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The Activist

Excerpt from the book <i>Jane Addams: Spirit in Action</i> 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.

One aspect of Toynbee Hall was harder to imitate — its political agenda. In 1884 the British Parliament had given workingmen the vote. To set these new voters an example, [Anglican clergyman Samuel] Barnett encouraged settlement residents to be elected to citizen bodies in the district, such as the school board. But a settlement of women residents, being unable to vote, could not do this. Addams’s solution was to cofound the first coeducational settlement house in the world. That spring she was pleased when more than half of those who heard her speak at a reception were men, because it allayed, she wrote her sister, “our fear re [becoming a] home for single women ... .”

If Jane’s lack of the vote was a limitation, she did have two other important qualifications for starting a settlement house. One was her wealth. Clearly, she and Ellen would not have been able to pursue the plan if she had not had the income from her inheritance to finance it — to rent a house, to purchase furniture, to pay for heating and other expenses. She knew she could not fund the effort over the long haul, that donors would need to support it, but she could get it started. Her wealth, while not large, also protected her from having to earn a living; she could give all her time to the project.

Her other main qualification was her purposeful idealism. Her large vision was to create a place that would nurture universal and democratic fellowship among peoples of all classes. It was a distinctly social, not political, ideal. Democracy, she told an audience of Chicago clubwomen in 1890, ought to involve not only “political freedom and equality” but also “social affairs” and a democratic “theory [of] the social order.” It was a grand aspiration, and she was shortly to learn more about the obstacles she faced, including those within herself. But her ambitious, dogged commitment to achieving social unity was essential to what was to come. There is something to be said for aiming high and holding fast, as long as you are also willing to learn.

What they needed was a house. Intending to rent one in a neighborhood of immigrants from countries whose languages they spoke, Ellen and Jane explored the Nineteenth Ward, on the near west side. Italians, Germans, and some French Canadians were concentrated there, albeit among sixteen other nationalities, including Irish Catholics and Russian Jews. The 527-acre ward was home to 44,380 people, with a major north-south artery, Halsted Street, running right down the middle. To the west, the neighborhood became gradually more prosperous. To the east, toward the Chicago River, was the industrial district, where the working poor lived and were employed. Since Ellen’s days were tied up with teaching, it was mostly Jane who explored the neighborhood. Driving in a carriage down Halsted Street one day, she saw what she was looking for, a building as refined as Toynbee Hall, plunked down on the edge of that crowded industrial neighborhood.

The house had been built in 1856 as a summer home for a wealthy real estate magnate and philanthropist, Charles Hull. It was a relic of the neighborhood’s former life as countryside. Hull died that spring, and his cousin Helen Culver, who had long managed his properties, inherited his extensive estate, which included much of the Near West Side and this house. It needed some fixing up but had many fine features. Italianate in style, it had high ceilings, marble fireplaces, and a handsome curved and cantilevered staircase that dominated the central front hall.

That summer Addams paid one thousand dollars to have spruced up the part of the house that was available to rent — the second floor, which had five rooms, and the drawing room downstairs (the rest was occupied by stored school desks). She had the floors repaired and polished and the rooms painted: the upstairs in terra-cotta tints, the downstairs drawing room in ivory and gold. Culver agreed to pay for a new furnace. In May of the following year, once they were occupying the whole house and once Culver had learned more about the philanthropic nature of the enterprise, she would agree to give them a four-year lease rent free. It was a generous and important subsidy for their work. Soon after, in gratitude to their first major donor and with her permission, and in recognition of the name the neighbors had already given the house, Addams and Starr would name the new settlement Hull House.

Thrilled to have their own home for the first time and to be starting their adventure at last, Addams and Starr, along with their housekeeper and third settlement resident, Mary Keyser, moved in on September 18. Addams remembered, “Probably no young matron ever placed her own things in her own house with more pleasure than that with which we first furnished [Hull House].” They hung framed photographs and lithographs of art, drawings of the cathedrals of Europe, and portraits of their intellectual mentors, George Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Thomas Carlyle, on their freshly painted walls. They had achieved their first goal — to create a place of beauty for themselves and the neighborhood to enjoy.

Jane Addams was used to living amid beautiful things. She was not used to living amid what lay just outside the house’s doors — urban poverty. The neighborhood’s garbage overflowed the large wooden boxes that were emptied by the city’s removal services far too rarely; human waste decayed in open sewers, the result of a general lack of plumbing. Here and there a rotting horse carcass could be found, its owner having left it where it dropped. In the warm weather of September, the smells were pungent. Disease spread easily under such conditions. As for the families, their lives were marked by overcrowded living, insecure employment, periodic hunger, and sometimes homelessness. But Jane was not interested in any of these material conditions. She was focused on people’s morale. As she explained in a letter to her stepbrother George, she and Ellen were not living on Halsted Street to “stem poverty” but to “fortify” their neighbors’ spirits.

By a matter of weeks, theirs was the first settlement in the United States. A second, the College Settlement, also founded by women, opened in New York City in October. Addams and Starr had first heard about it back in February, and Addams, wishing to be friendly, wrote the woman who was organizing it to establish relations, but her competitive feelings leaked through in a letter she wrote to her sister Mary: “We are modest enough to think ours is better, is more distinctly Christian and less social science.” Her claim referred to the social Christian motives and cooperative methods she and Starr had seen at Toynbee Hall and wished to imitate. They did not wish to “study” their neighbors.

When she said her settlement was more “Christian,” she did not mean that she and Starr would try to convert anyone to Protestant or any other kind of Christianity. They did not want to run a mission house, not only because Addams hated proselytizing but also because they were living in a neighborhood of diverse faiths. In making this decision, however, Starr and Addams were bucking the expectations of certain circles. One perplexed writer for a local evangelical Christian paper observed of Addams: “I don’t quite understand her religious position. She seems to be a Christian without religion.”

Reprinted from Jane Addams: Spirit in Action by Louise W. Knight. Copyright © 2010 by Louise W. Knight. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. Inc.