Sophia Engel Van Dine to Jane Addams, April 16, 1902

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                                                                                                         Chicago, April 16, 1902

Miss Jane [Addams]
Hull house settlement
Chicago Ill.     

Dear Madam: I hardly know how to start this letter I want to apologize for taking up your time and again no apology is needed because what I want to tell you about is right in the line of any woman's work.

I first became interested in the asylum for feeble minded children at Lincoln about eleven years ago when I placed my little girl there, the heartache was terrible at first, I had practically devoted my life to her until it dawned on me that I was neglecting my boys and not doing her a particle of good. I turned away from the place with the feeling that I had with my own hands dug a grave & buried my child, my only girl alive, time brought healing and I became interested in the general development of the institution and broadened my love to take into my heart all the children who would respond to it. I know a great many of them not only by name but their antecedents, which is almost necessary if you want to try and gain their love, because they are very different from bright or rather normal children, some feeble minded children are very bright in certain respects. I did not give a thought to the political aspect of the institution [page 2] until I found that the superintendent was to be changed after the administration at Springfield had changed from republican to democratic and Altgeld found it necessary to pay one of his political henchmen with the job giving the place to Dr. Miller. (I'd say nothing of his personal integrity I know nothing either for or against that) a man who had lived in Lincoln for forty year and held several federal positions during the time, postmaster among others; but had never had enough interest in the institution to set one foot inside of it's door, he was an old man and soon made himself impossible. Altgeld then placed a man by the name of Smith in the place, he was also ignorant of the requirements of the place, but he was young and ambitious and tried his best and would have made a good superintendent in time but when Tanner was elected he had to go and Dr. Athon was put in his place, a man whom at first everyone disliked, he was so quiet, I myself coming from energetic Chicago, used to feel as if I would like to poke my finger into him to see if he could move, but he was only studying his surrounding and the children and when a couple of years had passed he could put his foot down in a decidedly energetic way where the welfare of the children was concerned and although he was a failure <financially> (perhaps with the very good reason that he had a board of dishonest trustees over him) where the new buildings were concerned, every one who ever had any dealings with Dr. Athon agree that he was the very [page 3] best superintendent the children had had since Dr. Fish left. And we the mothers of the children [endorsed] him and a petition signed by most of the parents of children from Chicago was handed to Gov. Yates begging him not to make any changes at Lincoln, but if he had to make changes with the men to leave the Matron, Miss Mary Roerig, a woman of experience; no attention was paid to our petition and again for the fourth time in ten years the poor helpless children are the subject of an experiment, such are the evils of politics. It is enough to make the most patriotic woman desire a return to monarchism, in that case no changes are made only such as brought about by the hand of God. Now if you will pardon this length introduction I will come to real gist of the matter, we have to submit to the changes, but I have been wondering whether it is not possible to stir up a sentiment in favor of a sort of civil service in our own charitable institutions in Ill. I have studied the men who are the leaders in the two large parties and I am woefully disappointed in them, not but what their hearts are large enough to sympathize if you take some of them individually but as a whole they are soulless machines with pockets instead of hearts and they will not do anything until their wives and sisters stir them up. I was visiting at Lincoln last week and while I have no [criticisms] to make, such things are useless unless one has a remedy and I have none. "One can not blame a blacksmith for not being able to [page 4] repair a watch" says an old proverb and that applies both to me and the new heads of that institution, for instance the cooking. I am not one of the visitors who content themselves sitting in the parlor, I have fought superintendent after superintendent and came out on top, for the privilege of going about and seeing how my child lives not how she looks in the parlor, and I can only find that out by seeing how the other children look and live while their parents are not there. I do not expect to find them saints neither do I expect to find them spotless and looking uncomfortable clean, I expect to find them full of "clean dirt" and am not surprised to see a toe or two, stubbed shoes and the stockings wore through on the knee, a rent in the dress and a patch on the pants, those things all belong to children. And among other places I visit the kitchen and the dining room, and the evidence shows and proves that the man who rules now is a veritable blacksmith and a stingy one at that, he asked for suggestions I turned the conversation on the food, he told me in tones of pride he bought the best canned goods & gave me the prices & etc., that is all very well but the children do not get very many canned peaches and pears & etc., it is not to be expected, there are over eleven hundred children there, but there are dried fruits which are fruit as wholesome and dried peas beans and lentils that properly prepared are not only nourishing but cheap I am a north german by birth and come from a country where [page 5] the ground is sterile and the people poor, meat is scarce but with a piece of salt pork and beans, peas or lentils boiled together, we get along and out of my country men are recruited, the famous grenadiers, palace guards at Berlin, considered the tallest strongest regiment in the world so there must be some nourishment in that sort of food, and on all ocean ships dried fruits and vegetables are used almost [altogether]. When he asked for the suggestion, I made it, but he quickly said, "My people do not eat it," I said no more. Now Miss Addams, although I kept still I done a heap of thinking, there is something wrong and the children should not suffer, another thing the bills in the different state institutions are disproportionate, why is it that it costs the state more to feed a child in one place than it does in another? Or why should a ward of the state get better food at once place than at another? That is not right, men will or perhaps cannot remedy that and it behooves the women to force an issue and make the men do their duty. I spoke to Gov. Yates about the matter <last Wednesday,> and he is [totally] opposed to civil service in the state institutions, he gave me a very good reason why he was so, at least it sounded good to me but I am not well enough versed in state laws to know whether or not it would hold water. I thought things over and concluded that you would be a very good person to see, I did not know whether you had any particular time set when you received strangers. I thought [Page 6] to write and even if you found this letter is a little verbose you would forgive me and remember a mothers anxiety to make plain certain conditions and to ask you to suggest a remedy. I would like a personal interview and if you will set a time. I will gladly come.

Respectfully,

Mrs. S.E. Van Dine
777 N. Springfield Ave.
Chicago, Ill.