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The Activist

Excerpt from the book Jane Addams: Spirit in Action by Louise W. Knight.

Editor's note: Louise W. Knight is the author of two biographies of Jane Addams. The following excerpt from her new book, Jane Addams: Spirit in Action, is set shortly after Addams visited Toynbee Hall, a settlement house in London, and returned determined to replicate it in Chicago.

Ten months after telling Ellen Gates Starr about her vague dream, in January 1889, Jane moved to Chicago to begin launching what was now their, not just her, plan. Reading her letters from those early months, when she was dashing about, talking up the project with people who might support it as volunteers or donors, one feels as if a racehorse had burst out of the gate, free at last to pour every ounce of energy into running. She was all business, writing not about her moral failings but about the people they talked to and the enthusiasm they were finding for the settlement idea.

The two friends were at least partly prepared for the work. Ellen, thirty, with one year of college and a great deal of self-education, had been teaching at a girls’ secondary school for ten years and along the way had learned Italian and French. She also knew many young women from prosperous Chicago families, her former students, who had time on their hands and were longing for something useful to do. Jane, twenty-nine, had a B.A. from Rockford Female Seminary and some experience managing things, albeit on a small scale, having been editor-in-chief of the school magazine, president of her class, and president of her literary society. She had dabbled in philanthropy during the 1880s, paying charity visits in Baltimore, and she knew several languages, having studied French, German and Italian. She had even recently done a little fund-raising for the seminary from her Rockford classmates.

The plan she and Ellen had devised — borrowed and adapted from Toynbee Hall — was that young people with backgrounds like their own would pay rent and board to live at the settlement house for a time, thus becoming settlement residents. As neighbors they would form social ties with the working people in the neighborhood and, along with other nonresident volunteers from across the city, would organize clubs and classes in their spare time. Charity — caring for the sick and elderly, assisting in family crises — would be provided in a neighborly way but would not be the house’s main task.

They had two purposes in cofounding the settlement, both of which were also Toynbee Hall’s but modified to suit American circumstances. The first was to provide the women and men of their generation, overcultured and isolated in their class, with a way to live up to the high ideals they had been taught. As Addams put it in a speech she gave to Rockford alumnae later that year, young people yearned to “confirm by the deed those dreams of sacrifice and unselfish devotion of which [their] heads were full.”

Second, they wished to repair the damage done to egalitarian social relations by massive industrialization and, in the United States far more than in Great Britain, massive immigration. Chicago illustrated the developments perfectly. Between 1840 and 1890 its population exploded from forty-five hundred to one million, turning the place from a swampy lakeshore trading post into an industrial giant and the second-largest city in the country. As the owners of businesses prospered and the ranks of the upper-middle and upper classes expanded, some families became hugely wealthy. At the same time, the number of working people living in overcrowded neighborhoods burgeoned. Many were immigrants. By the time Addams arrived there, a staggering 78 percent of the population was either foreign-born or the children of foreign-born, most of them from the farming, or peasant, classes of Europe and therefore without industrial skills, and all of them seeking better lives. Paid low wages, these workers lived on the edge of poverty as they struggled to learn English and adjust to urban living.

This situation of a widening and dramatic “gap between rich and poor,” as it was called, was shocking to the American middle classes. They read about it in magazines and books and heard sermons about it in church and synagogue. One best seller, Henry George’s Progress and Poverty proposed redistributing the wealth by taxing only the productivity of land. Others, including Addams’s favorite British authors, all of them widely read in the United States — Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, John Ruskin, and Matthew Arnold — addressed mainly the social distance and urged readers (i.e., the prosperous) to treat the poor as their social equals. As Arnold put it in an essay about democracy, “[m]en ... are made equal ... by the humanity of their manners.” This idea was central to the settlement house movement.

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