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Social Work

"In our work in Hull House we have steadily grown in tolerance, until we have sometimes had to ask ourselves if we are not in danger of going too far and of reaching that optimism which will accept every thing as good-–and that is a very useless and dangerous optimism. Yet we are convinced that there is a latent force, a creative power in the people themselves with whom we deal, which will come out if it only has a chance."- Jane Addams, “The Friendship of Settlement Work”, March 28, 1903

Formal systems of charitable work existed in the United States even before the Revolutionary War, providing services to help the less fortunate, the poor, widows and orphans, the mentally ill, and others. The bulk of this work was organized privately, through churches, and other charitable organizations. The Civil War spawned the creation of large-scale charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross.

After the Civil War, there was a much greater need for social work programs due to rapid changes in American society. The emancipation of slaves, influx of immigrants, and industrialization spurred urban crowding and in some cases, extreme poverty. Charitable work, which often relied on a close knowledge of the poor, was unable to meet the need. Charity workers often relied on moral or behavioral strictures in order to decide who should be helped, dividing the poor into categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” of help. Religious affiliation was also a factor, where charities preferred to help their own, leaving many new immigrants without a source of assistance. This mindset began to change with the start of the settlement movement.

The settlement movement originally began in England in 1884 with the creation of Toynbee Hall. The idea was that educated middle-class people would move to working class communities to bring together a “colony of learning.” The movement then moved to America, where it appealed to first generation women college graduates looking for a role outside of the home. Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the Hull-House settlement in the west side of Chicago, Illinois in 1889. At first, Hull-House offered educational programs centered on reading and the arts, but they listened to their neighbors and addressed their needs. They soon opened up a kindergarten and nursery for low income mothers,  provided free lectures from university professors, and free Home Economics classes as well. Hull-House eventually became a center in the community, offering countless educational and social resources to all irregardless of national origin, religion or economic status.

In the "Friendship of Settlement Work," Jane Addams wrote that it was crucial to know the individuals you wanted to help. Each  individual had their own situations, challenges, needs, and beliefs, and there were often reasons for their actions. She did not see them in terms of “deserving” or “undeserving.” Trust, she said, was crucial to forming bridges between people from different walks of life. Hull-House gave immigrants and workers a safe place to enjoy cultural events and congregate, and acted as a bridge between the upper middle-class and the working class. Hull-House also helped immigrants navigate a daunting American culture and society. Hull-House helped immigrants understand how the government functioned, and offered citizenship and English-language classes, which translated into job skills.

Suggested primary sources:

Addams, Jane, “The New Social Spirit, December 1902,” Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Addams, Jane and Hull-House, “First Report of the Labor Museum at Hull House, 1902,” Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Suggested subjects:

Addams, Jane, and Hull-House

Addams, Jane, and settlement movement

Addams, Jane, relationship with Hull-House neighbors

Addams, Jane, views on social work

charitable works

Chicago, charitable work in

Hull-House, atmosphere

Hull-House, organization of

settlements, founding

social work

Additional resources:

Hansan, John E. Settlement Houses: An Introduction, Virginia Commonwealth University, Social Welfare History Project 

Paul, Catherine. Jane Addams (1860-1935) Virginia Commonwealth University, Social Welfare History Project 

Scheuer, Jeffrey. Origins of the Settlement House Movement  Virginia Commonwealth University, Social Welfare History Project 

Tannenbaum, Nilli and Michael Reisch. From Charitable Volunteers to Architects of Social Welfare: A Brief History of Social Work, University of Michigan School of Social Work.

People associated with social work

Organizations associated with social work

Photo credit

Hull-House, ca. 1910. New York Public Library.