Catching Up With History at Jane Addams’ Hull-House

Jane Addams by Louise W. Knight Spirit in Action biography.

Jane Addams by Louise W. Knight Spirit in Action biography.

“A made-for-TV movie seen thirty-seven years ago, and now I’m finally here,” I marveled, standing in the entryway of the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum in Chicago.

I was still in high school when I saw Mary White, about the daughter of famed journalist William Allen White with the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette newspaper (which still publishes today.) Mary died at 16 in a horseback-riding accident, but not before living a full life and making a difference in her town. Her father wrote a famous essay about Mary, which beautifully evokes her personality and energy. I was 16 myself when I saw the TV movie about her, so it made a big impression on me. I particularly remember Mary’s interest in civil rights, the reform movement and fighting poverty, especially through the work of Jane Addams.

Addams was a social activist, reformer, and Nobel Peace Prize winner in the early 1900’s in Chicago. It was a time of great wealth and progress but also a time when urbanization brought crushing problems of poverty, sanitation, discrimination, and overcrowding in tenements.

Addams’ Hull-House settlement house was an oasis in one of the worst neighborhoods in the city. The museum website explains that they provided….

“….kindergarten and day care facilities for the children of working mothers; an employment bureau; an art gallery; libraries; English and citizenship classes; and theater, music and art classes. As the complex expanded to include thirteen buildings, Hull-House supported more clubs and activities such as a Labor Museum, the Jane Club for single working girls, meeting places for trade union groups, and a wide array of cultural events.”

Years after learning about Addams through Mary White, it was a thrill to actually cross the threshold of Hull-House, still standing today and now a museum.

The settlement used to be 13 buildings and it took up an entire city block, but now only the original residence house and dining hall remain, surrounded by concrete-and-glass modern buildings belonging to the University of Illinois at Chicago. Similar to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York, Hull-House is still an active part of the community, with ongoing projects and events.

Entrance to Jane Addams' Hull-House Museum Chicago

Entrance to Jane Addams’ Hull-House Museum Chicago

The museum tour is self-guided and free; they’ve made a great effort to show and explain the neighborhood environment around Hull-House during its heyday, including an audio room where you can close your eyes and transport yourself back through historic recordings of street sounds and voices of the period.

There are true stories of immigrants who participated in Hull-House work and activities; Benny Goodman took music lessons there and Gerard Swope’s time in electrical construction classes must have been useful, because he ended up as President of General Electric.

The Hull House Maps and Papers project shows detailed demographics and wage data on residents of the overloaded neighborhood tenements as they were in 1895. People made between about US$5 – $15 dollars for a six-day work week.

Upstairs in Addams’ private bedroom, there’s a copy of her huge FBI file, because apparently her activism, support of unions, and unwavering pacifism marked her as a security threat to the U.S. government.

FBI file on Jane Addams copy kept at Hull-House Chicago

FBI file on Jane Addams copy kept at Hull-House Chicago

You never know when a single bit of knowledge from somewhere will lead to something else; I’m just sorry that it took more than three decades for my interest in Jane Addams to result in an actual visit to see her life’s work.

Thanks, Mary White.

Note: Hull-House is only a few blocks south of the UIC-Halsted stop on the Blue line train, at 800 South Halsted. There are public tours at 1 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays if you want more than the self-guided tour.

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