Jane Addams' Own Story of Her Work: The First Five Years at Hull-House, April 1906

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Jane Addams's Own Story of Her Work
The First Five Years at Hull-House

By Jane Addams

The memory of the first five years at Hull-House is more or less blurred with fatigue, for we could, of course, become accustomed only gradually to the unending activity and to the confusion of a house constantly filling and refilling with groups of people. The little children who came to the kindergarten in the morning were followed by the afternoon clubs of older children, and those in turn made way for the educational and social organizations of adults occupying every room in the house on every evening. All one's habits of living had to be readjusted, and any student's tendency to sit with a book by the fire was of necessity definitely abandoned.

But the domestic adjustment was, after all, easier than that demanded by the neighborhood, for we felt for the first years all the bewilderment and discouragement which arise from close personal contact with an immigrant population crowded into a city which, because it assumes that it is free from the problems of a tenement-house population, has made no provision for adequate municipal regulation. The housing was poor and insanitary chiefly because it was unrestrained by any well-considered building laws or sanitary inspections; the garbage overflowed in huge wooden boxes placed upon the pavement, and during the winter was sometimes undisturbed for months. Many of the newly-immigrated Italians and Russians were employed in the sweat-shops, which were totally without regulation as to hours and conditions of work. 

We Found Numbers of Young Girls who were constantly being exhausted by night work, for, whatever may be said in defense of night work for men, few women are able to endure it. A man who works by night sleeps regularly by day, but a woman finds it impossible to put aside the household duties which crowd upon her. One of the most painful impressions of those first years is that of pale, listless girls who worked regularly in a huge factory of the vicinity which was then running full nighttime. These girls also encountered a special danger in the early morning hours as they returned from work, debilitated and exhausted; and were only too easily convinced that a drink and a little dancing at the tag end of the balls breaking up in the saloon halls was what they needed to brace them. 

[image] The Jane Club and Group of Buildings on the Right

We were confronted by that old conundrum of the interdependence of matter and spirit, for the conviction was forced upon us that long and exhausting hours of work are almost sure to be followed by lurid and exiting pleasures, that the moral life is curiously wrapped up with physical stamina, and that the power to overcome temptation reaches its limit almost automatically with that of physical resistance.

We Learned to Know Many Families in which the children worked supporting their parents, both because they spoke English better than the older immigrants did, and were willing to take lower wages, and because their parents gradually found it easy to live upon their earning. A South Italian peasant who has picked olives and packed oranges from his toddling babyhood cannot see at once the difference between the outdoor healthy work which he performed in the varying seasons and the long hours of monotonous factory life which his child encounters when he goes to work in Chicago. I recall an Italian father who came to us in great grief over the death of his oldest child, a little girl of twelve, who had brought the largest wages into the family fund. In the midst of his genuine sorrow he said quite simply, "She was the oldest kid I had. Now I shall have to go back to work again until the next ones are able to take care of me." The man was only thirty-three and had hoped to retire from work permanently, at least during the winters. No foreman cared to have him in a factory, untrained and unintelligent as he was. It was much easier for his bright, English-speaking little girl to get a chance to paste labels on a box than for him to secure an opportunity to carry pig-iron. The effect on the child was what no one concerned thought about, in the abnormal effort she made to thus prematurely bear the weight of life. I remember another little girl of thirteen, a Russian-Jewish child employed in a laundry at a heavy task beyond her strength, who committed suicide because she had borrowed three dollars from a companion which she could not repay unless she confided the story to her parents and gave up an entire week's wage -- but what could the family live upon that week in case she did! Her child mind, of course, had no sense of proportion, and the easiest way out of the insoluble problem seemed to her to be by the path of carbolic acid.

There was No Child-Labor Law at the time in Illinois save a most inadequate one relating only to mines, and no factory law of any sort, because of the fiction that Illinois was an agricultural State -- in spite of the fact that the very next year, 1890, it stood the third State of the Union in the value of its manufactured output. I well remember three boys in succession who were injured at one machine in a neighboring factory for lack of a guard which would have cost but a few dollars, and even when the injury of one of these boys resulted in his death we were totally impotent to insist that the machine should be properly guarded, for there was no law in the State relating to it. 

It was at the End of the Second Year that we received a visit from the Warden of Toynbee Hall and his wife as they were returning to London from a journey around the world. They had lived in East London for many years, and Mrs. Barnett had been identified from the beginning with Octavia Hill's improved housing plan. They were much shocked and surprised that, in a new country with conditions so plastic and the possibility of change so hopeful, we had paid so little attention to experiments and methods of amelioration which had already been tried; and they looked in vain through our library for Blue Books and governmental reports which recorded painstaking study into the conditions of English cities. 

They were the first of a long line of English visitors to express the conviction that many things in Chicago were untoward, not through paucity of public spirit, but through lack of political machinery adapted to modern city life. This was not all of the situation, but perhaps no casual visitor could be expected to see that these matters of detail seemed unimportant to a city in the first flush of its youth, impatient of correction and convinced that all would be well with its future. This attitude on the part of Chicago fifteen years ago was influenced by and in turn lent itself to the prevailing spirit of social agitation. It was distinctly the period of propaganda as over against constructive social effort: the moment of marching and carrying banners, as it were, for stating general principles and making a demonstration rather than for uncovering the situation and for providing the legal measures and the social organization through which the new social hopes might make themselves felt. The terrible experiences connected with the Haymarket Riot were but three years old, and it was felt by the wisest men in the city that an adequate outlet must be provided for rational discussion of social questions if disorderly demonstrations were to be avoided. Economic conferences were held every Sunday evening in a large downtown auditorium, and the utmost freedom of expression was invited. This was also within three years of the Henry George campaign in New York, when his adherents all over the country were filled with hope of a successful and effective propaganda. Their meetings were of a religious temper and fervor. They distributed tracts, they sang songs and labored with individuals that they might "see the light." But perhaps the Socialists surpassed even them and everyone else in fervor and in the conviction that life could be spelled out in terms of irrefutable logic.

In the Weekly Discussions in the Hull-House drawing room everything was thrown back upon general principles, and all discussion save that which "went to the root of things" was impatiently discarded as an unworthy, halfway measure. I recall one evening in the Social Service Club when an exasperated member had thrown out the statement that "Mr. B. believes that socialism will cure the toothache," that Mr. B. promptly rose to his feet and said that it certainly would, that, when every child's teeth were systematically cared for from the beginning, toothache would disappear from the face of the earth, belonging, as it had, to the extinct competitive order, as the Black Plague had disappeared from the earth with the ill-regulated feudal [regime] of the Middle Ages. "But," he added, "why do we spend time discussing trifles like the toothache when great social changes are to be considered which will of 

[image] Court, with Entrance Arch to Street, Men's Club on the Left

themselves reform these minor ills?"  Even the man who had been humorous fell into the solemn tone of the gathering. 

And yet all theorists must in the end agree with the so-called "practical reformers," that social growth must pursue its normal course by means of changes and adaptations which in turn must be initiated by groups of individuals who are convinced of the necessity of modification in the existing arrangement because they are brought directly in contact with its failures. At that moment, however, the then new science of sociology was not yet recognized as possessing a legitimate field. The University of Chicago, which was the first great institution of learning to have a department of sociology, was not opened until three years later. Hull-House began some careful investigations even in those first years, but in the [meantime] it was evident that free discussion was needed, and although many men of many minds met constantly at our conferences it was amazing to find the incorrigible good nature which prevailed. Radicals are accustomed to hot discussion and sharp differences of opinion, and take it all in the day's work. I recall that the secretary of the Hull-House Social Service Club at the end of the seventh year of its existence read a report in which he stated that so far as he could remember but twice during that time had a speaker lost his temper, and in each case it had been a college professor who "wasn't accustomed to being talked back to," and so, of course, the club excused him. 

Gradually Certain Definite Lines of Effort emerged from the chaos as the number of residents grew in numbers and ability, and the observing and working force of the settlement was increased. A careful investigation of the sweat-shops of the neighborhood was made by Mrs. Kelley, who was appointed to do the work by the Illinois Labor Bureau. The report brought a special commission from the Legislature to look into the matter, and the recommendations of this committee resulted in the passage of the first factory law for Illinois, which dealt largely with the sanitary conditions of the sweat-shops and the regulation of the age at which a child might be permitted to work, and contained a clause limiting the hours of women in factories and workshops to eight a day.

Mrs. Kelley was appointed the first factory inspector with a deputy and a force of twelve inspectors to enforce the first law, which has gradually been built upon by many public-spirited citizens, until Illinois stands well among the States in the matter of protecting her children. 

We Had Been Told, when we first planned to live on Halsted Street, that we would feel isolated and outside the stream of normal activity. On the contrary, long before the end of the first five years we found ourselves attached to various public bodies, because we had discovered that it was impossible to secure the smallest of much-needed improvements without an appeal to the public conscience and to organized bodies of government.

It was perhaps significant that the only political office we sought from the city was that of garbage inspector for our own ward. The poor collection of refuse throughout the city made the greatest menace in the Nineteenth Ward, where the normal amount was much increased by the decayed fruit and vegetables discarded by the Italian and Greek fruit-sellers, and it seemed quite probable that this condition had some connection with the high death-rate so persistent in the ward. The Hull-House Woman's Club had been started during the third year of the life of the house. Twelve of their number undertook in connection with the residents to report carefully the condition of the alleys during one July and August. If you have finished a long day's work of washing or ironing by the cooking of a hot supper it is much easier to sit on your doorstep during a summer's evening than to go up and down ill-kept alleys and get into trouble with your neighbors over the condition of their garbage-boxes. It requires a certain amount of civic enterprise, of moral conviction, as it were, to be willing to do this three evenings a week during the hottest and most uncomfortable months of the year. Nevertheless, a certain number of women persisted, as did the residents, and three inspectors in succession were transferred from the ward because of unsatisfactory services. Still the death rate remained high, and the condition seemed little improved throughout the next winter.

In the spring, when the city contracts were awarded for the removal of garbage, I myself, with the backing of two well-known business men, put in a bid for the garbage removal of the Nineteenth Ward. My paper was thrown out because of a technicality, but the incident induced the Mayor to appoint me the garbage inspector of the ward [page 2] with the pay of a thousand dollars a year. The loss of this salary, which had been considered a political "plum," naturally made a great stir among the politicians. Miss Amanda Johnson, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, who had done some excellent volunteer inspection in both Chicago and [Pittsburgh], became my deputy and performed the work in a most thoroughgoing manner for three years, one year as deputy, and two years as a duly appointed civil-service officer.

Many of the Foreign-Born Women of the Ward were much shocked by this abrupt departure into the ways of men, and it took much explanation to convey the idea even remotely that if it were a womanly task to go about in tenement-houses in order to nurse the sick, it might be quite as womanly to go throughout the same district in order to prevent the breeding of so-called "filth diseases." While many of them enthusiastically approved the slowly changing conditions, and saw that their housewifely duties logically extended to the adjacent alleys and streets, they yet were quite certain that it was not a "lady's job" to get up at six o'clock in the morning to start a dozen teams throughout the ward, and many times to follow them to their dreary destination, "the dump." A revelation of this attitude was made one day in a conversation which the inspector heard as it was vigorously carried on in a laundry. On of the employees was leaving, and was expressing her mind concerning the place in no unmeasured terms, summing up her contempt for it as follows: "I would rather be the girl who goes poking about in the alleys than to stay here any longer!"

And yet the spectacle of eight hours' work for eight hours' pay, the even-handed justice to all citizens irrespective of "pull," the dividing of responsibility between landlord and tenant, and the readiness to enforce obedience to law from both, was, perhaps, one of the most valuable demonstrations which could have been made. Such daily living on the part of the office-holder is of infinitely more value than many talks on civics, for, after all, we credit most easily the testimony of the deed. The careful inspection combined with other causes brought about a great improvement in the cleanliness and comfort of the neighborhood, and one happy day, when the death-rate of our ward was read before the Hull-House Woman's Club, and the ward was found to have dropped from third to seventh in the list of city wards, the applause which followed recorded the genuine sense of participation in the result, and a public spirit which had "made good."

Meantime the Daily Activities of the settlement were developing. It was a little curious that when we were so distressed over the sterner aspects of life about us, and so impressed with the lack of municipal regulations, the first building erected for the house should have been designed for an art gallery, for although it contained a reading-room on the first floor and a studio above, the largest space on the second floor was carefully designed and lighted for art exhibits which had to do only with the cultivation of that which appealed to the powers of enjoyment as over against a wage-earning capacity. Doubtless one of the functions of art has always been that of solace and comfort in the midst of dreary realities, an escape from them into the kingdoms of the imagination. Miss Starr from the beginning insisted that this aspect of life should receive adequate expression.

Certain it is that the visitors who came to the Hull-House art exhibits, which were held at the rate of three or four a year until the Art Institute was opened on Sundays and for three evenings a week, displayed a genuine enjoyment and enthusiasm, as they did for the concerts which have been held on every Sunday afternoon for years. There was, perhaps, a certain daring in the fact that the first building erected for Hull-House thus ventured money on the conviction that the neighborhood would care for good pictures, and it was also significant that a Chicago business man, fond of pictures himself, responded to this first appeal of the new and somewhat puzzling undertaking called a settlement.

That the Art Gallery Embodied a New Attitude toward the immigrants was clear. One Italian expressed great surprise when he found that we, although Americans, still liked pictures, and said quite [naively] that he didn't know that Americans cared for anything but dollars -- that looking at pictures was something people did in Italy, but not in Chicago​. It brought out various stories, of the difficulty one Italian in America had to express his decorative sense even though his own hands possessed the requisite skill. He had decorated the doorposts of his tenements with a beautiful pattern he had previously used in carving the reredos of a Neapolitan church, only to find that he was "fired" by his landlord on the ground of destroying property. His feelings were much hurt, not so much that he had been put out of his house as that his work had been so disregarded, and he said quite simply that when people traveled in Italy they liked to look for woodcarvings, but that in America "they tried only to make money out of you."

The extreme isolation of the Italian colony was demonstrated by the fact that they did not know that there was a public art gallery in the city nor any houses in which pictures and carvings were regarded as treasures. Another little incident of this year demonstrates the isolation in which many immigrants live. An Italian woman in expressing her pleasure in the red roses that she saw at one of our receptions showed surprise that they had been "brought so fresh all the way from Italy." She would not believe for an instant that they had grown in America. She said quite simply that she had lived in Chicago for six years and had never seen any roses, whereas in Italy she had seen them every summer in great profusion. During all that time, of course, the woman had lived within ten blocks of a florist's window; she had not been more than a five-cent car ride away from the public parks, but she had never dreamed of faring forth by herself and no one had taken her. Her conception of America had been the untidy street in which she had lived and had made her long struggle to adapt herself to American ways. She had lost three children partly because she had not known how to care for them under the changed conditions. She did not need charity in the sense of receiving money or goods, but she sadly needed the companionship and guidance of American women.

It Seemed to Us in Those Days possible to receive help from American women who had traveled in Italy, and who, knowing the language, might be interested to discover the charm of this life of Italy built in the midst of Chicago, retaining the traditions of an older civilization, and the capacity which it so mysteriously displays of flowering into beauty at unexpected points. Some help has always come in that way, but perhaps our most efficient aid comes not from Italian-speaking Americans, but from the neighborhood itself. I could cite many illustrations of this, although one may serve: The Hull-House Woman's Club very early in its history formed what was called "A Social Extension Committee" which at least once a month gave parties to people in the neighborhood who for any reason seemed to them forlorn and without much social pleasure. One evening they invited only Italian women, thereby crossing a distinct social "gulf," for there certainly exists as great a sense of social difference between the prosperous Irish-American women and the South Italian peasants as between any two sets of people in the city of Chicago. The Italian women, who are almost Eastern in their habits, all stayed home and sent their husbands, and the Social Extension Committee entered the drawing room to find it occupied by rows of Italian workingmen, who seemed to prefer to sit in chairs along the wall. They were quite ready to be "socially extended," but plainly puzzled as to what it was all about. The evening finally developed into a very successful social occasion, not so much because the committee were equal to it as because the Italian men rose to the occasion. Untiring pairs of them danced the tarantella, their fascinating national dance, they sang Neapolitan songs, one of them performed some of those wonderful sleight-of-hand tricks one sees so often on the streets of Naples, they explained the coral finger of St. Januarius which they wore, they politely ate the strange American refreshments, and when the evening was over one of the committee said to me, "Do you know, I am quite ashamed of the way I used to talk about 'Dagos'; they are quite like other people, only you must take a little more pains with them. I have been nagging my husband to move off of F Street because they are moving in, but I am going to try staying a while and see if I can make a real acquaintance with some of them." To my mind at that moment the speaker had passed from the region of the uncultivated person into that of the cultivated person. The former is bounded by a narrow outlook on life, unable to overcome differences of dress and habit, and his interests are slowly contracting within a more circumscribed area; while the latter constantly tends to be more a citizen of the world because of his growing understanding of all kinds of people, with their various experiences. We send our young people to Europe that they may lose their provincialism and be able to judge their fellows by a more universal test, as we send them to college that they may attain the historic background, a larger outlook; all of these it is possible to acquire in other ways, as this member of the Woman's Club had discovered for herself.

It was Through a Series of Experiences such as these that we finally learned to know something of the resources of the vicinity and were awakened to the charm of the life which is inherent in the very commingling of people of diverse habits and traditions. Adjacent to the most crowded quarters were many of the older residents of the vicinity who were not only willing to add their social and civic energies to the undertakings of the settlement, but whose aid is the most valuable asset in the possession of Hull-House.

The humanitarian activities of the house grew steadily as an attempt was made to respond to the simpler needs of the neighborhood. Because of the many mothers who were obliged to work and who quite simply asked the kindergarten to "keep the baby for the day," a small apartment was taken across the street and turned into a day-nursery, which was later moved into a cottage on the nearest side street, and although a second kindergarten was started here the one in the drawing room continued.

The Coffee-House Which Belongs to This Period was opened first on the basis of a public kitchen. The investigation of the sweat-shops disclosed the fact that sewing-women during the busy season paid little attention to the feeding of their families, for it was only by working steadily through the long day that the scanty pay of five, seven or nine cents for finishing a dozen pairs of trousers could be made into a day's wage; and that they bought from the nearest grocery the canned goods that could be most quickly heated, or gave a few pennies to the children with which they might secure a lunch from a neighboring candy-shop.

One of the residents made an investigation, at the instance of the United States Department of Agriculture, into the food values of the dietaries of the various immigrants, and this was followed by an investigation made by another resident, Miss Hunt, for the United States Department of Labor, into the foods of the Italian colony on the supposition that the constant use of imported products bore a distinct relation to the cost of living. I recall an Italian man, who, coming into Hull-House one day as we were sitting at the dinner-table, expressed great surprise that Americans ate a variety of food, because he had been lead to believe that they partook only of potatoes and beer. A little inquiry showed that this conclusion was drawn from the fact that he lived next to an Irish saloon and had never seen anything but potatoes going in and beer coming out.

At that time the New England Kitchen was comparatively new in Boston, and Mrs. Richards, who was largely responsible for its foundation, hoped that cheaper cuts of meat and simpler vegetables, if they were subjected to slow and thorough processes of cooking, might be made attractive and their nutritive value secured for the people who so sadly needed better feeding. It was felt that this could be best accomplished in public kitchens where the advantage of scientific training and careful supervision could be secured. One of the residents went to Boston for a training under Mrs. Richards, and the Hull-House kitchen was fitted under her guidance and direction. Mr. Atkinson himself inspected the Aladdin ovens we were using, and our hopes ran high for some modification of the food of the neighborhood.

We did not reckon, however, with the wide diversity in nationality and inherited tastes, and while we sold a certain amount of the carefully-prepared soups and stews in the neighboring factories -- a sale which has steadily increased throughout the years -- and were also patronized by a few household, perhaps the neighborhood estimate was best summed up by the woman who frankly confessed that the food was certainly nutritious, but that she didn't like to eat what was nutritious, that she liked to eat "what she'd ruther."

If the Dietetics were Appreciated but Slowly, the social value of the Coffee-House and the gymnasium built the same year were quickly demonstrated. At that time the saloon halls were the only places in the neighborhood which the immigrant could obtain for his social gathering, and such innocent and legitimate occasions as weddings and christening could find no other places. These halls were rented very cheaply with the understanding that various sums of money should be "passed across the bar," and it was considered a mean host or guest who failed to live up to this implied bargain. The consequence was that many a reputable party ended with a certain amount of disorder due solely to the fact that the social instinct was traded upon and used as a basis for money-making by an adroit host. From the beginning the young people's clubs had asked for dancing, and nothing was more popular than the increased space for parties offered by the gymnasium with the chance to serve refreshments in the room below. We tried experiments with every known "soft drink," from those extracted from an expensive soda-water fountain to slender glasses of grape-juice, but so far as drinks were concerned we never became a rival to the saloon, nor indeed did any one imagine that we were trying to do so. I remember one man who looked about the cozy little room and said, "This would be a nice place to sit in all day, if one could only have beer." But the Coffee-House did gradually perform a mission of its own and become something of a social [center] to the neighborhood as well as a real convenience. Business men from the adjacent factories, and school-teachers from the nearest public school, used it increasingly. The students and club members supped together in little groups or held their reunions and social banquets, as, to a certain extent, did organizations from all parts of the town. The experience of the Coffee-House taught us early not to hold to preconceived ideas of what the neighborhood ought to have, but to keep ourselves in readiness to modify and adapt as we discovered those things which the neighborhood was ready to accept.

Better food was doubtless needed, but more attractive and safer places for social gatherings were also needed, and the neighborhood was ready for one and not for the other. From the beginning the gymnasium was filled with enthusiastic classes of men, women or children, and as other social halls have been erected in the Hull-House group, and the gymnasium has thereby been cleared for more strictly gymnastic work, it holds its own year after year. The Saturday evening athletic contest have become a feature of the neighborhood, as have other social activities, although Miss Gyles, who has been the director from its opening, has carefully guarded its professional side and fostered its hygienic value for the young men and women of the neighborhood who work at sedentary occupations in factories and offices.

The End of the First Five Years found Hull-House with a group of four buildings: the old house itself, which was occupied by the residents and used for the informal social gatherings; the Butler Building, which for three years contained a reading-room supported by the Chicago Public Library on the first floor and an art gallery and studio on the second; a large building attached to the back of the house which held the Coffee-House and quarters for the Men's Club room, and the gymnasium supplied with shower-baths. On the corner of Polk and Halsted Streets stood the Children's House, which sheltered the kindergarten and the day nursery, the Music School on the top floor and a Boys' Club on the first; two rented houses, the one on Polk Street housing the first men residents of the settlement, and the one on Ewing Street contained the Jane Club, a [cooperative] self-governing club of working-girls which had been started in the third year of the history of Hull-House, and which continues now in a handsome club-house built expressly for its needs. We published some of our first-found facts at the end of five years in a book entitled "Hull-House Maps and Papers," which one of the residents always referred to as the "First Jumble Book," because it concerned itself with so many different matters. I want to say, however, that it treated all of them with great candor and genuine concern and some of them with skill and suggestiveness.

We also made from the start a constant effort to hand over to public authority every activity which we had initiated. We had maintained three shower-baths in the basement of the house for the use of the neighborhood, and they afforded some experience and argument for the erection of the first public bath-house in Chicago, which was built on a neighboring street and opened under the care of the Board of Health. It is immediately contiguous to a large playground under the general management of Hull-House, although its actual care is provided for by an officer from the regular city police force, and in time may be incorporated in a small park. The reading-room and Public Library Station which had begun in the house were continued but a block away. The lending collection of pictures had become incorporated into the Public School Art Society of Chicago, of which Miss Starr was the first president.

Hull-House has always held its activities lightly, ready to hand them over to whomsoever would carry them on properly, for there is among the residents a distrust of the institutional and a desire to be free for experiment and the initiation of new enterprises.

The old story of the head of an orphan asylum who prayed that the Lord might send him many orphans next year so that he could add a new wing to his institution I hope can never be applied to Hull-House, although the number of buildings has increased steadily year by year.

NOTE—The third installment of Miss Addams's story of her work will appear in the next issue of The Journal.