Autobiographical Notes Upon Twenty Years at Hull-House: Early Undertakings at Hull-House, June 1910

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[image] The residence of Charles J. Hull, built in 1865 and established as a Settlement house by Miss Addams and Miss Starr in 1889. From a drawing of a painting made for the fiftieth anniversary of the building in 1906, and executed from what remained of the old house and from the memory of the older residents and members of Mr. Hull's family






THE next January found Miss Starr and myself in Chicago, searching for a neighborhood in which we might put our plans into execution. In our eagerness to win friends for the new undertaking, we utilized every opportunity to set forth the meaning of the settlement as it had been embodied in Toynbee Hall, although in those days we made no appeal for money, meaning to start only with our own slender resources. From the very first the plan received courteous attention, and the discussion, while often skeptical, was always friendly. I recall a spirited evening at the home of Mrs. Wilmarth which was attended by the renowned scholar, Thomas Davidson, and by a young Englishman who was a member of the then new Fabian society and to whom a peculiar glamour was attached because he had scoured knives the previous summer in a camp of high-minded philosophers in the Adirondacks. Our poor little plan met with criticism, not to say disapproval, from Mr. Davidson, who, as nearly as I can remember, called it "one of those unnatural attempts to understand life by cooperative living," and it was in vain we asserted that the collective living was not an essential part of the plan, that we would always scrupulously pay our own expenses, and that at any moment we might decide to scatter through the neighborhood and to live in separate tenements.

In our search for a neighborhood in which to settle we went about the city with everyone [page 2] whose duty or inclination took him into crowded quarters, with the officers of the Compulsory Education Department, with city missioners, and with the newspaper reporters, whom I recall as a much older set of men than one ordinarily associates with that profession, or perhaps I was only sent out with the older ones of what they must all have considered a quixotic mission. One Sunday afternoon in the late winter one of them took me to visit a so-called anarchist Sunday school, several of which were to be found on the northwest side of the city. The young man in charge of the school was of the German student type, and his face flushed with enthusiasm as he led the children in singing one of Koerner's poems. The newspaper man, who did not understand. German, asked me "what abominable stuff they were singing," but he seemed dissatisfied with my translation of the simple words and darkly intimated that they were "deep ones" and had probably "fooled" me. When I replied that Koerner was a well-known German author of the period of '48, when all young poets sang of freedom, and that his poems were found in the most respectable libraries, he looked at me rather askance, and I then and there had my first intimation that to treat a Chicago man who is called an anarchist as you would treat any other citizen is to lay yourself open to deep suspicion.


Finding the House

Another Sunday afternoon in the early spring, 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. 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, because I always assumed that it was adjacent to the Bohemian quarter, whereas it was on the edge of the Italian colony, with Canadian-French to the west, and with the Russian-Jewish colony to the south.

Three weeks later, when, 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 had decided upon a location, 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, occupied, 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 sublet the second floor and what had been the large drawing-room on the first floor.

The house had passed through many changes since it had been built for the homestead of one of Chicago's pioneer citizens, Mr. Charles J. Hull. It was an ample old residence, built in 1856, and somewhat ornately decorated after the manner of its times, its wide hall an open fireplaces insuring it a gracious aspect. Its generous owner, Miss Helen Culver, gave us a free leasehold of the entire house in the spring. Her kindness has continued through the years, until the group of thirteen buildings which at present comprises our equipment is built upon the land Miss Culver has put at the service of the Settlement which bears Mr. Hull's name.

We furnished the house as we would have [page 3] done were it in another part of the city, with the photographs and other impedimenta we had collected in Europe and with a few bits of family mahogany. While all the new furniture which was bought was enduring in quality, we were careful to keep it in character with the fine old residence. Probably no young matron ever placed her own things in her own house with more pleasure than that with which Hull-House was first furnished. We believed that the Settlement which, in America at least, regards social intercourse as the natural means of its expression, may logically bring to its aid all those adjuncts which the cultivated man regards as good and suggestive of participation in the best life of the past.



On the eighteenth of September, 1889, Miss Starr and myself moved into it, with Mary Keyser, who at first performed the housework, but quickly developed into a very important factor in the life of the vicinity. In our enthusiasm over "settling," the first night we forgot not only to lock but to close a side door opening on Polk Street, and were much pleased in the morning to find that we possessed a fine illustration of the honesty and kindliness of our Italian neighbors.

Volunteers to the new undertaking came quickly. First a charming young girl who conducted a kindergarten in the drawing-room and whose daily presence made it quite impossible for us to become too solemn and self-conscious in our strenuous routine, for her mirth and buoyancy were irresistible. I recall one day at luncheon a gay recital of her futile attempt to impress temperance principles upon the mind of an Italian mother, to whom she had returned a small daughter of five sent to the kindergarten in a state of intoxication from her breakfast of wine-soaked bread. The mother, with the gentle courtesy of a South Italian, listened politely to her graphic portrayal of the untimely end awaiting so immature a wine-bibber. But long before the lecture was finished, quite unconscious of the incongruity, she hospitably set forth her best wines, and when her baffled guest refused one after the other, she disappeared, only to quickly return with a small glass of dark whiskey, saying reassuringly, "See, I have brought you the true American drink." The recital ended in seriocomic despair, and the rueful statement that "the impression I probably made upon her darkened mind was that it is the American custom to breakfast children on bread soaked in whiskey and not in light Italian wine."

But although the first organized undertaking was a kindergarten, we were very insistent that the Settlement should not be carried on primarily for the children, and we contended that it was absurd to suppose that grown people would not respond to opportunities for education and social life. Our enthusiastic kindergartener herself demonstrated this with an old woman of ninety, who, because she was left alone all day, while her daughter cooked in a restaurant, had formed such a persistent habit of picking the plaster off the walls that one landlord after another refused to have her for a tenant. It required but a few weeks' time to teach her to make large paper chains, and gradually she was content to do it all day long, and in the end took quite as much pleasure in adorning the walls as she had formerly taken in demolishing them. Fortunately the landlord had never heard the esthetic principle that the exposure of basic construction is more desirable than gaudy decoration. In course of time it was discovered that the old woman could speak Gaelic, and when one or two grave professors came to see her, the neighborhood was filled with pride that such a wonder lived in their midst. To mitigate life for a woman of ninety was an unfailing refutation of the statement that the Settlement was designed for the young. [page 4]


Finding Our Plan in the Community

It was gradually understood that we were ready to perform the humblest neighborhood services. We were asked to wash the newborn babies, and to prepare the dead for burial; to nurse the sick, and to "mind the children."

Occasionally these neighborly offices unexpectedly uncovered ugly human traits. For six weeks  after an operation we kept in one of our three bedrooms a forlorn little baby, who, because he was born with a cleft palate, was most unwelcome even to his mother, and we were horrified when he died of neglect a week after he was returned to his home; a little Italian bride of fifteen sought shelter with us one November evening, to escape her husband, who had beaten her every night for a week when he returned home from work, because she had lost her wedding-ring; two of us officiated quite alone at the birth of an illegitimate child because the doctor was late in arriving, and none of the honest Irish matrons would "touch the likes of her." But in spite of these untoward experiences, we were constantly impressed with the uniform kindness and courtesy we received. Perhaps these first days laid the simple human foundations which are certainly essential for continuous living among the poor: 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; and, second, the conviction, in the words of Canon Barnett, that the things which make men alike are finer and better than the things which keep them apart, and that these basic likenesses, if they are properly accentuated, easily transcend the essential differences of race, language, creed and tradition.

In the very first weeks of our residence Miss Starr started a reading party in George Eliot's "Romola," which was attended by a group of young women who followed the wonderful tale of unflagging interest. The weekly reading was held in our little upstairs dining-room, and two members of the club came to dinner each week, not only that they might be received as guests, but that they might help wash the dishes afterwards, and so make the table ready earlier for the stacks of Florentine photographs.

First Efforts at Cooperation

Their unflagging enthusiasm and the well-attended drawing classes, which were started in the early months, suggested the uses for the first building erected for Hull-House, which, although it contained a branch reading-room of [page 5] the Chicago Public Library on the first floor, was carefully designed and lighted for a studio and an art exhibit room, in which loan exhibitions of paintings and etchings were held three or four times a year, and were enthusiastically visited by hundreds of people from the neighborhood.

The Italians were greatly surprised that Americans cared so much for pictures, and one man perhaps expressed the convictions of the entire colony when he said, "Americans do not like pictures the way Italians do; they like only dollars."

It was rather curious that our first building should have been devoted to the arts when we were so distressed over the poverty all about us, 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.

But more gratifying than any response from without was the growing consciousness that a group of residents were gathering at Hull-House, held together in that soundest of all social bonds, the companionship of mutual interests.

These residents came primarily because they were genuinely concerned in regard to the social situation and believed that the Settlement was valuable as a method of approach to it.


The men who came resided in a house across the street, and at the end of the first five years the Hull-House residents numbered fifteen, a majority of whom still remain identified with the Settlement.

There was in the earliest undertakings at Hull-House a touch of the enthusiasm animating the artist when he translates his inner vision of beauty and proportion into material shape. Keenly conscious of the social confusion all about us and the hard economic struggle, we at times believed that the very struggle itself might become a source of strength. The devotion of the mothers to their children, the dread of the men lest they fail to provide for the family dependent upon their daily exertion, were not these the secret stores of strength from which society is fed, the invisible array of passion and feeling which are the surest protectors of the world? Could one pluck from the human tragedy itself a consciousness of a common destiny which should bring its own healing? Could one extract from the explicable misadventures of life the power of cooperation which should be effective against them?

Some such vague hope was in our minds when we started the Hull-House Cooperative Coal Association, which led a vigorous life for three years and developed a large membership under the [skillful] advice of the one paid officer, an English workingman who had had experience in cooperative societies at "'ome." Some of the meetings of the association, in which people met to consider together their basic dependence upon fire and warmth, had a curious challenge of life about them. Because the cooperators knew what it meant to bring forth children in the midst of privation, to see the tiny creatures struggle for life, their recitals cut a cross section, as it were, in that world-old effort — the "dying to live" which so surreptitiously triumphs over poverty and suffering. Any yet this very familiarity with hardship may have been responsible for that sentiment which traditionally ruins business, for a vote of the cooperators that the basket buyers be given one basket free out of every six, that the presentation of five purchase tickets should entitle the holder to a profit in coal instead of stock, "because it would be a shame to keep them waiting for the dividend," was always pointed to by the conservative quarter-of-a-ton buyers as the beginning of the end. At any rate, at the close of the third winter, although the association occupied a fine coal yard of its own, and its gross receipts were three hundred dollars a day, it became evident that the concern could not remain solvent if it continued its philanthropic policy, and the experiment was [page 6] terminated by the cooperators taking up their stock in the remaining coal.


Our next cooperative experiment was much more successful, perhaps because it was much more spontaneous. At a meeting of working girls held at Hull-House during a strike of workers in a large shoe factory, the discussion made it clear that the strikers who had been most easily frightened, and therefore first to capitulate, were naturally those girls who were paying board and were afraid of being put out if they fell too far behind in their payments. After the recital of a case of peculiar hardship, one of them exclaimed, "Wouldn't it be fine if we had a boarding club of our own, and then we could stand by each other in times like this!" After the events moved quickly. We read aloud together Beatrice Potter's little book on "Cooperation," and discussed all the difficulties and fascinations of such an undertaking. At last two comfortable apartments near Hull-House were rented and furnished. The Settlement was responsible for the furniture and paid the first month's rent, but beyond that the club members managed the club themselves. The undertaking, called the Jane Club, "marched," as the French say, from the very first, and always on its own feet. Although there were difficulties, none of them proved insurmountable, and at the end of the third year the club occupied all of the six apartments which the original building contained, and numbered fifty members.

"Tainted Money"

It was in connection with our efforts to secure a building for the Jane Club that we first found ourselves in the dilemma between the needs of our neighbors and the kind-hearted response upon which we had already come to rely for their relief. The adapted apartments in which the club was hosted were inevitably more of less uncomfortable, and we felt that the success of the club justified the erection of a building designed for its sole use.

We were therefore overjoyed when a friend of Hull-House came to see us one day with the good news that a friend of his was ready to give twenty thousand dollars with which to build the desired new club house. When, however, he divulged the name of his generous friend, it proved to be that of a man who was notorious for underpaying the girls in his establishment and concerning whom there were even darker stories. It seemed clearly impossible to erect a club house for working girls with such money, and we at once declined. [page 7]


Our friend was put in the most embarrassing situation; he had of course asked the man to give the money, and had had no thought but that it would be eagerly received; he would now be obliged to return to the man with the astonishing, not to say insulting, news that his money was considered unfit. In the long discussion which followed, it gradually became clear to all of us that such refusal could be valuable only as it might reveal to the man himself and to others public opinion in regard to certain methods of money-making, but that from the very nature of the case our refusal of this money could not be made public, because a representative of Hull-House had asked for it. However, the basic fact remained that we could not accept the money, and of this our friend himself was fully convinced. This incident occurred during a period of much discussion concerning "tainted money," and is perhaps typical of the difficulty of dealing with it. It is impossible to know how far we may blame the individual for doing that which all of his competitors and his associates consider legitimate. At the same time, social changes can be inaugurated only by those who feel the unrighteousness of contemporary conditions.

An expression of their scruples may be the one opportunity for pushing forward moral rests into that dubious area wherein wealth is accumulated and may afford the first suggestions for legislation embodying an advancing public opinion.

Bettering the Food Supply

If the early American Settlements stood for a more exigent standard for philanthropic activity, insisting that each new undertaking should be preceded by carefully ascertained facts, then certainly Hull-House held to this standard in the opening of our coffee house, started first as a public kitchen. The investigation of the sweat shops had 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 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 [page 8] of Agriculture into the food values of the dieters of the various immigrants, and this was followed by an investigation made by another resident 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.


Still another resident went to Boston for a training in the recently established New England Kitchen, and under her guidance and direction 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 households, perhaps the neighborhood estimate was best summed up by the woman who frankly confessed that the food was certainly nutritious, but 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. 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. The coffee house became something of a social center to the neighborhood and also gradually the source of a better food supply.

A Decade of Chicago Radicalism

Although the residents in the early Settlements were in many cases young persons who had sought relief from the consciousness of social maladjustment in the "anodyne of work" adored by the philanthropic and civic activities, their former experiences had not thrown them into company with radicals, and certainly the residents at Hull-House were often bewildered by the desire for constant discussion which characterized Chicago twenty years ago. This was true throughout the decade between 1890 and 1900, although it already seems remote from the spirit of the city to-day. In the second year of Hull-House a group of men organized the Social Science Club, which met during seven years for 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 [page 9] impatiently discarded as an unworthy, halfway measure.


It was doubtless owing largely to this club that Hull-House contracted its early reputation for radicalism. Visitors refused to distinguish between the sentiments expressed by its members in the heat of discussion and the opinions held by the residents themselves. At that moment in Chicago the radical of every shade of opinion was vigorous and dogmatic, of the sort that could not resign himself to the slow march of human improvement; they were all of the type who knew exactly "in what part of the world Utopia standeth."


It is this type of mind which is in itself so often obnoxious to the man of conquering business faculty, to whom the practical world of affairs seems so supremely rational that he would never vote to change the type of it, even if he could. The man of enthusiasm who advocates social control is to him annoyance and an affront. He does not like to hear him talk and considers him per se "unsafe." Such a business man would admit, as an abstract proposition, that society is susceptible of modification, and would even agree that all human institutions imply progressive development, but at the same time he deeply distrusts those who seek to reform existing conditions and suspects them to be merely rebels.

The club at any rate convinced the residents that no one so poignantly realizes the failures, and has suffered most. I recall the shrewd comments of a certain sailor who [page 10] had known the disinherited in every country; of a Russian who had served his terms in Siberia; of an old Irishman who called himself an atheist, but who in moments of excitement always blamed the good Lord for "setting supinely when the world was so horribly out of joint." Although the residents were often baffled by the radicalism within the club and harassed by the criticism from outside, on the whole we held to our resolution to bear independent witness to social righteousness and public honor, although many times it seemed to put us into a position of compromise difficult to bear, for of course we pleased the radicals not a whit more than we did the conservatives. However, we believed that such discussion should be carried on at Hull-House, for if the Settlement seeks its expression through social activity, it must learn to distinguish between mere social unrest and spiritual impulse, and so far as possible endeavor to translate one into the other.

The Craving for Self-Improvement

From the early days at Hull-House, the social clubs composed of English-speaking American-born young people grew apace. So eager were they for this social life that no mistakes in management could drive them away. I remember one enthusiastic leader who read aloud to a club a translation of "Antigone," which she had selected because she believed that the great themes of the Greek poets were best suited to young people. She came into the club-room one evening just in time to hear the president call the restive members to order with the statement, "You might just as well keep quiet, for she is bound to finish it, and the quicker she gets to reading the longer time we'll have for dancing." And yet the same club leader had the pleasure of lending four copies of the drama to four of the members, and one young man almost literally committed the entire play to memory.

On the whole, we were much impressed by the great desire for self-improvement, for study and debate, as we gradually became acquainted with the daily living of the vigorous young men and women who filled to overflowing all the social clubs.

The readiness with which city young people make their adaptation to the prosperity arising from their own increased wages or those of their families is always surprising. This quick adaptability is the great gift of the city child and his one reward for the hurried, changing life which he has always led. Therefore one who has lived in a Settlement twenty years knows scores of young people who have successfully established themselves in life. I am constantly greeted by the rising young lawyer, the scholarly rabbi, the successful teacher, the prosperous young matron buying clothes for her blooming children: "Don't you remember me? I used to belong to a Hull-House Club." I once asked a young man who held a good position on a Chicago daily what special thing Hull-House had meant to him, and he at once replied, "It was the first house I had ever been in where books and magazines just laid around as if there were plenty of them in the world, and it changed the whole aspect of life for me to know people who regarded reading as a reasonable occupation."

There are many examples of touching fidelity to immigrant parents of the part of their grownup children: a young Russian Jew who day after say attends ceremonies which no longer express his religious convictions, and who makes his vain effort to interest his father in social problems; a daughter who might earn much more money as a stenographer could she work from Monday morning till Saturday night, but who quietly and docilely makes neckties for low wages because she can thus abstain from work Saturdays to please her father. After all, as Maggie Tulliver said, "Memory, pity and faithfulness are natural ties." May they not be as valuable to the commonwealth as ambition and desire for success?

A Queen of the May the Champion Street Cleaner

But in addition to these young people are hundreds of others, the many children who are longing for excitement, eager and restless under the stress of factory and school. We found that the only possible way to hold the interest them and test their powers in genuine rivalry. A large open space was not at once at our disposal, but we fitted up out back yard with a turning pole and a set of flying rings which were never idle during the day and in pleasant weather were used far into the night.

In the spring of 1893 we very unexpectedly had an opportunity to secure a large open space in which the children might play, and the Hull-House playground became the pioneer playground in the city. The use of the land upon which it was placed was given us by a young man who owned a large block in the neighborhood occupied by small tenements and stables unconnected with a street sewer, as was much similar property in the vicinity. One of the Hull-House [page 11] residents in a public address upon housing reform used this conspicuous block as an example of indifferent landlordism, sparing neither a minute description of the property nor the name of the owner. The young man was justly indignant at this public method of attack, and that we might realize the difficulties of supplying South Italian peasants with modern sanitary improvements, he rashly put the entire tract at the disposal of Hull-House with a statement that if we should choose to use the income from the rents for such improvements that we should be throwing the money away.

Even when we decided that the houses were so bad that we could not undertake the task of improving them, he was game, and stuck to his proposition that we should have a free lease. We finally submitted a plan that the houses should be torn down and the entire tract turned into a playground. The public-spirited owner consented to the plan and at length the space was cleared and a public playground established. Hull-House became responsible for its general order and who became a valued adjunct to the House. Festivities of various sorts were held on this early playground. I remember that one year the honor of being Queen of the May was offered to the little girl who should pick up the largest number of scraps of paper which littered the streets and alleys. The children that spring had been organized into a league and each member had been provided with a stuff piece of wire, upon the sharpened point of which stray buts of paper were impaled and later soberly counted off into a large box in the Hull-House alley. The little Italian girl who thus won the scepter took it very gravely, as the just reward of hard labor, and we were all so absorbed in the desire for clean and tidy streets that we were wholly oblivious to the incongruity of thus selecting "The Queen of Love and Beauty." Nevertheless, the task may have been associated with tender experiences, for the children of our neighborhood twenty years ago played their games in and around huge wooden garbage boxes fastened to the [pavement?]; they were the first objects that the toddling child learned to climb; their bulk afforded a barricade and their contents provided missiles in all the battles of the older boys, and finally they became the seats upon which absorbed lovers held enchanted converse. When we realize how all children eat everything which they find, and how odors have a curious and intimate power of entwining themselves into our tenderest memories, we can perhaps understand the early enthusiasm of Hull-House for the removal of these boxes and the establishment of a better system of refuse collection. One 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 on a technicality, but the incident induced the Mayor to appoint me the garbage inspector of the ward, 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. 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 a year, and after the inauguration of civil service for city employees she became a duly appointed civil service officer.

As I look back on those early civic efforts in Chicago, it seems as if the problem of cleaner streets afforded the same stimulus to civic righteousness and common enterprise that the far-reaching problems of transportation afforded later, both situations opening an opportunity to move from an intolerable situation to a public remedy.

In the next installment, Miss Addams will take up "The Problems of Poverty"

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