Address to the Playground Association, March 31, 1908


Mr. Richard Watson Gilder, introducing Miss Addams, said: "I found the following lately in the 'Recollections' of Black: 'Men find it easier to tell a man they love him in a loud voice and a full company, than when alone with him.' The author sagaciously adding, 'It is different in the case of a woman.'

"But in the case of the present woman there is no embarrassment, for the whole people of America long ago told Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, that they were deeply attached to her."

Miss Addams said:

Nothing more is certain than that each generation longs for a reassurance as to the value and charm of life, and is secretly afraid lest it lose its sense of the youth of the earth. This is doubtless the reason it so passionately cherishes its poets and artists -- as we eagerly testify tonight, in honoring our artist guest who has for many of us thrown upon life "the fugitive and gracious light" which alone reveals and explores its inner meaning.

And yet in spite of popular education, the average man cannot obtain this desired reassurance through literature, nor yet through glimpses of earth and sky. It can come to him only through the chance embodiment of joy and youth which life itself may throw in his way. It is doubtless true that for the mass of men, the message is never so poignant, so unchallenged, so invincible as when embodied in youth itself. One generation after another has depended upon its young to provide it with gaiety and enthusiasm, to persuade it that living is a pleasure, until men everywhere have anxiously promoted channels through which this wine of life might flow, and be preserved for their delight.

The classical city, provided for play with careful solicitude, building the [theater] as they built the market place and the temple, and it came to anticipate the highest utterances of the poet at those moments when the sense of pleasure released the national life. In the medieval city the [page 2] knights held their tourneys, the guilds their pageants, the people their dances, and the church made festival for its most cherished saints with gay street processions. Only in the modern industrial city have men concluded that it is no longer necessary for the municipality to provide for the insatiable desire for play, and they have, therefore, ventured upon the most dangerous and difficult experiment of making no adequate provision for it.

Unhappily this experiment is being tried just at the moment that modern industry has gathered together multitudes of eager young creatures from all quarters of the earth as a labor supply for the countless factories and workshops, upon which the present industrial city is based. In the United States alone, 3,000,000 of these are young women. Never before in civilization have such numbers of girls been suddenly released from the protection of the home and permitted to walk unattended upon city streets and to work under alien roofs. For the first time in history they are being prized more for their labor power than for their innocence, their tender beauty, their ephemeral gaiety. Society cares for the products they manufacture more than for their immemorial ability to knead over the bread of life and to reaffirm the charm of existence.

This stupid experiment of organizing work and failure to organize play has, of course, brought about a fine revenge. The love of pleasure will not be denied, and when it has turned into all sorts of malignant and vicious appetites, then we, the middle-aged, grow quite distracted and resort to all sorts of restrictive measures. We even try to dam up the sweet fountain itself because we are affrighted by these neglected streams; but almost worse than the restrictive measures is our apparent belief that the city itself has no obligations in the matter, and upon this assumption the modern city turns over to commercialism practically all the provisions for public recreation.

Quite as one set of men has organized the young people into industrial enterprises in order to profit from their toil, so another set of men and also women, I am sorry to say, have entered the neglected field of recreation and have organized enterprises which make profit out of this invincible love of pleasure.

In every city arise so-called "places" -- "gin-palaces" they are called in fiction -- in Chicago we euphemistically say merely "places" -- in which alcohol is dispensed, not to allay thirst, but, pretending to stimulate gaiety, it is sold solely in order to empty pockets. Huge dance halls are opened to which hundreds of young people are attracted, standing wistfully outside a roped circle, for within it five cents will procure for five minutes the sense of allurement and intoxication which is sold in lieu of innocent pleasure. These coarse and illicit merrymakings remind one of the unrestrained jollities of Restoration London, and they are indeed their direct descendants, properly commercialized, of course, still confusing joy with lust, and gaiety with debauchery. Since the soldiers of Cromwell shut up the people's play houses and destroyed their pleasure fields, the Anglo-Saxon city has turned over the provision for public recreation to the most evil-minded and the most unscrupulous members of the community. We see thousands of girls walking up and down the streets on a pleasant evening with no chance to catch a sight of pleasure even through a lighted window, save as these lurid places provide it.

It is as if our eyes were holden to the mystic beauty, the redemptive joy, the civic pride which these multitudes of young girls might supply to our dingy towns.

As these overworked girls stream along the street, the rest of us see only the self-conscious walk, the giggling speech, the preposterous clothing. And yet, through the huge hat with its wilderness of bedraggled feathers, the girl announces to the world that she is here. She demands attention to the fact of her existence, she states that she is ready to live, to take her place in the world. We are quite accustomed to this bragging announcement on the part of the boy. When he begins to look upon the world as a [page 3] [theater] for his self-assertive exploits, the city makes haste to provide him with an athletic field where he may safely demonstrate that he is braver to jump and to climb than any other boy on the street.

But we are much less successful in making city provisions for the girl's needs, and slow to realize that while there is something of the mating season in both demonstrations, there is also much more. The most precious moment in human development is the young creature's assertion that he is unlike any other human being, and has an individual contribution to make to the world. The variation from the established type is at the root of all change, the only possible basis for progress, all that keeps life from growing unprofitably stale and repetitious.

Is it only the artists who really see these young creatures as they are -- the artists who are themselves endowed with immortal youth? Ask her who portrayed for us through all the headstrong mistakes of David Grieve the very sinews of character which hold together the righteousness of the earth! Ask her who made clear, through all the generous follies of Marcella, youth's divine impatience with the world's inheritance of wrong and injustice! Which one of Raphael's great contemporaries said it, Leonardo himself, was it not, that Genius alone can paint the Child? Is it our disregard of the artist's message which makes us so blind and so stupid, or are we so under the influence of our [Zeitgeist] that we can detect only commercial values in the young as well as in the old?

But quite as the modern city too often sends the boy to gambling and drinking in order to find this adventure, so the city wastes this most valuable moment in the life of the girl, and drives into all sorts of absurd and obscure expression her love and yearning towards the world in which she forecasts her destiny.

The young creatures themselves piteously look all about them in order to find an adequate means of expression for their most precious message. Perhaps you will permit me to illustrate: One day a serious young man came to Hull House with his pretty young sister who, he explained, wanted to go somewhere every single evening, "although she could only give the flimsy excuse that the flat was too little and too stuffy to stay in." In the difficult role of elder brother, he had done his best, stating that he had taken her "to all the missions that he could find, that she had had a chance to listen to some awful good sermons and to some elegant hymns, but that some way she did not seem to care for the society of the best Christian people." The little sister reddened painfully under this cruel indictment and could offer no word of excuse, but a curious thing happened to me. Perhaps it was the phrase "the best Christian people," perhaps it was the delicate coloring of her flushing cheeks and her winning eyes, but certain it is, that instantly and vividly there appeared to my mind a piece of wall in a Roman catacomb where the early Christians, through a dozen devices of spring flowers, skipping lambs and a shepherd tenderly guiding the young, had indelibly written down that the Christian message is one inexpressible joy. Who is responsible for forgetting this message delivered by the "best Christian people" two thousand years ago? Who is to blame that the lambs, the little ewe lambs have been so caught upon the brambles?

Already some American cities are making a beginning. Boston has its municipal gymnasiums, cricket fields and golf grounds. Chicago has fifteen parks with playing fields, gymnasiums and baths, which at present enroll 18,000 young women and girls. These same parks are provided with beautiful halls, which are used for many purposes, rent free, and are given over to any band of young people who wish to conduct dancing parties, subject to city supervision and chaperonage. Many social clubs have deserted neighboring saloon halls for these municipal drawing rooms, beautifully decorated with growing plants supplied by the park green houses and flooded with electric lights supplied by the park power house. In the saloon halls the young people were obliged to "pass money freely over the bar," and in order to make the most of the occasion, they usually stayed until morning. The economic necessity itself would override the counsels of the more [page 4] temperate, and the thrifty doorkeeper would not insist upon invitations but would take in anyone who had the "price of a ticket." The free rent in the park hall, the good food in the park restaurant supplied at cost, have made possible three parties closing at eleven o'clock instead of one party breaking up at daylight, too often in disorder.

Is not this an argument that the disorder, the drinking, the late hours, the lack of decorum, are directly traceable to the commercial enterprise which ministers to pleasure in order to drag it into excess because excess is more profitable. We have no business to thus commercialize pleasure. It is as monstrous as the attempt to commercialize art. It is intolerable that the city does not take over this function of making provision for pleasure, as wise communities in Sweden and North Carolina have taken the sale of alcohol out of the hands of enterprising publicans.

We have heard from the Superintendent of your city schools of a very significant experiment in connection with the municipal recreation for young girls which is being tried in New York. A most interesting phase of it is the organization of High School girls into groups for folk dancing. These old forms of dancing which have been worked out in many lands and through long experience, safeguard unwary and dangerous expression, and yet afford a vehicle through which the gaiety of youth may flow. Their forms are indeed those which lie at the basis of all good breeding, forms which at once express and restrain, urge forward and set limits.

The members of this Association who attended the first annual meeting in Chicago will never forget the long summer day in the large playing field filled during the morning with hundreds of little children romping through the kindergarten games; in the afternoon with young men and girls contending in athletic sports, and the evening light made gay by the bright colored garments of Italians, Lithuanians, Norwegians, and a dozen other nationalities, reproducing their old dances and festivals for the pleasure of the more stolid Americans. Was this a forecast of what this association may yet see accomplished through the Metropolitan Park Associations of Boston and New York, and through a dozen agencies which are springing up in every city of America, as they already are found in the huge towns of Scotland and England?

Let us cherish these experiments as the most precious beginnings of an attempt to supply the recreational needs of our industrial cities. The discovery of the labor power of young girls was to our age like the discovery of a new natural resource. In utilizing it thus ruthlessly we are not only in danger of quenching the divine fire of youth, but we are imperiling our civilization itself, if in the moment of its most pronounced materialism we dry up the very sources of beauty, of variety, of suggestion which these charming creatures have always given to the world.

To fail to provide for the recreation of young girls is not only to deprive all of them of their natural form of expression and to subject some of them to the overwhelming temptation of illicit and soul-destroying pleasures, but it furthermore pushes society back into dreariness, into a skepticism of life's value -- that shadow which lurks only around the corner for most of us -- it deprives us of the warmth and reassurance which we so sorely need and to which we are justly entitled.