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Jane Addams

Social Reformer and Founder of Hull House

By Patricia Daniels, Contributing Writer

A picture of social reformer Jane Addams, founder of Hull House.

American social worker and suffragist Jane Addams seated at a writing desk with a pen in hand. (1910)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Who was Jane Addams?

Humanitarian and social reformer Jane Addams, born into wealth and privilege, devoted herself to improving the lives of those less fortunate. Although she is best remembered for establishing Hull House (a settlement house in Chicago for immigrants and the poor), Addams was also deeply committed to promoting peace, civil rights, and women's right to vote. Addams was a founding member of both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the American Civil Liberties Union. As recipient of the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize, she was the first American woman to receive that honor. Jane Addams is considered by many a pioneer in the field of modern social work.

Dates: September 6, 1860 -- May 21, 1935

Also Known As: Laura Jane Addams (born as), "Saint Jane," "Angel of Hull House"

Childhood in Illinois

Laura Jane Addams was born September 6, 1860 in Cedarville, Illinois to Sarah Weber Addams and John Huy Addams. She was the eighth of nine children, four of whom did not survive infancy. Sarah Addams died a week after giving birth to a premature baby (that also died) in 1863 when Laura Jane -- later known just as Jane -- was only two years old.

Jane's father ran a successful mill business, which enabled him to build a large, beautiful home for his family. John Addams was also an Illinois state senator and a close friend of Abraham Lincoln, whose anti-slavery sentiments he shared. Jane learned as an adult that her father had been a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad and had helped escaped slaves as they made their way to Canada.

When Jane was six, the family suffered another loss -- her 16-year old sister Martha succumbed to typhoid fever. The following year, John Addams married Anna Haldeman, a widow with two sons. Jane became close to her new stepbrother George, who was only six months younger than she. They attended school together and both planned to go to college one day.

College Days

Jane Addams had set her sights on Smith College, a prestigious women's school in Massachusetts, with the goal of eventually earning a medical degree. After months of preparing for the difficult entrance exams, 16-year-old Jane learned in July 1877 that she'd been accepted at Smith.

John Addams had different plans for Jane. After losing his first wife and five of his children, he didn't want his daughter to move so far away from home. Addams insisted that Jane enroll in Rockford Female Seminary, a Presbyterian-based women's school in nearby Rockford, Illinois that her sisters had attended. Jane had no other choice but to obey her father.

Rockford Female Seminary schooled its students in both academics and religion in a strict, regimented atmosphere. Jane settled into the routine, becoming a confident writer and public speaker by the time she graduated in 1881. Many of her classmates went on to become missionaries, but Jane Addams believed that she could find a way of serving mankind without promoting Christianity. Although a spiritual person, Addams did not belong to any particular church.

Difficult Times for Jane Addams

Returning home to her father's house, Addams felt lost, uncertain about what to do next with her life. Postponing any decision about her future, she chose to accompany her father and stepmother on a trip to Michigan instead. The trip ended in tragedy when John Addams became gravely ill and died suddenly of appendicitis. A grieving Jane Addams, seeking direction in her life, applied to the Women's Medical College of Philadelphia, where she was accepted for the fall of 1881.

Addams coped with her loss by immersing herself in her studies at the medical college. Unfortunately, only months after she'd begun classes, she developed chronic back pain, caused by curvature of the spine. Addams had surgery in late 1882 which improved her condition somewhat, but following a lengthy, difficult recovery period, decided that she would not return to school.

A Life-Changing Journey

Addams next embarked upon a trip abroad, a traditional rite of passage among wealthy young people in the nineteenth century. Accompanied by her stepmother and cousins, Addams sailed to Europe for a two-year tour in 1883. What began as an exploration of the sights and cultures of Europe became, in fact, an eye-opening experience for Addams.

Addams was stunned by the poverty she witnessed in the slums of European cities. One episode in particular affected her deeply. The tour bus she was riding stopped on a street in the impoverished East End of London. A group of unwashed, raggedly-dressed people stood in line, waiting to purchase rotten produce that had been discarded by merchants. Addams watched as one man paid for a spoiled cabbage, then gobbled it down -- neither washed nor cooked. She was horrified that the city would allow its citizens to live in such wretched conditions.

Grateful for all of her own blessings, Jane Addams believed it was her duty to help those less fortunate. She had inherited a large sum of money from her father, but was not yet sure how she could best put it to use.

Jane Addams Finds Her Calling

Returning to the U.S. in 1885, Addams and her stepmother spent summers in Cedarville and winters in Baltimore, Maryland, where Addams' stepbrother George Haldeman attended medical school. Mrs. Addams expressed her fond hope that Jane and George would marry one day. George did have romantic feelings for Jane, but she didn't return the sentiment. Jane Addams was never known to have had a romantic relationship with any man.

While in Baltimore, Addams was expected to attend countless parties and society functions with her stepmother. She detested these obligations, preferring instead to visit the city's charitable institutions, such as shelters and orphanages. Still uncertain of what role she could play, Addams decided to go abroad again, hoping to clear her mind. She traveled to Europe in 1887 with Ellen Gates Starr, a friend from the Rockford Seminary.

Eventually, inspiration did come to Addams when she visited Ulm Cathedral in Germany, where she felt a sense of unity. Addams envisioned creating what she called a "Cathedral of Humanity," a place where people in need could come not only for help with basic needs, but also for cultural enrichment.* Addams traveled to London, where she visited an organization that would serve as a model for her project – Toynbee Hall. Toynbee Hall was a "settlement house," where young, educated men lived in a poor community in order to get to know its residents and to learn how best to serve them. Addams proposed that she would open such a center in an American city. Starr agreed to help her.

Founding Hull House

Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr decided upon Chicago as the ideal city for their new venture. Starr had worked as a teacher in Chicago and was familiar with the city's neighborhoods; she also knew several prominent people there. The women moved to Chicago in January 1889 when Addams was 28 years old.

Addams' family thought her idea was absurd, but she would not be dissuaded. She and Starr set out to find a large house situated in an underprivileged area. After weeks of searching, they found a house in Chicago's 19th Ward that had been built 33 years earlier by businessman Charles Hull. The house had once been surrounded by farmland, but the neighborhood had evolved into an industrial area.

Addams and Starr renovated the house and moved in on September 18, 1889. Neighbors were reluctant at first to pay them a visit, suspicious about what the two well-dressed women's motives might be. Visitors, mainly immigrants, began to trickle in, and Addams and Starr quickly learned to set priorities based upon the needs of their clients. It soon became apparent that providing childcare for working parents was a top priority.

Assembling a group of well-educated volunteers, Addams and Starr set up a kindergarten class, as well as programs and lectures for both children and adults. They provided other vital services, such as finding jobs for the unemployed, caring for the sick, and supplying food and clothing to the needy. (Pictures of Hull House)

Hull House attracted the attention of wealthy Chicagoans, many of whom wanted to help. Addams solicited donations from them, allowing her to build a play area for the children, as well as to add a library, an art gallery, and even a post office. Eventually, Hull House took up an entire block of the neighborhood.

Working for Social Reform

As Addams and Starr familiarized themselves with the living conditions of the people around them, they recognized the need for real social reform. Well-acquainted with many children who worked more than 60 hours a week, Addams and her volunteers worked to change child labor laws. They provided lawmakers with information they had compiled and spoke at community gatherings. In 1893, the Factory Act, which limited the number of hours a child could work, was passed in Illinois.

Other causes championed by Addams and her colleagues included improving conditions in mental hospitals and poorhouses, creating a juvenile court system, and promoting the unionization of working women. Addams also worked to reform employment agencies, many of which used dishonest practices, especially in dealing with vulnerable new immigrants. A state law was passed in 1899 that regulated those agencies.

Addams became personally involved with another issue: uncollected garbage on the streets in her neighborhood. The garbage, she argued, attracted vermin and contributed to the spread of disease. In 1895, Addams went to City Hall to protest and came away as the newly-appointed garbage inspector for the 19th Ward. She took her job seriously -- the only paying position she'd ever held. Addams rose at dawn, climbing into her carriage to follow and monitor trash collectors. After her one-year term, Addams was happy to report a reduced death rate in the 19th Ward.

Jane Addams: A National Figure

By the early twentieth century, Addams had become well-respected as an advocate for the poor. Thanks to the success of Hull House, settlement houses were established in other major American cities. Addams developed a friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, who was impressed by the changes she had effected in Chicago. The President stopped by to visit her at Hull House whenever he was in town.

As one of America's most admired women, Addams found new opportunities to give speeches and to write about social reform. She shared her knowledge with others in the hope that more of the underprivileged would receive the help they needed. In 1910, when she was fifty years old, Addams' published her autobiography, Twenty Years at Hull House.

Addams became increasingly involved in more far-reaching causes. An ardent advocate for women's rights, Addams was elected vice-president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) in 1911 and campaigned actively for women's right to vote.

When Theodore Roosevelt ran for re-election as a Progressive Party candidate in 1912, his platform contained many of the social reform policies endorsed by Addams. She supported Roosevelt, but disagreed with his decision not to allow African-Americans to be part of the party's convention. Committed to racial equality, Addams had helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. Roosevelt went on to lose the election to Woodrow Wilson.

World War I

A lifelong pacifist, Addams advocated for peace during World War I. She was strongly opposed to the United States entering the war and became involved in two peace organizations: the Woman's Peace Party (which she led) and the International Congress of Women. The latter was a worldwide movement with thousands of members who convened to work on strategies for avoiding war. Despite the best efforts of these organizations, the United States entered the war in April 1917.

Addams was reviled by many for her anti-war stance. Some saw her as anti-patriotic, even traitorous. After the war, Addams toured Europe with members of the International Congress of Women. The women were horrified by the destruction they witnessed and were especially affected by the many starving children they saw. When Addams and her group suggested that starving German children deserved to be helped as much as any other child, they were accused of sympathizing with the enemy.

Addams Receives the Nobel Peace Prize

Addams continued to work for world peace, traveling around the world throughout the 1920s as the president of a new organization, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Exhausted by the constant travel, Addams developed health problems and suffered a heart attack in 1926, forcing her to resign her leadership role in the WILPF. She completed the second volume of her autobiography, The Second Twenty Years at Hull House, in 1929.

During the Great Depression, public sentiment once again favored Jane Addams. She was widely praised for all that she had accomplished and was honored by many institutions. Her greatest honor came in 1931, when Addams was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to promote peace worldwide. Because of ill health, she was unable to travel to Norway to accept it. Addams donated most of her prize money to the WILPF.

Jane Addams died of intestinal cancer on May 21, 1935, only three days after her illness had been discovered during exploratory surgery. She was 74 years old. Thousands attended her funeral, fittingly held at Hull House.

The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom is still active today; the Hull House Association was forced to close in January 2012 due to lack of funding.

* Jane Addams described her "Cathedral of Humanity" in her book Twenty Years at Hull House (Cambridge: Andover-Harvard Theological Library, 1910) 149.

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