THE HULL-HOUSE LABOR MUSEUM
I feel that the word "museum" is a very large word to apply to our little experiment at Hull-House, although I was naturally very proud to be asked to represent it, with the other museums, in this conference. We opened it perhaps ten years ago in the desire to bring together the immigrant parents and their Americanized children. No one knows unless he lives in an immigrant district and acquires their point of view, how wide the gulf is apt to be between the experiences of the parents who come from the Old World and the children who are born and brought up in America.
In the first place most of them come from the country to the city. Take the south Italians, nine out of every ten of the families who come to Chicago have lived in the country. That in itself is a very difficult adjustment for a grown-up person to make. Then, of course, they come from their own customs, from their own ways of living, from their own foods, from their own occupations, into those of another country; and are surrounded by a people of quite another language and quite another tradition. They have a hard time, but I think never so hard a time as when they feel that their own children are slipping away from them and more or less perhaps -- despising them is too strong a word, but at any rate wishing that they were like Americans and not quite so unlike all the people around them.
The parents tell us sometimes how they feel. More often they do not formulate it, but it is not difficult to guess. This Labor Museum of ours was an attempt to bridge over, as best we might, some of the experiences that the parents had in the old country [page 2] with the very unlike experiences the children were having in America. We began naturally with industries because they were the things that the people could do most easily; the things that would interpret them most directly to their own children and to other Americans. We have a little textile department; perhaps I may confine my illustration to that because it is the most obvious one, the one which has worked out most easily. The mothers knew how to spin and weave and dye and full and reel and use all the things employed in making textiles when they were in the old country. Here the children were working in sewing factories, in sweat shops many of them, with no notion that the goods which they were handling had any connection with anything except a downtown store. They got the goods in the factory, took it home, and made it up; or went down to the factory and did their work; and that was the end of it. The things that they were handling all day did not seem in the least to touch them or any experience in their parents' lives.
But when we could get the Italian women or the Greek women to spin with the spindle and to put into operation four or five methods of spinning, we began to have a thing that was very interesting to people in the schools and that gradually became interesting to the children of the immigrants. When they saw the University ladies, as they like to call the people from the School of Education, standing up and looking at the women spinning in this way, and when they found out that this was a matter of great interest and admiration, of course they began to look at it a little differently. And when we were able to show the connection of this method of producing textiles, both with some of the experiences the parents had in the old country, and with the [page 3] very goods the children were handling here, they began to see that there was a vital interest, a real interest between themselves and their parents.
Now we have gone on in other arts; we have done something with pottery, something with metals, something with wood; but nothing has stuck quite so readily as the textiles. The women enjoy it very much; they like the prestige that it gives them but they like perhaps more than anything else the respect that it induces their children to pay to the things they can do. After all, if you have always washed in the stream and not in a tub, if you have always woven your garments and not gone to a ready-made clothing store to buy them, you find yourself very much at sea when you have to change all these habits. And some one who comes in with a little story of understanding, who helps straighten out the tangle for you and makes you feel, not as if you were all alone in a new, strange place, but as if you had some connection with it that goes back to your mother or to your grandmother, does bring some solace to your weary and perturbed soul. We see that the Labor Museum has done that for some of the people; we think it has suggested it to many more people; and we know that it has made the children look upon their parents in a different light.
A curious thing is that some women who have come from South Russia or from parts of Italy have never seen a spinning-wheel. They have always used a straight stick spindle, or distaff. If you go to the Art Institute you will see pictures of it. All the wool that was spun into anything had to be spun by that stick spindle. They never knew any other method until they came to the buying of ready-made clothing. It is a tremendous jump from the stick spindle, which was used by the mother or the daughter, I have no doubt, when David tended his [page 4] sheep, to the ready-made clothing store; it is leaping over a good many centuries of development. And if it can be bridged, as we are trying somewhat gently to bridge it, I think that something has been done from the human standpoint, if not from the museum standpoint.
Then the children of course are very much interested in different materials. We have a little collection of flags, wool, silk and cotton; and the children who sew or do dressmaking are taught something of the material they are handling. And this again is put back into the experiences of their parents. A little chart we have shows the long years in which the stick spindle was used, up to the fifteenth century in Europe; the very short three hundred years when the spinning-wheel was used in Europe, and then the very short century since steam has been applied to textile manufacturing. And when we look about us and see that great adjustment which the textile industry displays, the tremendous sacrifice and difficulties at Fall River, the tremendous difficulties we have had in our own city this year, in regard to the making of clothing, one can be a little solaced by this point of view, that after all it is new; that we have not yet adjusted ourselves to it, and that after we have used steam in the making of textiles for a thousand years or two thousand years, as they used the stick spindle, perhaps we shall get the same beauty and order. At any rate, until we do get that, there is no use throwing aside all the beauty, order, and charm which the stick spindle preserves. Sometimes we get a little sentimental about this. I remember the other evening that a Greek woman was spinning in the museum, and a young Greek was looking wistfully on. I said, "I suppose this reminds you of [page 5] your mother." He said, "Yes; I don't like to look at a stick spindle; she always beat me with it." So perhaps there is another side to the whole story. At any rate we think that there is a charm about it to which people quickly respond.