Jane Addams Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: In hundreds of books and articles and as cofounder and director of the Hull House settlement in Chicago, Addams promoted a variety of social reforms designed to facilitate the adjustment to urban, industrial America from 1890 to 1935.

Early Life

Jane Addams was born on September 6, 1860, in the village of Cedarville in northern Illinois. Her father, John Huy Addams, owned a local mill and had investments in land and other enterprises in several states; his belief in civic responsibility led him to represent his district in the Illinois senate from 1854 to 1870. Her mother, Sarah, died when Jane was barely two years old, and an older sister supervised the Addams household until John Addams remarried in 1868. Anna Haldeman Addams, the widow of a Freeport merchant, was a self-educated woman with a high regard for social position, travel, dress—in general, the cultural aspects of life. Jane received tutelage from her stepmother in these areas, which supplemented the information she gleaned from books in the local subscription library, conveniently located in John Addams’ house. Her formal education began in the village school in Cedarville; in 1877, she entered nearby Rockford Female Seminary (of which her father was a trustee), an institution dedicated to instilling in young women religious piety, cultural awareness, and domesticity. That Jane became president of her class, valedictorian, and editor of the class magazine attests her popularity and intellectual qualities.

Shortly after her graduation from the seminary, in 1881, John Addams died. This shock combined with her indecision about a career to produce several years of irresolution and depression. She began medical study at the Woman’s Medical College in Philadelphia, but poor health forced her to leave after a few months. She was then bedridden for six months following an operation on her spine to correct the slight curvature caused by childhood spinal tuberculosis. At the urging of her stepmother, she toured Europe for twenty-seven months from 1883 to 1885, absorbing Old World culture with Anna and a few college classmates. Her purposelessness persisted after her return. She accompanied her stepmother to Baltimore for two winters and engaged in some charity work there, but her nervous depression continued. It was not until her second trip to Europe, in 1887-1888, in the company of her former teacher, Sarah Anderson, and college friend, Ellen Gates Starr, that she perceived a means to reconcile her intellectual and cultural interests with a useful career. In London she visited Toynbee Hall, a social settlement in the city’s East End, and discussed the institution’s social and cultural activities with its founder, Canon Samuel A. Barnett. She also toured the People’s Palace, an institute for the working class. These experiences acquainted her with the attempts of other educated men and women to deal with the problems of modern society by living and working in a poor neighborhood. Before leaving Europe she discussed her plan for founding a Chicago settlement with Starr; a few months after arriving home, the two women opened Hull House, on September 18, 1889.

Life’s Work

While the model of Toynbee Hall initially influenced Addams’ establishment of Hull House, the ethnically mixed population around the Halsted Street settlement had a greater impact on its development in the 1890’s. When the two women residents moved into the old Hull mansion, they had no formal program of activities and sought to establish contact with their neighbors by sharing their literary enthusiasms in a series of “reading parties.” Soon, however, the needs of area residents dictated programs. A wide variety of activities evolved in the first decade, including classes, clubs, social and cultural events, and a day nursery. Many of these activities drew on the cultural backgrounds of immigrants; Greeks staged classical Greek dramas at the Hull House Theater, and Italian and German immigrants discussed Dante and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. As the functions of the settlement multiplied and Hull House added new buildings, Addams stood as the central figure—still a young woman, her brown hair drawn back into a bun, her pleasant face distinguished by pensive dark eyes—radiating goodwill and competence.

Her changed awareness of the nature of urban problems began to emerge in the 1890’s. While her original impulse in establishing Hull House had reflected the religious and humanitarian principles of her early years, a combination of circumstances now led her to consider the causes of poverty and maladjustment to industrial society. Florence Kelley, who came to Hull House as a resident in the early 1890’s, contributed her infectious interest in scientific investigations of the neighborhood as a basis for reform proposals. Her work culminated in the 1895 publication of Hull-House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, Together with Comments and Essays on Problems Growing Out of the Social Conditions, a series of essays by Hull House residents, including “The Settlement as a Factor in the Labor Movement,” by Addams. Addams was critical of current labor practices, an outgrowth of her involvement in the unsuccessful mediation of the Pullman strike in 1894. She also criticized the response to the depression of 1893-1894 by existing charitable organizations, which too often stressed laziness and other individual vices as the determinants of poverty. Her developing view was to consider the underlying causes of labor problems and social ills: the dislocation caused by modern industrial organization. Her...

(The entire section is 2338 words.)