Living at Hull House
Almost immediately, Hull-House engendered interest among people like Jane and Ellen. These women were in a situation that has rarely existed before or since. It was perhaps the first time in modern history that young women were granted access to and encouraged to seek higher education. Many women from wealthy families like the Addams and the Starrs were sent to colleges or seminaries. However, once these women were educated, there were few if any roles in society that were open to them. A woman might briefly become a teacher before she married, but there were few positions in business, finance, medicine, the law, the sciences, or the other fields in which today’s young women choose to pursue a career. A lot of these young women were, frankly, bored. They had been empowered through their education, and now had no direction in which to focus their energies and attention. Hull-House offered them an almost unrivaled opportunity to put their educations to use.
In this, Hull-House was a first. Although it was the third settlement house opened in the United States, it was the first that involved women. England’s Toynbee Hall and the two settlement houses in New York, New York’s Neighborhood Guild (later University Settlement) and College Settlement, only permitted male residents.83 Hull-House, however, opened a coffer. By 1910, when immigration was on the wane and the settlement movement beginning to lose influence, there were 400 settlement houses in the United States, more than half operated by women.
Among the new residents were Grace Meigs, a physician at Children’s Memorial Hospital. She spent her days in practice, but during the evenings she was on call to the neighbourhood around Hull-House.84
Another doctor who lived at Hull-House was Alice Hamilton, who came in 1897. She did pioneering research on the effect of lead poisoning among pottery workers and painters. Many women in the area worked at companies that supplied cans to the stockyards. Cans in those days did not have wrap-around paper labels; labels were applied onto a background that was painted by hand, often with lead-based paints. Hamilton was one of the founding researchers in the field of occupational medicine.85
Florence Kelley lived and worked at Hull-House. She was a Cornell graduate who came to Illinois seeking a divorce in 1892 and stayed on to become a pioneer social worker. She investigated tenement garment industry sweatshops, where she found clothing was being manufactured in homes where people had smallpox. The smallpox virus would contaminate the material, and would then infect those who would carry or wear the clothes.86 Jane, Kelley, and other residents of the Hull-House frequently went on “scavenger hunts” to retrieve contaminated clothing for burning.
Kelley was also a driving force behind the creation of Hull-House Maps and Papers.87
Kelley was instrumental in the passage of laws protecting women and child workers in Illinois. One of her crowning achievements was the passage for the Work and Factory Act of Illinois, in July of 1893.88 She was appointed the first chief factory inspector. In 1894, she graduated from Northwestern University School of Law, whereupon she moved to New York to live and work in the Henry Street Settlement and serve as the Executive Secretary for the new Consumers’ League.89 In 1912 she helped President Taft create the U.S. Children’s Bureau.90
Another Hull-House resident was Julia Lathrop. She and Jane had similar backgrounds. She had grown up in a wealthy family, like Jane’s, in Rockford, a largish town not far from Cedarville. She had also attended Rockford Female Seminary, although for only one year before moving on to Vasser.91 Her father was a lawyer, and she had also studied law, but was not interested in its practice. She had been appointed a “county visitor” for Cook County in a district near Hull-House, and appreciated being close to her work.92, 93 It was her job to inspect workhouses and poor farms, and what she saw horrified her. Of especial concern to her was the legal status of children.
Children as young as fourteen could leave school and go to work full time—which in those days meant twelve to fourteen hours a day, six days a week. Many desperate families would lie and say that their twelve and thirteen year old children were fourteen. Many children younger than fourteen worked at jobs so awful that no man would take them, and for lower wages. When a child went to work, the parents signed a release absolving the employer of any fault were the child injured while on the job.94 Lathrop worked extensively on the rights of children workers.
At this time, the law did not recognize a difference between an adult and a child who committed a crime. There was no juvenile court system, and no distinction between incarceration for an adult and a child. A child found guilty of theft would receive a similar sentence to an adult found guilty of the same crime, and would be imprisoned in the same cells as adults. Naturally, children were both easy victims and eager students of the older prisoners. Sometimes, children were arrested simply because they had nowhere else to be other than the streets. In 1886, Governor John P. Altgeld wrote in Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, “In Chicago, ‘upwards of 10,000 young persons were arrested, clubbed, handcuffed, and jostled around ... without having committed any crime.”95 Lathrop and Jane worked together to create the first juvenile court system, instituting different penalties and separate institutions to incarcerate children, if necessary.96
Julia Lathrop’s work on behalf of children was so well known, that in 1892, Governor Altgeld appointed her a member of the state Board of Charities, with the duties of keeping records of state institutions, poorhouses, asylums, hospitals, and orphanages.97 In 1912, she was appointed to head Taft’s Children’s Bureau that Florence Kelley had helped to create. She was also appointed Assessor for the United Nation’s Child Welfare Committee.98
Grace and Edith Abbott were social workers par excellence. When Julia Lathrop left the Children’s Bureau in 1921, Grace Abbott was appointed to replace her. She also wrote extensively, including “The Changing Position of Women,” which was collected in Beard’s A Century of Progress. Edith became Dean of the School of Social Science Administration at the University of Chicago.99
Sophonsiba Breckinridge was a champion of labour law and women’s trade unions. She was also the first person to advocate the practical training of social workers. Mary McDowell stayed a while, and went on to found the Chicago Stock Yards Settlement. Frances Perkins left for Washington to become Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labour and the first woman to hold a cabinet position.100
Hull-House provided a rare situation for the young women who lived and worked there. Throughout history, it has been true that men have made more history than women. In a society where women are largely relegated to the care of a home and young children, it is not surprising that few found time to devote to outside interests. Hull-House, historian Kathryn Kish Sklar said, provided women like Jane with an alternative to marriage, “supplying in a radical degree an independence from the claims of family life and inviting them to commit their energies elsewhere.”101 By providing a home where young women could live outside of the bounds of parents or children, Jane created a place that fostered the unique talents and energies of the Hull-House residents. As Mary Jo Deegan points out in her work on the influence of Hull-House on the University of Chicago’s Sociology Department,
Hull-House is rarely interpreted as a commune, although it clearly was such an enterprise. All the women who lived there had a communal domestic arrangement, freeing their time an energy for other tasks. As predominantly unmarried professionals, they developed complex and intimate friendships, difficult to document because of their unrecorded daily interactions.
An amazing professional style emerged. These women wrote together, lived and ate together, taught together, exchanged books and ideas, vacationed together, became officers in each other’s organizations, developed a pool of expertise on a wide range of topics, and generated numerous changes in the social structure of government. There is no corollary among men, and male sociologists followed a much more traditional life than did their female counterparts. Social settlements became an alternate lifestyle for women.102
83. Reynolds, Moira Davison. Women Champions of Human Rights: Eleven U.S. Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1991. p. 5.
84. Meigs, Cornelia. Jane Addams: Pioneer for Social Justice. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970. p. 67.
85. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 10.
86. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 9.
88. Addams, Jane. “The Process of Social Transformation.” A Century of Progress. Beard, Charles Austin, ed. New York, London: Harper & Broth, 1933. p. 242.
89. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 149.
90. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 9.
92. Meigs, Cornelia. pp. 79-80.
93. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 10
94. Meigs, Cornelia. p. §
95. quoted in Bettman, Otto L. The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! New York: Random House. 1974. p. 91.
96. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 10.
97. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 81.
98. Reynolds, Moira Davidson. p. 10.
100. Meigs, Cornelia. p. 172.
101. quoted in Faderman, Lillian. “Social Housekeeping: The Inspiration of Jane Addams.” To Believe in Women: What Lesbians Have Done for America—A History. Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999. p. 121.
102. Deegan, Mary Jo. Jane Addams and the Men of the Chicago School, 1892-1918. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1988. pp. 48-49.