Jane Addams' Own Story of Her Work: Fifteen Years at Hull House (First of Three Installments), March 1906

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Jane Addams's Own Story of Her Work
Fifteen Years at Hull House
By Jane Addams

I have been asked many times to recall, if possible, my first impulse or determination to live among poor people and I have always found myself at a loss for a reply. On the theory, however, that our genuine impulses may be traced to childish experiences, that one's bent may be tracked back to that No-Man's Land where character is formless, but, nevertheless, settling into definite lines of future development, I may be permitted to instance three experiences of possible significance.

One was at the Age of Six when I drove with my father on an errand through the poorer quarter of a neighboring town. Before that day I had always seen the little city of ten thousand people with the admiring eyes of a country child, and it had never occurred to me that all its streets were not as bewilderingly attractive as the one which contained the glittering toyshop and the confectioner. On that day I had my first sight of the poverty which implies squalor, and felt the curious distinction between the ruddy poverty of the country and that which even a small city presents in its shabbiest streets. I remember launching at my father the pertinent inquiry why people lived in such horrid little houses so close together, and I recall that after receiving his explanation I declared with much firmness when I grew up I should, of course, have a large house but that it would not be built among the other large houses but right in the midst of horrid little houses like these. He replied that it was a good idea, and he hoped I would keep to it.

I remember another occasion when as a little girl of eight years, arrayed in a new cloak, gorgeous beyond anything I had ever worn before, I stood before my father for his approval. I was much chagrined by his remark that it was a very pretty cloak, in fact, so much prettier than any cloak the other little girls in the Sunday-School had, that he would advise me to wear my old cloak which would keep me quite as warm, with the added advantage of not making the other little girls feel badly. I complied with the request but I fear without the inner consent, and I was certainly quite without the joy of self-sacrifice as I walked soberly through the village street by the side of my counsellor. My mind was busy, however, with the old question eternally suggested by the "apparent inequalities of mankind." Only as we neared the church door did I venture to ask what could be done about it, receiving the reply that it might never be righted so far as clothes went, but that people could be equal in things that mattered much more than clothes, the affairs of education and religion, for instance, which we attended to when we went to school and church, and that it was very stupid to wear the sort of clothes that made it harder to have equality even there.

Another Moment Stands Out Clearly in My Mind. When I was barely twelve years old coming into my father's room one morning, I found him sitting beside the fire with a newspaper in his hand looking very solemn, and upon my eager inquiry what had happened, he told me that Joseph Mazzini was dead. I had never even heard Mazzini's name, and after being told about him was inclined to grow argumentative, asserting that my father did not know him, that he was not an American, and that I could not understand why we should be expected to feel badly about him. It is impossible to recall the conversation with the complete breakdown of my cheap arguments, but in the end I obtained that which I have regarded as a valuable possession, a sense of the genuine relationship which may exist between men who share large hopes and like desires, even though they differ in nationality, language and creed; that those things count for absolutely nothing between groups of men who are trying to abolish slavery in America or to throw off Hapsburg oppression in Italy. At any rate, I was heartily ashamed of my [meager] notion of patriotism and I came out of the room exhilarated with the consciousness that impersonal and international relations are actual facts and not mere phrases. I was filled with pride that I knew a man who held converse with great minds and who really sorrowed and rejoiced over happenings across the sea. I never recall these early conversations with my father nor a score of others like them but that there comes into my mind a line from Mrs. Browning in which a daughter describes her relations with her father,

"He wrapt his little daughter in his large
Man's doublet, careless did it fit or no."

Perhaps these early experiences laid that simple human foundation which is certainly essential for continuous living among the poor and may be connected with three propositions:

First, a genuine preference for residence in an industrial quarter to any other part of the city because it is interesting and makes the human appeal.

Second, a determination to equalize the opportunities for education and those best results of civilization upon which reasonable and goodly living rests, and which it is most unfair to make dependent upon economic position.

Third, a conviction, in the words of Canon Barnett, that the things that make men alike are finer and better than the things that keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated easily transcend the less essential differences of race, language, creed and tradition.

It Might be Fairer, However, to Throw Aside those earlier experiences in reply to "What influenced you to live in a settlement?" and to begin with a Saturday night when I received an ineradicable impression of East London, and also saw for the first time the overcrowded quarters of a great city at midnight. A small party of tourists were taken to the East End by a city missionary to witness the Saturday night sale of decaying vegetables and fruit which, owing to the Sunday laws of London, could not be sold until Monday, and, as they were beyond safekeeping, were disposed of at auction as late as possible on Saturday night. On Mile End Road, from the top of an omnibus which paused at the end of a dingy street lighted by only occasional flares of gas, we saw two huge masses of ill-clad people clamoring around two hucksters' carts. They were bidding their farthings and ha'-pennies for a vegetable held up by the auctioneer, which he at last scornfully flung, with a gibe for its cheapness, to the successful bidder. In the momentary pause only one man detached himself from the groups. He had bidden in a cabbage, and when it struck his hand, he instantly sat down on the curb, tore it with his teeth and hastily devoured it, unwashed and uncooked as it was. He and his fellows were types of the "submerged tenth," as our missionary guide told us, with some little satisfaction in the then new phrase, and he further added that so many of them could scarcely be seen in one spot save at this Saturday night auction, the desire for cheap food being apparently the one thing which could move them simultaneously. They were huddled into ill-fitting, cast-off clothing, the ragged finery which one sees only in East London. Their pale faces were dominated by that most unlovely of human expressions, the cunning and shrewdness of the bargain-hunter who starves if he cannot make a successful trade, and yet the final impression was not of ragged, tawdry clothing nor of pinched and sallow faces, but of myriads of hands, empty, pathetic, nerveless and workworn, showing white in the uncertain light of the street, and clutching forward for food which was already unfit to eat.

Perhaps nothing is so fraught with significance as the human hand, this oldest tool with which man has dug his way from savagery, and with which he is constantly groping forward. I have never since been able to see a number of hands held upward, even when they are moving rhythmically in a calisthenic exercise, or when they belong to a class of chubby children who wave them in eager response to a teacher's query, without a certain revival of this memory, a clutching at the heart which is but reminiscent of the despair and resentment which seized me then.

For the Following Weeks I Went about London almost furtively, afraid to look down narrow streets and alleys lest they disclose again this hideous human need and suffering. I carried with me for days at a time that curious surprise we experience when we first come back into the streets after days given over to sorrow and death; we are bewildered that the world should be going on as usual and unable to determine which is real, the inner pang or the outward seeming. In time all huge London came to seem unreal save the poverty in its East End. During the following two years on the continent, while I was irresistibly drawn to the poorer quarters of each city, nothing among the beggars of South Italy nor among the salt-miners of Austria carried with it the same conviction of sin which was conveyed by this momentary glimpse of an East London street. It was, of course, a most fragmentary and lurid view of the poverty of East London, quite as unfair, within its limits, as that recently presented by Jack London in his "Children of the Abyss." I should have been shown either less or more. I went away with no notion of the hundreds of men and women who had gallantly identified their fortunes with these empty-handed people, and who, in church and chapel, "relief works" and charities, were at least finding the anodyne of work. Our visit was made in November, 1883, the very year when the "Pall Mall Gazette" exposure started "The Bitter Cry of Outcast London" and the conscience of England was stirred as never before over this joyless city in the East End of its capital. Even then, vigorous and drastic plans were being discussed, and the London County Council had outlined its splendid program of municipal reform. Of all of these, however, I had heard nothing but the vaguest rumor.

I had gone abroad more or less an invalid. A spinal difficulty which had developed the year after I left college had interrupted a medical course, and for years had allowed me only a limited energy so that doubtless there was much nervous depression at the foundation of the preposterous conclusions which the midnight visit forced upon my mind.

At the Very Moment of Looking Down the East London street from the top of the omnibus, I had been sharply and painfully reminded of "The Vision of Sudden Death" which had confronted De Quincey one summer's night as he was being driven through rural England on a high mail-coach. Two absorbed lovers suddenly appear between the narrow, blossoming hedge-rows in the direct path of the huge vehicle which is sure to crush them to their death. De Quincey tries to send them a warning shout but finds himself unable to make a sound because his mind is hopelessly entangled in an endeavor to recall the exact lines from the Iliad which describe the great cry with which Achilles alarmed all Asia militant. Only after his memory responds is his will released from its momentary paralysis, and he rides on through the fragrant night with the horror of the escaped calamity thick upon him, but he also bears with him the consciousness that he had given himself over so many years to the acquisition of classic learning—that when suddenly called upon for a quick decision in the world of life and death he had been able to act only through literary suggestion. [page 2]

For Two Years in the Midst of My Distress over the poverty which, thus suddenly driven into my consciousness, had become to me the "Weltschmerz" as it were, there was mingled a sense of futility, of misdirected energy, the belief that the pursuit of cultivation would not in the end bring either solace or relief. I gradually reached a conviction that the first generation of college women had taken their learning too quickly, had departed too suddenly from the active, emotional life led by their grandmothers and great-grandmothers, that they had developed too exclusively the power of acquiring knowledge and of merely receiving impressions, that somewhere in the process of "being educated" they had lost that simple and almost automatic response to the human appeal, that old healthful reaction which results in activity from the mere presence of suffering or of helplessness, that educators have neglected what even the greatest modern apostle of culture admitted, that "Conduct and not culture is three-fourths of human life."

In the German and French pensions, which at least twenty-five years ago were crowded with American mothers and their daughters who had crossed the seas in search of culture, one often found the mother making real connection with the life about her, using her inadequate German with great fluency, gayly measuring the enormous sheet or exchanging recipes with the German Hausfrau, visiting impartially the nearest kindergarten and market, making an atmosphere of her own, hearty and genuine, as far as it went, in the house and on the street. On the other hand, her daughter was critical and uncertain of her linguistic acquirements, and only at ease when in the familiar receptive attitude afforded by the art gallery and the opera house. In the latter she was swayed and moved, appreciative of the power and charm of the music, intelligent as to the legend and poetry of the plot, finding use for her trained and developed powers as she sat "being cultivated" in the familiar atmosphere of the classroom which had, as it were, become sublimated and romanticized.

I Remember a Happy, Busy Mother who, complacent with the knowledge that her daughter daily devoted four hours to her music, looked up from her knitting to say, "If I had had your opportunities when I was young, my dear, I should have been a very happy girl. I always had musical talent, but such training as I had, foolish little songs and waltzes, and not time for half an hour's practice a day."

The mother did not dream of the sting her words left and that the sensitive girl appreciated only too well that her opportunities were fine and unusual, but she also knew that in spite of some facility and much good teaching she had no genuine talent and would never fulfill the expectations of her friends. She looked back upon her mother's girlhood with positive envy because it was so full of happy industry and the need for overcoming obstacles, with undisturbed opportunity to believe that her talents were unusual. The girl looked wistfully at her mother, but had not the courage to cry out what was in her heart, "I might believe I had unusual talent if I did not know what good music was; I might enjoy half an hour's practice a day if I were busy and happy the rest of the time. You do not know what life means when all the difficulties are removed! I am simply smothered and sickened with advantages. It is like eating a rich dessert the first thing in the morning."

This, then, was the difficulty, this rich dessert in the morning, and the assumption that the sheltered, educated girl has nothing to do with the bitter poverty, and the social maladjustment which is all about her, and which, after all, cannot be concealed, for it breaks through poetry and literature in a burning tide which overwhelms her, it peers at her in the form of heavy-laden market-women and underpaid street laborers, gibing her with a sense of her uselessness.

Gradually a Very Simple Plan grew up in my mind, to rent a house in a part of the city where many primitive and actual needs are found, in which young women who had been given over too exclusively to study might restore a balance of activity along traditional lines and learn of life from life itself, at least escaping the reproach of Tomlinson,

"Ye have read, ye have heard, ye have thought,…
...give answer—what ha' ye done?"

During the next five years, although I filled huge notebooks with quotations and reading lists, with conversations and observations bearing upon this slowly-developed plan, I do not remember to have mentioned it to any one until April, 1888, during a second journey abroad. I was in Madrid with a little party of old school friends, including Miss Ellen G. Starr. We had been to see a bull-fight rendered in the most magnificent Spanish style, where, greatly to my surprise and horror, I found myself so swept away in a spirit of adventure and contest that I had seen five bulls and many more horses killed, with comparative indifference. The sense that this was the last survival of all the glories of the ampitheatre, the illusion that the riders on the caparisoned horses might have been knights of a tournament, or the slightly-armed matador a gladiator facing his martyrdom, and all the rest of the obscure yet vivid associations which an historic survival always produces, had carried me beyond the endurance of any of the rest of the party. I finally met them in the foyer, stern and pale with disapproval of my brutal endurance, and but partially recovered from the faintness and disgust which the spectacle itself had produced upon them. I had no defense to offer to their reproaches save that I had not thought much about the bloodshed; but in the evening the natural and inevitable reaction came, and in deep chagrin I felt myself tried and condemned by the whole situation as it had been revealed by this disgusting experience. It was suddenly made quite clear to me that I had lulled my conscience for years by a dreamer's scheme, that a mere paper reform had become a defense for continued idleness, and that I had made it a raison d'être for going on indefinitely with study and travel. The possession of this plan had given me an excuse to seek relief from the cathedrals and churches in order to visit an occasional hospital or orphanage. It had made it seem necessary to study the beginning of early Christian Charity, and the changed attitude toward the slave and the poor which that wonderful group of Early Roman Christians represented, but in reality it made an excellent excuse for engaging an [archaeologist] to interpret the catacombs day after day, and it afforded me an opportunity to travel to Ravenna with the sense of an important commission. I had persuaded myself that I was studying the galleries in Italy and Germany to trace the intimation of the coming social change as it was set forth by Boticelli and Dürer, their canvases surcharged with pity for the downtrodden, and with longing for fuller human relations, while in reality I enjoyed the picture-galleries for themselves and for all they suggested. In short, I had become a dupe of a deferred purpose of

"The will that cannot itself awaken,
From the promise the future can never keep."

I Had Fallen Into the Meanest Type of self-deception in making myself believe that all this was in preparation of great things to come, and nothing less than the moral reaction following the experience at a bull-fight had been able to reveal to me that so far from following in the wake of a chariot of philanthropic fire, I had been tied to the tail of the veriest ox-cart of self-seeking. I remember repeating to myself the scathing words of Fader,

"I use my love of others for a gilding
To make myself more fair."

I made up my mind that next day, come what would, I would begin to carry out the plan if only by talking about it. I can well recall the stumbling and uncertainty with which I finally set it forth to Miss Starr, having that disheartening experience which is so apt to afflict our most cherished plans when they are at last divulged, when we suddenly feel that there is nothing there to talk about, and as the golden dream slips through our fingers we are left to wonder at our own fatuous belief. But gradually the comfort of her companionship, the vigor and enthusiasm which she brought to bear upon it, told both in the growth of the plan and upon the sense of its validity so that by the time we had reached the enchantment of the Alhambra the scheme had become convincing and tangible although still most hazy in detail.

A Month Later We Parted in Paris, Miss Starr to go back to Italy, and I to journey on to London to secure as many suggestions as possible from those wonderful places of which we had heard, Toynbee Hall and the People's Palace. So that it finally came about that in June, 1888, five years after my first visit in East London, I found myself at Toynbee Hall equipped not only with a letter of introduction from Canon Fremantle, but with high expectations and a certain belief that whatever perplexities and discouragement concerning the life of the poor were in store for me, I should at least know something at first hand and have the solace of daily activity. I had confidence that although life itself might contain many difficulties, the period of mere passive receptivity had come to an end, and I had at last finished with the everlasting "preparation for life," however ill-prepared I might be.

It was not until years afterward that I came upon [Tolstoy]'s phrase "the snare of preparation," which he insists we spread before the feet of young people, hopelessly entangling them in a curious inactivity at the very period of life when they are longing to construct the world anew and to conform it to their own ideals.

The Next January found Miss Starr and myself in Chicago searching for a neighborhood in which we might begin our plans, and also eager to win friends for them. In those days, however, we made no appeal for money, meaning to start only with our own slender resources although we were most anxious to secure public backing and understanding. From the very first the plan received courteous attention, and the discussion, while often skeptical, was always friendly even from such men as David Swing and Thomas Davidson. We went about the city with "attendance agents," as the officers of the compulsory education department were then called, with newspaper reporters, with city missionaries, indeed with any one whose duty or inclination took him into the crowded quarters of the city, always, however, keeping in mind that the Italian Colony must be accessible when a neighborhood should finally be selected because of our engaging experiences with that gifted and warm-hearted people in their own country.

One Sunday Afternoon on the way to a Bohemian mission in the carriage of one of its founders, we passed a fine old house standing well back from the street, surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza which was supported by wooden pillars of exceptionally pure Corinthian design and proportion. I was so attracted by the house that I set forth to visit it the very next day, but though I searched for it then and for several days after I could not find it for the simple reason that I always left Halsted Street, upon which it stood, a block north, and followed Blue Island Avenue into the Bohemian quarter. Finally I gave it up although most reluctantly.

Three weeks later, for various reasons and with the advice of several of the oldest residents of Chicago, including the ex-Mayor of the city, Colonel Mason, who had from the first been a warm friend to our plans, we decided upon a location somewhere near the junction of Blue Island Avenue, Halsted Street, and Harrison Street. I was surprised and overjoyed on the very first day of our search for quarters, to come upon the hospitable old house, the quest for which I had so recently abandoned. The house was, of course, rented, the lower part of it used for offices and storerooms in connection with a factory that stood back of it. However, after some difficulties were overcome, it proved to be possible to sub-let the second floor and what had been the large drawing-room on the first floor. During the summer some necessary repairs were made, and on September 18, 1889, Miss Starr and myself moved into it, with Miss Mary Keyser, who began by performing the housework, but who quickly developed into a very important factor in the life of the vicinity as well as in that of the household, and whose death five years later was most sincerely mourned by hundreds of our neighbors.

The house had been built by Mr. Charles J. Hull in 1856 for his homestead, and from the beginning lent itself most hospitably to our plans, as did its generous owner, Miss Helen Culver, who in the spring gave us a free leasehold of the entire house. Her kindness has continued through the years until the group of ten building, which at present comprises our eqiupment, is built upon the land Miss Culver has freely put at the service of the settlement which bears Mr. Hull's name. In those days the house stood between an undertaking establishment and a saloon, "Knight, Death, and the Devil" the three were called by a Chicago wit, and yet any mock heroics which might be contained in the word Knight quickly dropped away under the genuine kindness and hearty welcome extended to us by the families living up and down the street.

Our first resident guest was an interesting young woman who lived in a neighboring tenement, whose widowed mother aided her in the support of the family by scrubbing a downtown theatre every night. The mother, of foreign birth, was well-bred and carefully educated, but was in the midst of that bitter struggle which awaits so many strangers in American cities who find that their social position tends to be measured solely by the standard of living they are available to maintain. Our guest has long since married the struggling young lawyer to whom she was then engaged, and he is fast leading his profession in an Eastern city. She recalls that month's experience always with a sense of amusement over the fact that the succession of visitors who came to see the new settlement invariably questioned her most minutely concerning "those people" without once suspecting that they were talking to one who had been identified with the neighborhood from childhood. I at least was able to draw a lesson from the incident, and I never addressed a Chicago audience on the subject of the settlement and its vicinity without inviting a neighbor to go with me, that I might curb any hasty generalization by the consciousness that I had an auditor who knew the conditions more intimately than I could hope to.

Volunteers to the New Undertaking came quickly: a charming young girl, who conducted the kindergarten for two years in the drawing-room, which veritably became "a joyous centre for little children"; and an editor of an Italian paper, who made a genuine connection between the new venture and the Italian colony, not only with the Neapolitans and the Sicilians of the immediate neighborhood, but with the educated connazionali throughout the city, who contributed lectures and music towards the weekly receptions for Italians which were also attended by a little group of Italy-loving Americans.

Our "first resident" as she gayly designated herself, was a charming old lady who years before had lived at Brook Farm as a pupil of the Ripleys, and who came to us for ten days because she wished to live once more in an atmosphere where "Idealism ran high." She gave five consecutive readings from Hawthorne to a most appreciative audience, interspersing the magic tales most delightfully with recollections of the illusive and fascinating author. Our next resident was a young Englishman who stayed long enough to found the Social Science Club, which met once a week for seven years afterward to discuss social and political topics, and he also started us upon our first investigation of the housing condition between Halsted Street and the river. Thus perhaps these early activities forecast what the charter obtained five years later, when Hull House was incorporated, stated more formally:

"To provide a centre for a higher civic and social life; to institute and maintain educational and philanthropic enterprises, and to investigate and improve the conditions in the industrial districts of Chicago."

[At the bottom of the first page] NOTE—This is the first of a series of articles which Miss Addams has written for The Journal. She tells of the trials and triumphs of her first years at Hull House, as well as of the social, civic and educational sides of her work. The second article will appear in the next (the April) issue.