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This has come about because the immigrants were crowded into insanitary tenements of the sort no on else would endure. They did not know enough to complain about them; they did not know how to reach the board of health. They could only be helped by people of public spirit, who knew the rights of the tenants, and who were ready to secure those rights for the maladjusted tenants. These public-spirited people in turn could only carry forward the reform with the constant cooperation of the people living in the tenement houses. -- Jane Addams, Immigrants and American Charity, Oct. 24, 1905.

Hull-House didn’t start charity and welfare work in the United States, but it revolutionized it. There are records of formal systems of charity and welfare work existing in the United States before the Revolutionary War. Practices included services to help those who are less fortunate: the poor, orphans and other children, widows, wounded soldiers, the crippled and mentally ill. In the 19th century, states created their own social welfare systems, although they were often ineffective.Instead, private organizations such as churches, charitable societies and other organizations provided most of what today we would call social services.During the Civil War the need for assistance was on such a scale that large, national organizations, such as the Red Cross were formed..

After the Civil War, there was a much greater need for social work programs as a reaction to rapid changes in the United States. The emancipation of slaves, influx of immigrants, and industrialization spurred more activism in social work. Rather than work to understand the difficulties of the lives of the poor, many middle-class charity workers thought that poverty was a moral failing; the immoral became poor while the moral rose to respectability. Charities often lumped people into categories of “worthy” or “unworthy” of help. If the poor did not live up to the charity-giver’s moral guidelines, they would not get help. For instance, a Protestant charity would be reluctant to help Jewish or Catholic people seeking aid; if a woman’s house wasn’t up to the cleanliness standard that a charity worker expected, she might be refused aid.  

The settlement movement revolutionized the way that people thought about charity and social welfare. It approached the poor from a different perspective, and envisioned not charitable work, but social work. It began in 1884, with the founding of Toynbee Hall in London. The purpose was to bring together a “colony of learning” in poorer working class communities. The first settlement houses were created in London by Oxford and Cambridge graduates.Progressives in the United States took up the idea, which sought to research the causes of social problems in order to develop solutions. Jane Addams and Hull-House were the public face of the  settlement movement in America. Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded Hull-House in Chicago, Illinois in 1889. Hull-House was unique among settlements- it was not associated with a specific religion, and while it welcomed both male and female residents, the leadership positions were held be a cadre of college-educated women. Hull-House was also special because it had Jane Addams, the best-known woman reformer in the United States. In its first few years, Hull-House offered education and creative programs in reading and the arts. But Addams listened to the needs of her neighbors and worked to understand the challenges they faced. Hull-House soon opened a kindergarten and nursery to help low income working mothers. It held free lectures from university professors and others on topics ranging from history, labor organization, and home economics.. Hull-House quickly became a community center, offering social services, advice, and encouragement to its neighbors.

Jane Addams believed that in order to help people, you needed to understand them. With an upper-class background and college education, she did not share the same experiences as the men and women who lived in her neighborhood. Working with them, instead of for them, Addams used the knowledge gained to work for social change that would improve their lives. Addams rejected the old charitable definitions of “deserving” and “undeserving” and reformed the system to create a welcoming environment for everyone. Trust, she said, was crucial in forming bridges between people from entirely different walks of life. Hull-House gave immigrants and workers a safe zone to enjoy cultural events and congregate, and acted as a bridge between the upper class and the lower class. Hull-House also provided immigrants with the tools to navigate a daunting American society. Hull-House helped immigrants understand American culture, how the American government functions, and offered citizenship and English-language classes, which was a unique and extremely valuable skill set to have at the time.

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Photo Citation:

Jane Addams Collection, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.