Making the World a Better Place: the Story of Hull-House and Jane Addams

Hull-House Museum showcases the works of Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and several other prominent philanthropists and activists. Learn the stories behind these women and the house itself.

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portrait of Jane Addams by Alice Kellogg Tyler from 1892, which hangs in the entryway of Hull-House Museum
Portrait of Jane Addams

In the late 1800s, wealthy Americans toured Europe. It was the cosmopolitan thing to do. For many, it was a shopping trip, and today’s museums are filled with their souvenirs. For some, like Potter Palmer, doctors ordered excursions abroad as convalescence.

One rather serious young woman from Cedarville, Illinois, whose father had been a Senator and counted Lincoln among his friends, toured the continent twice, but her experiences were a bit different from her contemporaries. While her itineraries included the Vatican and Parisian art galleries and palaces, and she even met Bertha Palmer during one Paris visit, she also saw the underbelly.

Her first trip, which lasted nearly two years, introduced her to child beggars in Ireland, the desperate grab of the hungry at the market’s close in East London, and the deplorable working conditions of women in the fields and breweries of Germany. During her second, shorter tour, she visited the first settlement house, Toynbee Hall in England, and returned with a plan to change the world.

Or, at least a “scheme,” as she called it, to improve the lives of a few. Changing the world came later.

Jane Addams and her college friend Ellen Gates Starr moved into a boardinghouse across the street from Chicago’s Washington Square in early 1889. They were looking for the perfect place to implement Jane’s scheme to “settle” among the disadvantaged and downtrodden. They had been so affected by what they’d seen at Toynbee Hall that they wanted to, if not replicate it exactly, create something similar. They wanted to go beyond traditional philanthropy and be actively involved in the daily lives of the people they hoped to help.

For these two visionaries, that meant living among them. As they used their connections and gift of persuasion to gather support from the city’s wealthy and civic-minded, they searched for the perfect place to call home.

They found it in a run down, dilapidated wreck surrounded by tenements and filth. Jane was on her way to a Bohemian mission and the carriage passed a once-stately Italianate mansion. What others viewed as an eyesore, she saw as possibility. The building “surrounded on three sides by a broad piazza, which was supported by wooden pillars of exceptionally pure Corinthian design and proportion” was the ideal place, so the next day she returned to where she thought she’d seen it.

Except it wasn’t there. After several days with no luck, she gave up, only to come upon it by accident a couple of weeks later. It must have been meant to be. This was a home where humanitarians had lived.

Charles Jerome Hull built the mansion in 1856 for his family of four. A driven and talented businessman, he and his wife, Melicent A.C. Loomis, moved to Chicago in 1846 shortly after marrying. Although he was broke when they arrived in the young town, he was smart and ambitious and before long had accumulated a small fortune.

The couple had two children, Charles in 1847 and Fredrika two years later. In 1852, Louis was born, but he only lived a year and a half. By the time Charles built the mansion at the corner of Polk and Halsted, he’d lost his fortune, regained it, and received his M.D. from Rush Medical College and his J.D. from Harvard Law School. And every Sunday, he’d go to the jail and talk to the prisoners. No sermon, just talk, about things like “Fate and Luck” and “Self-Reliance.” He also offered bootblacks and newsboys refuge and a bite to eat in his office and filled a cellar with coal for anyone who needed it. In later years, he helped emancipated slaves buy property and build homes in Savannah, Georgia.

Charles didn’t live in the home very long. Melicent died in 1860 and the widower asked his cousin, Helen Culver, to help take care of the children. She did, becoming his business partner as well as a caretaker. Although Charles retained possession, the family moved out of the mansion. As the neighborhood changed, the building housed the Little Sisters of the Poor and a used furniture store, and eventually became storage and offices for a factory that had sprung up behind it.

Helen continued working with Charles, and a story in the University of Chicago Magazine from 1919 stated that: “She had shared, perhaps equally with him, in the success that had been achieved.” By the time he passed away on February 12, 1889, his estate had grown to millions, which he left entirely to his steadfast companion, including the home he’d built thirty-three years before.

Despite the condition of the building and its environs when Jane stumbled across it, she saw what could be. She saw its structural integrity, but she also saw the possibilities in the neighborhood in which it resided. 

Layers of refuse covered the streets and alleys. In front of each building sat a bin for trash, but in a time before refrigeration and in an area without regular, if any, sanitation services, those bins were boxes of disease. Plus, they reeked. Imagine the odor your kitchen trash emits a day after you’ve tossed spoiled chicken or rotten cabbage. Now multiply that by the thousands of people living in those tenements and add untreated sewage, livestock and its associated output, and the complete lack of not only bathing facilities but also toilets in general. Child care didn’t exist in this neighborhood. Most of the people were recent immigrants, which meant multiple languages. Many worked for the nearby garment district and in sweatshops, earning pennies per piece, and the worst factories charged them to use the equipment. It was a dangerous, exploitative environment.

Jane and Ellen, who could have lived anywhere, chose to move into the middle of it. While many of Chicago’s wealthy were philanthropic, the only way to truly make a difference would be through systemic change. The women weren’t quite sure how they were going to improve the lives of their new neighbors, but they knew they’d never figure it out unless they jumped right in.

In May 1889, three months after Charles’ death, Helen leased the second floor of the mansion to Jane and Ellen. They furnished it with family mahogany, new furniture, and memorabilia from their European tours. Jane used some of the inheritance she’d received from her father’s will to fix the floors and paint the walls. They moved in September 18, and they were so excited they forgot to close and lock a side door which opened to Polk Street. Twenty years later, Jane recounted: “we were much pleased in the morning to find that we possessed a fine illustration of the honesty and kindliness of our new neighbors.”

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Jane and Ellen immediately invited those neighbors, a mix of German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Polish, and Russian Jewish immigrants, in for readings in their parlor, beginning with a novel by George Eliot. They opened a kindergarten. They hosted art classes and social clubs. By the next spring, Helen was so inspired by what the women were doing that she gave them a free leasehold of the entire house. In an 1874 letter, Charles had written to Helen: “Our idea is to level up from the bottom by giving the poor a fair chance to rise.” Jane and Ellen, who’d christened their settlement Hull-House in honor of Helen’s generosity, were giving them that chance.

Jane’s scheme grew exponentially from a vague idea to a concrete social movement. Residents moved in. These were often women of means and education but no employment. Investors, including Mary Rozet Smith, who would become Jane’s lifelong companion, poured money into Hull-House. They built an art gallery. Then a coffeehouse. A gymnasium. Public baths. A kitchen, that would teach the multi-national, multi-cultural immigrants how to cook with the unfamiliar produce of their new home. A music school. They built a playground, and children could be children. Opened May 4, 1894, it was the first playground in the city.

Working mothers could leave their babies and toddlers in the nursery. Single women could find a safe place to live in the Jane Club. The textile and labor museum enabled these immigrants of multiple ethnicities to see other traditions, and learn both their similarities as well as their differences. There was even a book bindery, which taught this valuable skill during a time when printing presses were booming. Social clubs, theater, workshops provided life beyond the drudgery. Citizenship classes and a Juvenile Protective Association helped them learn their rights. By 1907 Hull-House had thirteen buildings and serviced thousands of people a week. By 1909, there were forty-five self-supporting residents and two hundred volunteers.

The sheer quantity of achievements, and the steps taken by the residents and supporters to attain them is difficult to grasp.

Hull-House drew and was led by fierce, dedicated, and passionate women. When the 19th Ward Alderman wouldn’t do anything about the trash situation, Jane finagled an appointment as the Inspector of Garbage, for which she received an annual salary of $1,000. Julia Lathrop became a resident in 1890. She was a Rockford Female Seminary classmate of Jane and Ellen’s, and her father was also a close friend of Lincoln’s. Later, she was appointed the director of the United States Children’s Bureau, the first woman ever to head a federal bureau in the country. In 1891, Florence Kelley left her abusive husband and she and her three children found refuge at Hull-House. The next year, the Illinois Bureau of Labor Statistics hired Florence, and a survey she conducted revealed the atrocious conditions in Chicago’s slums, including children working at the tender age of three. The year after that Governor Altgeld made her the Chief Factory Inspector for the state of Illinois, making her the first woman to hold state-wide office. She fought for 8-hour work days, criminalizing the employment of children under the age of 14, and protecting the rights of workers. In 1895, Florence, Jane, and other residents undertook the massive project of documenting and mapping the income, ethnicities, working conditions, and other group patterns of the 19th Ward. The Hull-House Maps and Papers gave a snapshot of a crowded, underserved section of the city and transformed social science.

Other active and activist residents and supporters included Alice Hamilton, whose research in occupational health and the dangers of toxins in the workplace pioneered the field of industrial toxicology. Sisters Grace and Edith Abbott were Ph.D-level social workers; Grace focused on immigration and child labor and Edith on incorporating social work into education. Both worked with the nascent Social Security Administration. The list of these activists could and does fill several books. Suffice it to say, the whole enterprise was a who’s who of people driven to right wrongs and wrest compassion from a society that chose to bury or mock injustices instead of do something about them. The residents of Hull-House did something. The residents of Hull-House did a lot of things.

Jane herself was the biggest activist of all. She was the first woman president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, a founding member of the National Child Labor Committee, a founding member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. She was vice president of the League for Protection of Immigrants and a committed member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association. All of that kept her in the public eye and in 1908, Ladies’ Home Journal christened her “America’s foremost living woman.”

Not everybody loved Jane and her cohorts at Hull-House. They were excoriated as anarchists and socialists. As hostilities increased in Europe in the early 1910s, Jane, who had always been a pacifist, became increasingly vocal. Her pro-peace, anti-war activities and her status as an unmarried wealthy white woman earned her a thick FBI folder. She was labeled a communist and considered one of the most dangerous women in America. Still, her insistence that war did not solve anything, combined with the rest of her lifelong efforts to make the world a better place, also earned her a Nobel Peace Prize. In 1931, she became the first American woman to receive the award.

Throughout it all, Mary Rozet Smith and Jane maintained their relationship. The connection was so strong that when Jane traveled without Mary she took a portrait of her. This was no small snapshot that fit in a satchel. This was a painting, fit to hang over a mantel, and Jane would pack it along with her gowns and her speeches. Mary died in 1934 and when Jane was near death the following year, she asked her nephew to burn their letters. Unfortunately, he complied.

While the neighborhood, the city, and the world around it changed, Hull-House continued its good work at Polk and Halsted until 1963. That year, the University of Illinois at Chicago decided their extended stay at Navy Pier, where they’d been since 1946, was done and kicked everybody out, along with 8,000 residents and 630 businesses. To accommodate construction of the new campus, all but the original Hull mansion and the dining hall were razed. Still, the work continued, until 2012 when Hull-House Association declared bankruptcy and dissolved.

Hull-House Museum Today

The legacy of Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and the Hull-House residents and supporters continues in many of the social safety nets that still exist. Their work is honored and showcased in the Hull-House Museum. Attendance is free with a suggested donation of $5 and tours are offered. One of the most intriguing exhibits is the color-coded maps from the 1895 demographic study, as well as the portrait of Mary hanging in Jane’s former bedroom.

Admission to the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum is free, but registration is required.

Hull House Museum, 800 South Halsted Street, Chicago, IL 60607; (312) 413-5353; hullhousemuseum.org

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