she scrubbed the floors until she should return at midnight, heated and exhausted, to feed her screaming child with what remained within her breasts.

These are only a few of the problems connected with the lives of the poorest people with whom the residents in a Settlement are constantly brought in contact. They gradually learn that as city regulation has often proved the shortest method to neighborhood improvement, so in the line of charity much time is profitably spent in working for the civil service method of appointment for employees in the county and state institutions, for the establishment of state colonies for the care of epileptic and tuberculosis patients, and for a dozen other enterprises which occupy the borderland between charitable effort and legislation. For it is this borderland which more and more seems to belong legitimately to the modern philanthropist, who so quickly sees that private beneficence is inadequate to deal with the vast numbers of the city's disinherited. One also comes to realize that public authority alone deals with a certain aspect of life from which every individual or private organization shrinks. The one aspect of the municipality as an instrument of corporate responsibility toward the weakest members of the community was unforgettably borne in upon me during the small-pox epidemic following the World's Fair. Mrs. Kelley, as State Factory Inspector, was much concerned in finding and ordering destroyed the clothing being finished in houses containing unreported cases of smallpox, and the deputy most successful in locating such cases lived at Hull-House during the epidemic, because he did not wish to expose his family. Miss Lathrop, as a member of the State Board of Charities, was constantly going back and forth to the crowded pest houses which had been hastily constructed on a stretch of prairie west of the city. As Hull-House was already so exposed, it seemed best for the special smallpox inspectors from the Board of Health to take their meals and to change their clothing there before they went to their respective homes. It was very impressive that all of these officials had accepted without question the obligation to carry on the dangerous and difficult undertakings for which private philanthropy is unfitted.

Those wards in the county hospital containing the wrecks of vicious living are another example of an agency which we are often obliged to use, and which the public alone provides. I have heard a broken-hearted mother exclaim, when her erring daughter came home at last, too broken and diseased to be taken into the family she had disgraced, "There is no place for her but the top floor in the county hospital. They will have to take her there," and this only after every possible expedient had been tried or suggested. Are we building up a commonalty of compassion more comprehending than any individual or group of individuals within the bounds of the commonwealth?

During our second winter on Halsted Street one of the Hull-House residents received an appointment from the Cook County agent as a county visitor. She reported at the agency each morning, and all the cases within a radius of several blocks from Hull-House were given to her for investigation. This gave her a legitimate opportunity for knowing the poorest people in the neighborhood, and also for understanding the county method of "outdoor relief." The commissioners were at first dubious of the value of such a visitor, and predicted that a woman would be a perfect "coal chute" for giving away county supplies, but they gradually [page 10] came to depend more and more upon her suggestion and advice.

In 1893 this same resident, Miss Julia C. Lathrop, was appointed by the governor as a member of the Illinois State Board of Charities. She served in this capacity for two consecutive terms and was later reappointed by the present governor to two terms more. Perhaps her most valuable contribution toward the enlargement and reorganization of the charitable institutions of the state came through her intimate knowledge of the experiences of the beneficiaries, and possibly it was only through long residence among the poor that she could have learned to view public institutions from the standpoint of the inmates rather than from that of the managers.

The Working Child

The residents of a Settlement have come to realize the need of industrial legislation from the same sort of untoward experience, and from their growing consciousness that individual effort is utterly impotent before the problems of unrequited labor. The first Christmas at Hull-House, when as yet none of us had had personal experience with child labor, a number of little girls refused the candy which was offered them as part of the Christmas good cheer, saying simply that they "worked in a candy factory and could not bear the sight of it." During the Christmas rush they had worked from seven in the morning until nine at night, and they were exhausted as well as satiated. Thus the consciousness of stern economic conditions made itself felt, even in moments when it was least welcomed.

I remember three boys in succession who were injured at one machine in a neighboring factory for the lack of a guard which would have cost but a few dollars. We were totally impotent to insist that the machine should be properly guarded, or that little boys should not be employed, for there was no law in the state relating to either situation. When the injury of one of these boys resulted in his death, we felt quite sure that the owners of the factory would share our horror and remorse, and that they would do everything possible to prevent the recurrence of such a tragedy. To our surprise they did nothing whatever, and I made my first acquaintance then with those pathetic documents signed by the parents of working children, that they will make no claim for damages resulting from "carelessness."

There was, of course, a constant tendency to employ children in sweat-shop work, since much of the home finishing could easily be done by them. I remember a little girl of four who pulled out basting threads hour after hour, sitting on a stool at the feet of her Bohemian mother, a little bunch of human misery.

During those early years we also knew a number of young girls who were constantly being exhausted by night work, for whatever may be said in defense of night work for men, few women are able to endure it. A man who works by night sleeps regularly by day, but a woman finds it impossible to put aside the household duties which crowd upon her, and a conscientious girl finds it hard to sleep with her mother washing and scrubbing within a few feet of her bed. One of the most painful impressions of those first years is that of pale, listless girls who worked regularly in a huge factory of the vicinity which was then running full night-time. These girls also encountered a special danger in the early morning hours as they returned from work, debilitated and exhausted, and only too easily convinced that a drink and a little dancing at the end of the balls in the saloon dance halls was what they needed to brace them.

One of the girls whom we then knew, whose name Chloe seemed to fit her delicate charm, had thus been decoyed into a saloon. She craved a drink to dispel her lassitude before her tired feet should carry her the long walk home, but the soft drink was followed by an alcoholic one containing "knockout drops" and she awoke in a disreputable rooming house too frightened and disgraced to return to her mother.

We were confronted by that old conundrum of the interdependence of matter and spirit, for the conviction was forced upon us that long and exhausting hours of work are almost sure to be followed by lurid and exciting pleasures, that the moral life is curiously wrapped up with physical stamina, and that the power to overcome temptation reaches its limit almost automatically with that of physical resistance.

Passing the First Factory Laws

The first legislation designed to control the aggression of the captains of industry who are at once the product and the masters of our times could not take place without stress and resistance, marked by dramatic episodes and revolts, and the odium of the earliest attempts to modify the activities of the manufacturers in the interest of the health of their employees, and of the welfare of the state, became associated with Hull-House, both in its inception and in its administration.

Both associations came about quite naturally. Mrs. Florence Kelley, an early resident of Hull-House [page 11] was engaged by the Illinois State Bureau of Labor to investigate the sweating system in Chicago, a subject which she herself had suggested to the Bureau as one upon which no statistical information was available. The report brought a special commission from the legislature to look into the matter, and the recommendations of this committee resulted in the passage of the first factory law for Illinois, which dealt largely with the sanitary conditions of the sweat-shop and the regulation of the age at which a child might be permitted to work, and contained a clause limiting the hours of women in factories and workshops to eight a day. The measure received much less opposition in the legislature than was anticipated, although, of course, many forces combined to secure its passage, notably the trades unions throughout the state. When it became a law Mrs. Kelley was appointed the first factory inspector, with a deputy and ten inspectors to enforce it. She and her deputy continued to live at Hull-House, and her office was located only across the street. Although through this first factory act Illinois was but coming into line with the nations of the modern industrial world, each one of which "has long been obliged to protect the child, the young person and the woman from their own weakness and necessity, if only to preserve the workers by which it lives," the entire experience of this first industrial legislation of Illinois left on my mind a distrust of all legislation which was not preceded by full discussion and understanding. A premature measure may be carried through a legislature by perfectly legitimate means and still fail to possess validity and a sense of maturity. On the other hand, the administration of an advanced law acts as a referendum. The people have an opportunity for two years to see the effects of its operation. If they choose to reopen the matter at the next General Assembly, it can be discussed with experience and conviction. Founded upon some such compunction, the sense that the passage of the Child Labor Law would in many cases work hardship was never absent from my mind during the earliest years of its operation. I addressed as many mother's meetings and clubs among working women as I could, in order to make clear the object of the law and the ultimate benefit to themselves, as well as to their children. I am happy to remember that I never met with lack of understanding among the women themselves, although many prosperous people contended that poor widows would suffer severely as a result of the law. One hard-working mother would say, "Why, of course, that is what I am working for, to give the children a chance. I want them to have more education than I had," or another, "That is why we came to America, and I don't want to spoil his start, even though his father is dead," or, "It's different in America. A boy gets left if he isn't educated." There was always a willingness, even among the poorest widows, to keep on with the hard night scrubbing or the long days of washing for the children's sake.

The bitterest opposition to the law came from the large glass manufacturers, who were so accustomed to use the labor of children that they were convinced that business could not go on without it. Fifteen years ago Chicago exhibited many characteristics of the pioneer town in which untrammeled energy and an "early start" were still the most highly prized generators of success.

Trades Unions and Sewing Trades

During the long study of the sweating system which preceded the passage of the first law designed to control it, followed by many years of residence in a neighborhood in which unskilled women of various nationalities find their first work in "home finishing," my memory points to the conclusion that the victims of the pauper-producing wages in the seasonal and irregulated sewing trades have been best helped through the use of the label when unions of specialized workers in the trade are strong enough to insist that the manufacturers shall "give out work" only to those holding union cards. It was certainly impressive when the garment makers themselves in this way finally succeeded in organizing six hundred of the Italian women in our immediate vicinity who had finished garments at home for the most wretched and precarious wages. To be sure, the most ignorant woman only knew that "you couldn't get clothes to sew" from the places where they paid the best unless you "had a card," but through the veins of most of them there pulsed the quickened blood of a new fellowship, a sense of comfort and aid which had been held out to them by their fellow workers.

As I review these very first impressions of the workers in an unskilled industry, living in a depressed quarter of the city, I realize how easy it was for us to see exceptional cases of hardship as typical of the average lot. Nevertheless, a sentence I read many years ago in Tolstoy's "What to Do," in spite of modern labor legislation and ameliorating philanthropy, might still be applied to every American city:

"Wherever we may live, if we draw a circle [page 12] around us of a hundred thousand or a thousand or even of ten miles' circumference, and look at the lives of those men and women who are inside our circle, we shall find half-starved children, old people, pregnant women, sick and weak persons, working beyond their strength, who have neither food nor rest enough to support them, and who, for this reason, die before their time; we shall see others, full-grown, who are injured and even killed by dangerous and hurtful tasks."

The entire experience in a Settlement has made nothing more obvious than that justice in industrial relationship will have to be established with the same care and patience which has been necessary for centuries in order to approximate it in men's civic relationships. As the sense of the perplexity and difficulty in attaining public morality grows, the conviction depends that it will not be stable until it has received the sanction of those upon whom it presses hardest. Upon the "inner consent" of the humblest man "the mystery of justice," as Maeterlinck tells us, must ultimately depend.

That a Settlement is drawn into the labor issues of its city can seem remote to its purpose only to those who fail to realize that, so far as the present industrial system thwarts our ethical demands, not only for social righteousness but for social order, a Settlement is committed to an effort to understand and, as far as possible, to alleviate it. That in this effort it should be drawn into fellowship with trades unions is most obvious. This identity of aim apparently commits the Settlement in the public mind to all the faiths and works of actual trades unions. Fellowship has so long implied similarity of creed that the fact that the Settlement often differs widely from the policy pursued by trades unionists, and clearly expresses that difference, does not in the least change public opinion in regard to its identification. This is especially true in periods of industrial disturbance, although it is exactly at such moments that the trades unionists themselves are apt to look askance at Settlements. The reaction of strikes upon the Chicago Settlements affords an interesting study in social psychology, for, identified or not with a particular strike when "labor" is in disgrace, the Settlements always share the opprobrium.

There is, however, a certain comfort in the assumption I often encountered, that, wherever one's judgement might place the justice of a given situation, it is understood that one's sympathy is not alienated by wrongdoing, and that through this sympathy one is still subject to vicarious suffering. I recall an incident during a turbulent Chicago strike which brought me much comfort. On the morning of a luncheon to which I had accepted an invitation, the waitress, whom I did not know, said to my prospective hostess that she was sure I could not come. Upon being asked for her reason she replied that she had seen in the morning paper that the strikers had killed a "scab," and she was sure that I would feel quite too badly about such a thing to be able to keep a social engagement. In spite of the confused issues she evidently realized my chagrin over the violence in a strike quite as definitely as if he had been told about it.

Perhaps that sort of suffering and the attempt to interpret opposing forces to each other will long remain a function of the Settlement, unsatisfactory and difficult as the rôle often becomes.

In the next issue of this magazine, Miss Addams, will write about The Resources of the Immigrant.

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